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Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Not a very normal threshold

The European Court of Human Rights reported back yesterday on the case of Mehmet Yumak and Resul Sadak, who had taken Turkey to the court over the 10 percent electoral threshold. Both Mr Yumak and Mr Sadak were candidates for DEHAP - the predominantly Kurdish People's Democratic Party - in the 2002 general election. They stood in the province of Şırnak and won a considerable majority, nearly 46 percent, but did not enter parliament in Ankara because their party failed to cross the 10 percent national electoral threshold (see "Will the electoral threshold ever fall?").

The injustice of the threshold is plain: after that 2002 election, around 45 percent of Turkish voters found their vote didn't really count. All five of the parties that had vaulted the barrier three years previously this time stumbled at it. They included the three parties that had been in government. True, they were all subject to an overwhelming protest vote, but they still did have around eight million votes - nearly a fifth of all those cast - between them. Add to that the ballots for the other parties that failed to cross the threshold, and you get nearly 14 million votes. That is almost one in every two votes disregarded. Never in the history of Turkish democracy have so many been represented by so few.

All this was why I rather stunned when I saw this morning's headline in Türkiye: "European Court of Human Rights say 10% threshold is normal". The ECHR surely couldn't have ruled in favour of a measure that smothers broad representation - could it?

It seems it could, although I have to make one thing clear: the Court did not refer to the threshold as normal. In fact, in the text of its judgement, it says it considers it "very regrettable to prevent political parties which represent millions of voters from entering the national legislature". The threshold, the Court says, is "twice as high as the European average" and there is a lack of corrective counterbalances to ensure the free expression of all people, however they voted.

But the Court does also say that it cannot order the lowering of the barrier. Electoral barriers are in place in many other European democracies, and although Turkey's is among the highest, the Court has no specific threshold law on which it can depend, nor any examples it can suggest.

So that's that. The ECHR has avoided wading into the debate, and the Turkish press has chosen to interpret it as an approval of the barrier. Radikal's headline, for instance, is "ECHR visa for 10 percent threshold". But closer inspection of the judgement text reveals the Court's real thinking: "the electoral system, including the threshold in question, is the subject of much debate within Turkish society and ... numerous proposals of ways to correct the threshold’s effects are being made both in parliament and among leading figures of civil society".

That is perhaps the most important sentence in the entire document. The electoral threshold is wrong, yes, and it needs to be lowered, yes. But it is not a problem that will be solved with an instinct order from a distant court. The threshold can only be lowered in Turkey, by Turkish politicians. The more pressing question is whether it will happen before this November's elections.

For the Court's judgement in full, visit their website at http://www.echr.coe.int and search for Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey (application no. 10226/03).

Monday, 29 January 2007

Why, for once, I agree with Bülent Arınç

There's been a considerable amount of excitement in this morning's Turkish newspapers over a few words uttered by the speaker of the Turkish parliament. Bülent Arınç told reporters this morning that he believed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should remain prime minister for the next term: "with his charisma and dynamism, there is much that he can give to Turkey over the next five years. Turkey shouldn't be drawn back into coalitions. Drawing from the experience of the last five years, (Mr Erdoğan) can achieve the unachieved."

You can imagine how the pulses of several reporters around that breakfast table quicked. A flurry of questions followed: "Are you saying Erdoğan shouldn't be president? Are you nominating yourself? What about (the foreign minister) Abdullah Gül? Does the president have to be one of you three?" Mr Arınç did answer the first by saying he would support an Erdoğan presidency, if that's what he wanted, but he managed to avoid directly answering all the others.

Taha Akyol in Milliyet writes that the reporters then asked him to define what a president should be. The speaker reeled off a list: "He must have experience in the state, he must have a vision, he must support freedom, he must be on the side of the people and he must be someone who allows discussion of his own position.

"The president," Mr Arınç went on, "has a list of duties that covers four pages of the consitution. He has more power than necessary. The opposition are turning this into a regime feud, a discussion over secularism." He gave the example of Abdullah Gül willingly relinquishing his premiership to Mr Erdoğan in 2003. "We don't fight over positions. I myself have proposed a change to parliament's internal regulations to allow votes of no confidence in the speaker."

Some newspapers have taken Mr Arınç's words a step further by saying he has unofficially acknowledged his own presidential prospects. His candidacy would create more unease than even Mr Erdoğan's - he is regarded with more suspicion, having been more involved than the present AK leader with the religious wing of the former Welfare Party. But there is no Arınç candidacy yet. His comments were simply too vague to be interpreted as a declaration of any kind. There is no new presidential candidate, nothing has changed there.

What has changed is that the speaker of parliament, second only to the president in the state hierarchy, has agreed with the views expressed in this blog last month. Mr Erdoğan has proved himself remarkably adept as prime minister since taking the post in March 2003, and for all his faults he remains more popular a figure than any other politician in the country.

At this stage in his career, he needs to put aside personal ambition and pursue national interests. The presidency, like nearly every Turkish institution, is in dire need of reform. Mr Erdoğan's role at this stage is not one of being reformed, but of making reform.

Friday, 19 January 2007

In a crowded street. On a busy morning.

I was in London when I found out. Having emerged from the cellular blackout of the London Underground, my phone beeped back into life with a voice message. "Call me back as soon as you get this," said an urgent voice. It was my friend in Ankara. "They've shot Hrant Dink. He's dead." I called her back and she told me what little she knew: "It was apparently some boy. Eighteen, maybe nineteen years old. He died instantly."

I had to hang up and continue my tube journey. Frustrated and away from a computer, I sat twiddling my thumbs. I needed to write. So I wrote this, with a pen I found in my pcoket, on the back of the London Underground Customer Charter. It was the only piece of paper I could get my hands on. I had to record my utter disgust and revulsion somewhere. A man was shot today for speaking aloud. It is an incredible tragedy, and I'm desperate that people know that.

Hrant Dink was a journalist. He was a Turkish citizen. His origins, however, were Armenian. He was among the first to be tried under Article 301, that notorious clause in the Turkish penal code that makes it a crime to denigrate "Turkishness". Like Orhan Pamuk, the nobel laureate, Dink too faced trial for his thoughts. Unlike Mr Pamuk, Dink was found guilty. The court gave him a deferred six month prison sentence.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today said it was significant Dink was targeted. "A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression," he said. "Our nation, most particuarly our citizens of Armenian origin, have the sense and forethought to overcome this test."

The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) made just a written statement calling for the Turkish people to not be provoked by the incident. "We invite (all) to behave with the utmost responsibility."

I am angry. I am angry because there are people out there who seem to think it is perfectly justified to kill a man who speaks contrary views. I have a perfectly clear idea of who I think is responsible, but there is little use in churning out conspiracy theories now. Suffice to point out that it was in a crowded street, on a busy morning. This was no impulsive killing.

Hrant Dink, journalist. Born September 15th 1954, died January 19th 2007.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Presidential Election: The Vox Pop

It's funny how these things turn out. Last week, I asked the blogging community at large what they thought about the upcoming Turkish presidential election. Having got a response from a mighty two people - not to discredit IstanbulTory and yuvakuran, thank you both so very much for writing your thoughts - I went and did what any other self-respecting journalist would do: pinch what people have said elsewhere. Here's what I found interesting:

"I don't know who this J. Vincent is," reads one of my favourite (anonymous) comments, "but it's not important. There are many things in life that we don't know anyway - it will do if this isn't known either." Not to worry, I'll be sure to make my introductions over there shortly. The comment goes on: "Does it matter what happens in the election? This country has been ruled by juntaist soldiers, contracted servants, plundering conmen and fascist dogs. What difference will it make for us if the sharia comes in - aren't we still going to be the ones who lose out?"

"The President won't be Tayyip," says IstanbulTory, posting on this blog. "The military/mass media are working to ensure that this doesn't happen." Nor, says he, will it be a consensus candidate such as Hikmet Çetin. "It's more likely to be a fairly obscure AKP member of Parliament whose wife is not veiled. And more importantly someone who will not inflame secular opinion once elected." Defence minister Vecdi Gönül is fielded as a potential compromise - Abdüllatif Şener is another possibility, perhaps?

Yuvakuran focused more on the election aftermath: "(An AKP president) will certainly push the country with all measures, legislations, appointments towards a new environment as moderate Islamic republic in the region. So all secular forces are to defend the existing Western Democratic system to prevail."

It's certainly a bleak outlook. But in all the despair, it seems, there's a victory for academia: "The Middle East Technical University's Alumni Association has created a new working group to review the local Presidential election process in detail." Hooray! "We invite all international interested parties to review the issue and put their intellectual contributions. Also there is practically no application of local penal law if a document is written and released in a foreign language." You'll be hearing from me soon, Yuvakıran.

"Just like parties, the president should also be elected by public vote at the same time with general elections," writes John Gurcam on Yuvakuran's blog. "The president should also be elected for 4 years to work with the party elected for the same period."

The Turkish Daily News also got its finger out last week for a bit of comment: "The presidential elections will be a deciding factor in whether the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) remains an influential political actor in the general elections." Göksel Bozkurt's piece goes on to outline a number of possible scenarios for the government and opposition. It's well worth a read, although I would question the claim that President Sezer can unilterally scrap a presidential vote and call an early general election.

The wonderful thing about a vox pop is that there's no need for a balanced argument. The above is by no means a cross-section of the presidential debate, although it does raise some interesting points about the course of the next few months. Your comments, as ever, are welcome below. Mine will continue in these pages in the days to come.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Election 2007: Predictions

The election of a new president in May, and of a government in November, will focus minds. If the parliament, dominated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, elects an Islamist as president, secularists will be appalled. Either way, the AKP will win the general election.
  Turkey prediction from "The World in 2007", published by The Economist
Many of the visitors to this blog in the last few months have come having searched "Turkey election 2007", or something similar, in Google. There is little need to question why: the two upcoming elections are events that will eclipse all others in the Turkey of 2007. We can only hope the two votes will indeed focus minds.

Ahmet Necdet Sezer has 99 remaining days in office, and it is still no clearer who his replacement might be. It is unlikely a candidate will emerge until at least February; we may even have to wait until March. This blog has already endorsed Hikmet Çetin as Turkey's next president, but I'm curious to know what the remainder of the blogging community has to say on the matter.

What do you think? Do you agree with a recent Hürriyet interview in which Süleyman Demirel said he expected Mr Erdoğan to become the next president? Do you think I'm right to push for a Hikmet Çetin presidency? Or perhaps, even though it is highly unlikely, would you support an overhaul of Turkey's presidential system that would allow presidents two terms of five years each, thus giving Mr Sezer another three years in power? Such a motion was tabled at the end of Mr Demirel's presidency seven years ago; it failed, and the result was a crossparty compromise in Mr Sezer. Can there be a compromise this time?

The second election of the year is due in 301 days. The Economist is almost dismissive of what will happen in that election ("the AKP will win") but they are right. In a political scene where there is no strong challenger to the governing party, and not enough of a reason to vote them out, why shouldn't they win?