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Monday, 26 March 2007

Presidential election: the candidates (part two)

Sometimes, to see if things are really changing, it helps to leave a marker behind you as you walk along. This is what I did last week when I produced a brief guide to the candidates, as speculated by the media at the time. How things can change in a week.

The biggest development is that Bülent Arınç, the parliament speaker, appears to have pulled out. Or so the press seem to think. He was on Italian television over the weekend, and when the interviewer began by asking whether he was addressing Turkey's future president, Mr Arınç said "no".

But it's not entirely a wrap: when the interviewer asked, "Not even theoretically?" Mr Arınç said that any MP could theoretically be a candidate, and "as parliament speaker my potential ratio might be a little higher". Nothing clearer there, then.

Elsewhere, the presidential campaign has its first officially declared candidate. Metin Uca, who until recently spent his days lecturing the ills of contestants on his TRT-1 gameshow, has thrown his hat into an otherwise empty ring. "I have had a positive response from parliament's liberal MPs. I have (the support of) 110 MPs, including some from the governing party," he told reporters last week. "I am serious and confident."

With just over two weeks to go until nominations open, here my revised list of official and potential candidates:

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, AKP — was urged by today's Financial Times not to stand.

Bülent Arınç, parliament speaker, AKP — appeared to signal he would not stand, but who knows for certain?

Abdullah Gül, foriegn minister, AKP

Vecdi Gönül, defence minister, AKP

Beşir Atalay, state minister, AKP

Hikmet Çetin, former CHP leader and foreign minister — remains this blog's candidate.

Ertuğrul Yalçınbayır, MP for Bursa, AKP

Metin Uca, journalist and former gameshow host — declared last week, claims to have the support of 110 MPs.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

The thin red line

Turkey's national football team came back yesterday from a goal down in Athens to defeat Greece 1-4. It was a convincing victory, taking Turkey three points clear at the top of its Euro 2008 qualifying group, and leaving the last European Champions with plenty to think about. Thousands of Turkey fans, as is traditional, took to the streets with their flags and loud voices to celebrate the victory.

Such a pity there was more to it than the football.

"Love thy neighbour as thyself" - part of Christianity's commandments - is an oft-used phrase in Britain. Most British people do take it to heart, in spite of conflicts over garden fences, mumblings over how differently they behave, and fierce arguments about who has a suspiciously greener lawn during a hosepipe ban.

The principle applies on a wider scale, too. Britain and France have a history of bloody warfare, and despite fighting two World Wars alongside each other there remains little (cultural) love lost between the two.

Greece and Turkey are not much different from the cross-channel entente. They argue over their fences (the Aegean), mutter over their petty differences (Greek delight, anyone?) and clash over the fortunes of their backyards (Cyprus). A football match between the two was sure to be charged - neither side had beaten the other in a competitive match since 1949 - but yesterday's Turkish sports newspapers told a different story.

Fanatik yesterday splashed a huge Turkish flag on its front cover with one of Atatürk's less endearing quotations: "the power you need exists in the noble blood of your veins". Fotomaç too used the some quotation. Onikinci Adam went with another Atatürk quotation rallying the Turkish youth, while Fotospor opted for the stereotype: "We'll puncture Athens, we'll kiss Yorgo". The tone was one of going to war.

Fotospor's eloquence continued in this morning's edition with "Be quiet and kneel" next to a picture of the Greek goalkeeper on his knees after conceding a goal. Fotomaç, awash in red, had another Kemalism - "Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk" - while Fanatik's headline was "Here are Mustafa Kemal's children".

Turkey's sports newspapers aren't exactly aimed at an intellectual audience. They aren't all that balanced either - all are heavily football-orientated, and the bulk of their pages cover the country's biggest teams: Beşiltaş, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. Most also contain advertisements for pornographic hotlines on their inner pages. But they do sell well - Fanatik, for instance, shifts nearly 200,000 copies daily - and a rallying cry before a national football match has certainly been published before.

But what if things had turned violent in Athens, before or after the game? How inappropriate would the headlines be seen, had the fans clashed overnight? There is a broader question to ask as well - what do the headlines say about the recent upsurge in Turkish nationalism?

Today's Birgün quotes Yüksel Gülsoy, of Fotomaç, as saying, "These are the basic elements used in a national match. It is called a national match, after all. These are words that have been used hundreds of times over. In our match with Greece these words must be seen as empty."

Birgün - itself an independent newspaper with a tiny readership - describes the events as provocation. At a time when the traditional Turkish hospitality towards foreigners has never been quite as patchy, it is difficult to gauge whether the front pages demonstrate football hooliganism or rampant nationalism.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Presidential election: the candidates

In less than a month from now, the process for the election of a new Turkish president gets underway. From Monday 16th April, MPs will have ten days to nominate their man for the top job. Elections to the post will take place in the twenty days that follow.

A candidate needs a two-thirds majority to win. If no one person receives that after the first two rounds, the winning threshold is dropped to a simple majority for the next. The ruling AK party doesn't quite have two thirds of all the votes in parliament, but they do have a comfortable majority. Few commentators think the election itself will last more than three rounds.

It is perfectly clear how the president will be elected, but still not clear who. The AK majority makes it almost certain that one of their number will get the job. The party circulated an internal survery only last week asking members which party figure they would prefer as president. On the list were five cabinet members, including the prime minsiter, but two prominent members of the AK administration were absent.

So with the confusion reigning supreme, here's my guide to a few of the many candidates to become Turkey's 11th president:

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, AKP — mooted for months as his party's natural candidate. Would certainly be elected if he runs, but is very strongly opposed by Deniz Baykal's CHP. Has also been urged by high-ranking members of his own party to serve another five years as prime minister.

Bülent Arınç, parliament speaker, AKP — At the centre of intense media speculation. He is something of an unofficial leader of the party's more religious wing. Likely to face intense opposition from the military. Was noticably absent from the AKP's internal survey.

Abdullah Gül, foriegn minister, AKP — A former (temporary) prime minister and number two in the government, he is more likely to be in the running for prime minister again if Mr Erdoğan becomes president. Noticably absent from the AKP internal survey.

Vecdi Gönül, defence minister, AKP — His portfolio puts him in daily contact with military figures, which could suggest an indirect way of being groomed for the job. His wife doesn't wear a headscarf. Could be given illicit approval by the military. Present on the AKP internal survey. Serious contender.

Beşir Atalay, state minister, AKP — Also present on the AKP survey. His wife doesn't wear the dreaded headscarf. Not a particularly remarkable figure.

Hikmet Çetin, former CHP leader and foreign minister — this blog's candidate. Has kept something of a low profile recently. Unlikely candidate, as Bülent Arınç has said the next president will not be elected from outside parliament.

Ertuğrul Yalçınbayır, MP for Bursa, AKP — defected from Anavatan to the AKP in 2001. Endorsed by Anavatan leader Erkan Mumcu, who defected with him and then defected back. An outside possibility, perhaps?

Missing from this list is the main opposition CHP's candidate. Deniz Baykal has been very vocal in who he doesn't want to see as president - namely, Mr Erdoğan - but he's been far quieter in who he does support. Mr Mumcu has urged him to co-operate in naming a joint opposition candidate, but there seems to be no sign of that happening yet.

Your comments are welcome.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Jailed for courtesy

The leader of the predominantly Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) was sentenced to six months imprisonment today for calling the leader of the PKK "Mr Öcalan". Ahmet Türk used the title repeatedly during a speech he gave in January; the court in Diyarbakır ruled that this was "praise of a crime and a criminal" under the Turkish penal code, and that his position as a party leader meant that his words had added gravitas.

The punishment is harsh and overblown. Ahmet Türk does not deserve to go to prison for giving Abdullah Öcalan a courtesy title. But that does not make him right. Öcalan is a criminal, tried under Turkish law, serving a life sentence on the island of İmralı. He deserves a title no more than Hermann Göring or Saddam Hussein.

Dropping titles for convicted criminals is a convention that news outlets in the West tend to follow. The BBC's styleguide says on the matter: "In criminal cases, a defendant is Guy Fawkes or Mr Fawkes until any conviction, when he becomes Fawkes".*

Which makes it all the more annoying when pieces like this appear on the BBC News website. This is a separate story concerning Öcalan - rumours about his health - written by the BBC's correspondent in Istanbul, Sarah Rainsford, and she will keep referring to Öcalan as "Mr".

It's worth thinking for a moment why. I would love to dismiss it as a careless mistake but she, like Ahmet Türk, uses the phrase "Mr Öcalan" repeatedly. Perhaps the BBC is not dropping the title because of the international controversy surrounding Öcalan's trial. "The trial was not fair and conclusive," it could be argued. And in a way, they would be right. But if you don't trust the Turkish judgement, trust the European one: the Council of Europe ruled only a matter of months ago that Öcalan did not need a retrial.

But even that argument is redundant for the BBC, as this story reporting Ahmet Türk's conviction demonstrates. Not a "Mr Öcalan" in sight. So it seems the Rainsford story is an isolated incident.

It is the trade of a pedant to pick at such small details in Sarah Rainsford's story. In the same way, it is the trade of a pedant to pick at such small details in Ahmet Türk's speech. The Turkish state authorities have had it in him for months - only last week, he was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for handing out party literature in Kurdish and not sanctified Turkish.

Both Sarah Rainsford and Ahmet Türk are wrong. Neither should be punished. But that doesn't follow through for Turkey's nationalists. They are, after all, the greatest pedants of all.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Freedom for dictators to speak

There is a handy little phrase popular among Turks which can be used to explain away anything. People have become accustomed to saying "Burası Türkiye - This is Turkey" whenever something outrageous or ridiculous happens. It is a phrase of complacence, the understanding being that authorities in this country are capable of just about anything.

So when the government tried to outlaw adultery, "This is Turkey" resounded from the country's restaurant tables. When newspapers publish their annual pictures of a family sacrificing a goat near the Bosphorus bridge, "This is Turkey" is not far off. And when an Istanbul construction company has dug so deep it pierced a metro tunnel? This is Turkey.

But I have to say I was too incredulous to use the phrase when I read yesterday that the chief prosecutor of Muğla, the province on Turkey's southwestern coast, had ordered an investigation into a recent interview given by former president Kenan Evren. Mr Evren had revealed how, after coming to power in September 1980, he had considered collecting Turkey's 67 provinces into eight "super provinces". This would have made for better localised administration, he said, but his plans were scuppered by Turgut Özal, who became prime minister in 1983.

The story was all over the Turkish front pages this week. "Evren wanted an American state system" was Sabah's interpretation, although Mr Evren later insisted he used the phrase "regional governorship" and not "state".

It is likely that Mr Evren will be charged with inciting separatism. He might even face trial. It seems that not even former presidents are free of the recent scourge that has engulfed this country where people are prosecuted for saying what they think. This is Turkey.

Readers of this blog who are familiar with Mr Evren's illustrious career will note that I have neglected to mention one aspect of his rise to power. Kenan Evren was Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces when they toppled Süleyman Demirel's government, abolished all party politics and suspended the constitution on September 12th 1980. He ruled as "head of state" for two years, wrote a new constitution and presented it to the public in a referendum. He then installed himself as the country's seventh president, a post in which he remained until 1989.

Kenan Evren stands accused of unseating a democratically elected government and of uprooting Turkey's entire political system. It was under him, for instance, that the senate was abolished and a single-chamber system of government was adopted. Many older people have charges that are less material: they accuse him of changing the Turkish way of life forever. From 1980, they say, Turkish people became silent and wary of the impact of their words, even after democracy was restored in 1983. They say Mr Evren spawned a "soulless" post-1980 generation of Turks, a generation that never knew the Turkey of before. A generation that coined the phrase "This is Turkey".

The 7th president of the Turkish Republic, as he is now styled, has never stood trial for the 1980 coup d'état. Now aged 89, it is unlikely he ever will. But it is beyond satire that such a man could face criminal charges for daring to suggest how the Turkish state should be organised.

It is pointless to simultaneously defend his right to speak his mind and demand his trial for crimes as a soldier. But one observation must be made: there is an ingrained understanding in Turkey that a conflicting thought is a dangerous one. Not even a CV that reads "Absolute power, 1980 - 1983" can save you from the consequences. And I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Is this Turkey?