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Sunday, 29 April 2007

This is not a crisis

The past week will go down as one of the most exciting in Turkey's history. It began on Tuesday with the ruling AK party's nomination of foreign minister Abdullah Gül as its presidential candidate. It ended yesterday with a high court challenge and a stark military warning.

Here is what has happened in the last 48 hours: there were 361 votes cast in Friday's first round. Abdullah Gül received 357 votes, ten short of what he needed to win. Of the remaining four ballots, three were spoilt and one was blank.

The main opposition CHP took the election to the Constitutional Court, claiming the legal requirement for attendance (367 MPs, they say) was not met. AK says the 367 figure is irrelevant, but also slyly claims the attendance was 368, thanks to CHP members coming in to observe the ballot.

The court has promised a judgement before Wednesday's second round. If the CHP claim is upheld, the first round will be annulled and all further rounds cancelled. The likely route from there is an immediate general election. If, however, the court dismisses the CHP claim, Wednesday's second round will go ahead as planned, and Mr Gül will be elected president by round three, when the vote requirement is dropped to a simple majority of 276.

Hours after the CHP's case was handed to the court, the military weighed in. In a statement released at midnight, timed so that it would miss the evening news bulletins but appear on the morning front pages, the army said that the presidential election was turning into a discussion of the secular system. It went on: "The Turkish Armed Forces is watching the situation with concern. It must not be forgetten that the armed forces is party to these discussions and is the absolute guardian of secularism."

The government's response to the statement was just as blunt and angry: "We cannot accept an anti-government declaration from the General Staff, an office answerable to the prime minister. This midnight statement can only be interpreted as an attempt to influence the judicial process." The European Union responded too, saying that the presidential election was a test case for the army to respect democracy.

Today, tens of thousands of people have gathered in Istanbul for a secularist rally. It follows a similar demonstration in Ankara two weeks ago, when around 300,000 people attended to protest Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's potential candidacy.

Three important points must be made about this weekend's developments. Firstly, this is indeed the first presidential election in Turkey's history to be taken to court, but that is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it demonstrates that Turkey is a democratic state operating under the rule of law. Politicians frequently bicker; the fact that the judges have been called in to settle this dispute shows that power in Turkey does operate horizontally as well as vertically.

Second, there might be more to the army's position than meets the eye. It is true that this is the bluntest statement since Yaşar Büyükanıt became Chief of the General Staff, but it could have been a preemptive measure. Today's secularist rally is sure to feature demonstrators calling for the army to intervene. Perhaps the statement was designed to placate those demonstrators.

Where the army is most certainly wrong is in its resolute insistence that the secular system can never be up for discussion. To discuss does not mean to dismantle. In fact, discussion could strengthen the secular system. A public debate on the role of religion in the state can help remind Turks why secularism is important without having to resort to Kemalist dogma. More on that in a later post.

Third - this is not a crisis. It is a serious debate concerning issues far more fundamental than a voting technicality, but everyone is playing calmly and by the book. Talk of a direct military intervention is, at this stage, nothing but rumour.

It is difficult to predict what the Constitutional Court's decision - expected on Tuesday - will be. My personal opinion is that the CHP challenge is baseless, because the constitution contains nothing to suggest the attendance for a presidential vote should be any different from any other session. My feeling is that the case should be dismissed, but I cannot wholeheartedly say that I expect the court to rule against the CHP. As BadTyrpist wrote in a comment on Friday, the text of any pro-CHP ruling will have to be read very closely.

Friday, 27 April 2007

And the underdog withdraws

Ersönmez Yarbay has just withdrawn from the election in support of Abdullah Gül. He had said earlier that he would do this if opposition parties boycotted the vote.

It has been a good publicity stunt for him, though.

The vote begins

Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç has rejected a CHP application for attendance to be taken. There are nine non-AKP MPs in the chamber: five of them are independents, two are from Mehmet Ağar's DYP, and one each are from Anavatan and the CHP.

This would mean there are 361 MPs in parliament eligible for voting - six short of the number needed to vote in a president in the first round. A CHP legal challenge is now certain.

The voting continues.

Mumcu decides: We're out

Erkan Mumcu, leader of parliament's third-placed Anavatan party, has just announced his party too will not be taking part in this afternoon's presidential election. Anavatan has twenty MPs in parliament.

Today's vote will be going ahead regardless. The CHP will be watching it very closely, and is to demand a register as soon as voting is over. Their legal challenge will most likely be launched before the day is over.

It is very unlikely now that Mr Gül will be elected in this round, or indeed in the second round, but the other AK candidate Ersönmez Yarbay did say he would withdraw if all the opposition parties boycott the vote. They have just done that.

AK party MPs have now started to enter the parliament chamber. It's probably a sensible idea: with, 353 of them, it must be a bit of a squeeze.

Electing number eleven

The day has come. Turkey's 542 members of parliament have been called in for 3pm today to vote for the man they want to become the country's next president. They have a choice between two members of the ruling AK party. The first is the party's official candidate, foreign minister Abdullah Gül. The second is Ersönmez Yarbay, an Ankara MP not endorsed by the party. In this first round, a candiddate needs 367 votes to win.

The election is a critical one, perhaps the closest Turkey has ever seen, because each and every vote counts. Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition CHP, had said his party would boycott the vote long before Mr Gül's candidacy was even announced.

Mr Baykal has further threatened to take the election to the Constitutional Court, Turkey's highest judicial body, if there are not 367 MPs present when voting takes place. AK leaders have dismissed the threat as a technicality, pointing to the article in the constitution that say only 184 MPs are needed to start a session of parliament.

But despite the strong show, AK leaders have been shaken by the threat, and Mr Gül has visited opposition leaders in an attempt to find support. As it stands, AK has 353 seats in parliament. Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç will be leading the session, and therefore cannot vote. AK therefore needs at least fifteen other MPs to be present in the chamber, regardless of how they vote, to scupper a CHP legal challenge.

Mehmet Ağar, leader of the True Path party (DYP), has just appeared on television saying his party's four MPs will also not be taking part in the vote. Mr Ağar repeated his view that AK has a sufficient majority to get their candidate through in the third round, and that he did not believe the CHP's challenge was legitimate.

Mr Ağar's words have added weight because his party has agreed to operate in conjunction with Erkan Mumcu's Motherland party for this vote. Mr Mumcu himself is due to give a press conference at 2.30pm - he is expected to give his twenty MPs a free vote.

AK have also failed to win support from the Youth Party, Social Democrat People's Party or the People's Ascent Party, all of which have a seat each.

Mr Gül has been meeting independent MPs in an attempt to add up the numbers. There are also reports of CHP MPs breaking away from party lines to attend the vote.

It's tense. I'll bring more soon.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Now we know

Foreign minister Abdullah Gül was revealed as the unexpected, but not entirely surprising AK party presidential candidate just a few minutes ago. Mr Gül's name was announced by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to rapturous applause at a meeting of the party's MPs.

Also confirmed is the election schedule: the first round of voting will be held this coming Friday 27th April, with the next three rounds taking place on May 2nd, May 9th and May 15th. The likelihood is that Mr Gül will be elected in the third round on May 9th, when he will need 276 votes, a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds majority of 367 required in the first two rounds.

It must be a sad loss for those who work at the Foreign Ministry - they are parting with one of the most competent foreign ministers in Turkey's recent history. Speculation in Ankara will in time surely turn to who might become his successor, though for now even the relentless gossiper should be satisfied. It is also important to acknowledge what Mr Erdoğan has done: by rejecting the presidency for himself, he has avoided the Turgut Özal scenario. It was a shrewd move and should not go unnoticed.

However, there are some serious questions that need to be addressed very soon. Some columnists have said that this election has paralysed the business of government. This is true to a certain extent, but only natural. After all, this is the selection of a man who will see through not just the general elections this November, but also those that follow five years afterwards. A much more serious issue is the presidential election process itself. It is vital that this becomes the last time Turkey's president is elected indirectly.

Turkey is functioning free democracy - the diversity of press coverage during the last few months is testament to that - but the country's presidency is not. The system must be changed well before 2014 to ensure the country's top man is elected directly by the Turkish people. The AKP certainly has the parliamentary majority to make such a change - is it too optimistic to hope it could happen before November?

A more detailed assessment of Abdullah Gül's presidency will follow shortly. For now though, here's something to think about: we all know that Mrs Abdullah Gül wears a headscarf, but fewer might remember that she took Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights in 2002 over the headscarf ban in universities. She withdrew her case after her husband became prime minister. Mr Gül said at the time that it was because the matter had become a political issue rather than a judicial one.

It seems the matter of headscarves is to become another public debate. That can only be a good thing.

Is this Turkey's new president?

April 23rd is always a funny day in Turkey. It is national holiday because it marks the day, now eighty-seven years ago, when the National Assembly was founded in Ankara, formally breaking away from the Sultan's government in Istanbul. The man who orchestrated that break, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, dedicated the day to all children, which is why it is known throughout the country as "April 23rd National Sovereignty and Children's Day".

The drill tends to be pretty much the same each year. In the morning, the prime minister announces to a mass of reporters that he is handing over his duties, albeit temporarily, to a child. The new junior prime minister then speaks of his hopes for Turkey's future, and takes a few light-hearted questions from the press. In the afternoon, there are festivals and performances by children at stadia across the country.

By the evening, it is time to mark that serious business of national sovereignty, with a reception at parliament. These have been strained affairs since the AK party's election, with intense speculation on whether any headscarved wives might turn up, and why the prime minister so insists on wearing a necktie rather than a bow tie. This year, as day eight of presidential nominations drew to a close, things were a little different. The AK MPs gathered at the reception (opposition attendance was particularly low) were guessing who they thought the next Commander-in-Chief was to be.

The name on many people's lips was Vecdi Gönül. The defence minister, who stood for president in 2000 and withdrew only after Ahmet Necdet Sezer's name was thrown into the ring, is not a complete surprise. He had been included several weeks ago in an internal AK party survey of potential candidates. His cabinet portfolio certainly makes him more acceptable to military chiefs. Oh, and his wife doesn't wear a headscarf.

Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç confirmed that a name had been decided: "I know who the candidate is. I am comfortable." Such a pity he could not spill the beans and let the rest of feel that. One of the reporters swarming around the parliament speaker, perhaps also frustrated, tried to egg him on by calling him "Mr President". Mr Arınç's response was clear and staccato: "Don't twist words. I know I am one of the candidates. I was informed of the candidate today. I know the candidate. I am comfortable. Wonderful things will happen."

Is that candidate Vecdi Gönül?

There are, as ever, other names swirling around. One that has been spoken quite often is Nimet Çubukçu, the cabinet minister for women and family affairs. When asked, all she would do was ask for "a little more patience", nothing more. She tried to parry the questions by saying she had a cold, and was not feeling particularly well. There are some countries where that sort of answer is enough to declare you unfit for the job.

With just under 48 hours to go until nominations close, the AK candidate seems decided. All that remains now is for the name to be revealed, and it is the prime minister who has the pleasure - and the discretion - to make the announcement. Some do think the name will be revealed at a parliamentary group meeting tomorrow, but it seems more likely that it will be held off until Wednesday. Following that, the first round of voting could be as early as Thursday.

You can't deny it, it's democracy in action.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Presidential nominations: day six

The halfway point has now been crossed in the period to nominate candidates for Turkey's presidency. This morning, the official candidate count stands at zero, the number declared is no greater than two, and the speculation for others is more intense than ever before.

The deadline for nominating candidates is, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has often reminded us, midnight on the evening of Wednesday 25th April. Not one person has gone to the specially allocated office in the Turkish parliament to nominate either themselves or another, although yesterday the first MP to declare revealed himself to the press.

Ersönmez Yarbay (right) is an AK party deputy for Ankara. He told excited reporters yesterday that he was putting himself forward because he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable at the lack of candidates. His candidacy should be taken about as seriously as that of Metin Uca, the former gameshow host who fielded himself as a compromise candidate a couple of weeks ago.

Both say they are compromise candidates: Mr Uca says he is not an MP and has a greater chance of being politically neutral, while Mr Yarbay says he will go and register if no other AK man does. The problem is not whether an AK deputy will register. Everybody knows there will be somebody; it is now a question of who, and when.

Mr Erdoğan's candidacy is still nothing but guesswork. I myself am still not committed on the issue. Just on Thursday, I was convinced that he would be running after his notable absence - and foreign minister Abdullah Gül's notable presence - at a meeting announcing Turkey's EU reform programme. But this morning's papers have the story of a group of Istanbul fishermen happily greeting the prime minister rather than the president. Mr Erdoğan apparently welcomed the sentiments. Oh, I am confused.

The other substantial development in Ankara yesterday was a meeting between Mr Gül and parliament speaker Bülent Arınç. Both men left the meeting saying they were concerned at the level of media speculation, that there were no differences of opinion between them or with Mr Erdoğan, and that the two of them were agreed upon the same candidate. Of course, they did not say who that candidate might be.

So as we enter day six, there is little new of substance to report. Mr Erdoğan is still the leading candidate, in that there is no doubt he will win if he runs. Mr Arınç and Mr Gül are second-placed. The other serious AK candidates are those whose wives don't wear headscarves. There is also talk of an woman candidate - Nimet Çubukçu, the cabinet minister for women and family affairs, would be the obvious AK choice there.

There is still faint hope of a compromise candidate, selected from outside parliament. Some newspapers have picked up on the speculation this morning: Sabah's headline is "I wouldn't object to a fourth candidate", quoting Mr Arınç yesterday, while Star went for "Everyone will be astonished", saying Mr Erdoğan feels their candidate will be a surprise choice.

Has anyone heard from Hikmet Çetin recently?

Friday, 13 April 2007

Siamese observations

(this entry was written late last night)
Two press conferences, two different leaders, two very different styles. The country's best reporters were already poised for a press conference from Turkey's army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, which was to address issues that "the public needs to know about". What everyone wanted to know what whether General Büyükanıt would clear up his position on the presidential election - Radikal, for instance, went this morning with the headline "What will he say to the Çankaya question?"

Barely a half hour before General Büyükanıt began, parliament speaker (and rumoured presidential candidate) Bülent Arınç was just finishing a press conference of his own, and it was interesting to see how the two leaders compared.

Bülent Arınç's command of Turkish is what I would call near-perfect. He is articulate, has an excellent tone and speaks practically without hesitation. His press conference was similarly well-handled: he made his statement on Saturday's rally in Ankara, with his pauses as if timed to complete a soundbite, and then took questions from reporters. He gave absolutely nothing away about his potential candidacy.

Yaşar Büyükanıt's press conference, on the other hand, lasted well over an hour and was spectacularly successful in recreating the "bored in the classroom" effect. That was until around three o'clock, when he announced that he was fully in favour of sending Turkish troops into northern Iraq. It wasn't a particularly surprising revelation, but producers at the umpteen television channels showing the conference took the opportunity to splash "breaking news" captions on the screen. Perhaps they were trying to make things a little more exciting.

What interested me was the stark difference in style: where Mr Arınç was succinct and to the point, General Büyükanıt resorted to those outstretched Turkish sentences that seem to knock down all hope of a full stop any time soon. While Mr Arınç had me hanging on to his every word, General Büyükanıt frequently made me pick up this morning's Radikal, trying to remember why I was watching him.

Bülent Arınç is, of course, not the first smooth talker of Turkish politics. But it can't have only been me who has noticed that more and more politicians seem to have that gift of talking directly to the public, while those traditional stalwarts of the state bring us all back to school in an instant.

No doubt the Büyükanıt conference was the leading story of the day, and it deserved the near-blanket coverage it received in the evening news bulletins. But I just wonder - if the speaker's conference had somehow been shown first, how many viewers would have switched over when the general came on?

Friday, 6 April 2007

It's fascism! It must be!

(written on the morning of Wednesday 4th April)
A number of newspapers were taken aback by the surprise decision on Sunday to requisition the property of Ciner media group. The state's Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) seized 63 companies, including Sabah, which has a somewhat unfair reputation as the housewives' newspaper, and atv television, one of Turkey's "big four". The reason for the swoop was a series of secret - and apparently illegal -agreements signed between the group's owner, Turgay Ciner, and former chairman Dinç Bilgin.

There was outrage at the decision yesterday. "The TMSF's executive is tied to the government" was Cumhuriyet's claim yesterday, quoting an opposition MP. "The Fund's broader authority should be examined." In plain English - or Turkish, as it were - the opposition believes the government has seized Sabah and atv for propaganda purposes, just months before the general election.

This isn't the first media group to be impounded in recent years. In 2004, the TMSF seized the assets of the Uzan group, which included television and radio stations, newspapers and Telsim, the country's second largest mobile phone operator. The companies all went into public ownership for a number of months before being sold off individually. Star TV, another of Turkey's big four channels, went to the Doğan Group; the newspaper of the same name went to Turkish Cypriot businessman; and Telsim was sold off after a fierce bidding war to Vodafone.

The TMSF promises that, like the Uzan assets, the Ciner companies will be sold off in a few months. But that hasn't stopped politicians from accusing the government of orchestrating the media.

"The press should not be under government control," insisted DYP leader Mehmet Ağar. "Regardless of what is said now, (the companies) will still be in government control". The deputy leader of the far-right Nationalist Action Party declared it "a crime against democracy", in a comment that not enough people snorted at. And Kemal Anadol, head of the main opposition CHP's parliamentary group, went so far as to use the F-word: "There is intent here to keep the press under unilateral pressure, to suppress the opposition. It is a fascist mind that is doing this."

Many seem to have forgotten in the scramble to cry "media intervention!" that the Ciner group was impounded on suspicion of dodgy deals. Tax avoidance continues to be a big problem in Turkey; the greatest culprits have been some of the country's largest holding companies. Putting an end to their dirty work can only be a good thing.

Anavatan's leader, Erkan Mumcu, seemed to be the only voice of reason in all this. He said the reasons behind the operation were not yet clear, and it would not be right to comment until the court case is over. Perhaps more of us should listen to him.