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Friday, 25 May 2007

Pay attention. It's going to happen

In London, from where I write this entry, the Iraq war has a numbing effect. Most people know it is happening, but rarely any longer do they acknowledge it. And after four years of death and destruction on an almost daily basis in a faraway land, they can hardly be blamed for it.

The mood is reflected in British TV news: Iraq does still feature in bulletins, but the reports of carnage normally appear in the middle, the least-watched bit, following all those stories about councils wanting to empty bins less frequently. It's not that people don't care, but they are numbed by the news that never differs.

But things are about to change in Iraq. It will not be a change for the better, and it will not come from America's Congress, with its new multi-billion dollar aid package, or from Iran, with its alleged backing of the insurgency. The change will come from Turkey, which is threatening to invade the north of Iraq. And anyone who remotely understands the region knows that Turkey can - and will - do it.

The predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq is a stark contrast to the rest of the country. While British and American troops face attacks by the day, the Kurds have set up a stable, autonomous government, with greater freedom than they ever had under Saddam Hussein. They even have one of their number as Iraqi president. Iraqi Kurdistan is a comfort to coalition forces, but Turkey wants to intervene.

Why? Because, largely unnoticed to the outside world, Turkey is under attack. Attacks against the state and army have been at least monthly occurences since the PKK renounced its unilateral ceasefire three years ago. Yesterday, six soldiers were killed by remote-controlled mine during a land search operation in the southeastern town of Şırnak. Even as I type, Turkish radio said that a state security chief in nearby Tunceli was targeted today in a bomb attack.

Turkey's army says the attacks come from secret bases over the border in northern Iraq. It accuses figures in the Kurdish administration, and even US military chiefs in the region, of turning a blind eye to their existence. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, said at a press conference on April 12 that a swift operation was needed to remove the bases and stop the attacks. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has indicated in the last week that he agrees.

To put things in perspective, Turkey's southeast is not Iraq's southeast. The attacks are not as frequent, nor as reckless. They target security officials and soldiers, not civilians. The region is not the danger zone it was twenty years ago, and there is little talk of imposing another state of emergency. But none of this justifies the PKK attacks. They are still taking lives, and Turkey wants to stop them.

Both America and the Iraqi government in Baghdad have opposed the idea of a Turkish intervention for months. Both have favoured solving the problem among themselves, and there have been a number of three-way meetings. But the attacks have not stopped, and not a week has seemed to go by recently without television pictures of another flag-draped coffin being buried. No one was hurt in the Tunceli attack, but patience is wearing thin. Amid rising nationalism and anti-Americanism, more people than ever before are saying that Turkey needs to solve the problem alone. And with an election just around the corner, Mr Erdoğan might just agree.

No one doubts Turkey has the capability to strike northern Iraq. Its army, after all, is NATO's second largest. But it is hard not to feel that the United States is not taking the threat of an intervention seriously enough. It can happen, and unless something changes soon, it will happen. Someone needs to take notice.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Take note

Two million people would not gather in five cities over three weeks if they didn't have something to say. Yesterday's Republican rally in the western city of Izmir was perhaps the most impressive of them all. Nearly a million people attended, forming the stunning sight of a sea of red Turkish flags contrasting with the brilliant blue of the Izmir bay.

"Turkey is secular, and shall remain so" has been the predominant chant at this and at previous rallies in Çanakkale, Manisa, Istanbul and the capital Ankara - all western cities. The protestors feel that with the recent presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ruling AK party has taken one threatening step too many towards dismantling Atatürk's legacy. The intention is, they claim, to end the secular republic.

That would be a very difficult thing to do. The Kemalist legacy is embedded in Turkey's institutions: not a week goes by before children are reminded of it at school, and imams are instructed to preach it at Friday prayers across the country. You can't overturn that in a hurry.

One thing to consider would be whether AK really does want to end secularism. A recent Economist article would argue that evidence, so far, is to the contrary. The economy is riding high, the judiciary has been reformed, and ties with Europe are stronger than ever before. If AK truly is planning to instil sharia law the moment it takes the presidency, it's doing a very good job hiding it.

The Turkish people are better off than they were five years ago. Broadly speaking, they are happier, richer, and more likely to be in work than in 2002. Broadly speaking, this is down to the politicians in AK, who recognised what was needed and delivered it. Broadly speaking, they deserve to win the next election.

And win it they probably will, because Turkey is a country of such size and diversity that even two million is not an electoral liability. Notice, for instance, that the Republican rallies have all been in western cities (with the exception of an upcoming event in Samsun, on the eastern Black Sea coast). For all the millions who took to the streets, there are millions more who did not.

That is how some AK leaders have been consoling themselves over the past few weeks. They are wrong, and Mr Erdoğan should move to correct his party's position. He was wrong to treat the presidential election as if it were an internal primary. He should not have waited until the last minute, when tensions were at their peak, before consulting the opposition. Now, more than ever, Turkey needs a compromise candidate for president, and only Mr Erdoğan can start the process to find one. If there is to be a public vote for president on July 22nd, he must propose and nominate Hikmet Çetin.

AK cannot afford to ignore the secularist protests. That will only make things more difficult for them when they do return to government in July - especially if they need to seek a coalition partner.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

This man is the real problem

As the leader of the country's main opposition party, Deniz Baykal is in a position of exceptional influence. It is his responsibility to be something of a symbol of morality for the rest of us. He would be ill-advised, for instance, to be pictured smoking a cigarette. Or making a rude hand gesture. Or shunning an affectionate baby.

The same, you would think, would apply to respecting the country's state mechanisms. Surely it goes without saying that the CHP leader believes in the rule of law?

It appears not, acording to what he said yesterday: "If the Constitutional Court dismisses the CHP application, Turkey could be dragged towards conflict. It could lead to worse times." He seems to suggest that the court's decision is a matter of life and death. It is scaremongering rubbish and should not be taken seriously. Turkey is not going to descend into fighting in the streets and families torn apart over a court ruling. What should be taken seriously is the fact that the words were spoken at all.

I find it difficult to understand Mr Baykal's intent. If his statement is an assesment of the political climate, it is weak. If it is an attempt to influence the verdict, it is pitiful. If they were meant to be sage words of warning, they were anything but.

What Mr Baykal should have done is what the ruling AK party did after an internal meeting yesterday evening. "We cannot comment," a short statement said, "while the court process continues."

That court process is expected to be concluded tonight, whether it is in the early evening or in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It is certainly true that the verdict will shape Turkey's immediate future. A pro-AK ruling will effectively install Abdullah Gül in Çankaya as the next president; a pro-CHP ruling will thwart that. An early election is likely in both cases - not only, as Mr Baykal would have us believe, if AK is defeated.

Whatever verdict the court does reach, it must be an impartial one. It must be a decision reached without the influence of outsiders such as Mr Baykal. The trouble is, in a country like Turkey, you cannot be sure that will not happen.

As for Mr Baykal himself, his words have proven what we already knew: that he does not respect the very institution upon which he says the country's future hangs. "Instead of offering an alternative vision," said last week's Economist, "he has built a career on scaremongering. The EU is bent on dismembering Turkey, the Americans want to dilute Ataturk's legacy, the CIA is plotting to kill him — these are his tired mantras."

I would go further: Deniz Baykal is a thug. As the leader of the largest unreformed political party in Turkey, he is more adept at orchestrating the secular bloc he leads than recognising the needs of his people. This legal challenge is just the latest in a long series of attempts to force an early election. It looks like this time he has succeeded. The polls suggest that AK might lose some support at the next election, but they also suggest those supporters will not be flocking in their droves to the CHP. Mr Baykal should be worried.