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Monday, 27 August 2007

The judge who never smiles

Day two thousand, six hundred and fifty-nine must have been Ahmet Necdet Sezer's happiest as President of Turkey. Seeing as the last of his packing was done months ago, he didn't have very much to do except visit the new parliament speaker, Köksal Toptan, on the final leg of his farewell tour. He turned up in the early afternoon, met Mr Toptan at the door and went inside for a twenty minute chat. Predictably, the outgoing president was given a gift: a porcelain plate, hand-made as one of Turkey's finest, was handed over in front of an army of photographers. Rather less predictably, Mr Sezer grinned. He did. Honest. It was a wide grin too. It seems one of the country's grumpiest men can have a spark of fun, too.

At 65, Mr Sezer is the youngest president to leave the post since İsmet İnönü. He was also the first non-partisan, non-military president, having been Turkey's chief justice before becoming the "consensus candidate" to succeed Süleyman Demirel. It was unprecedented stuff: he was jointly nominated not just by the Prime Minister, Bülent Ecevit, and the leaders of the three-party coalition, but also the leaders of both main opposition parties.

But Mr Sezer was not first choice - Ecevit had wanted to extend Mr Demirel's term by three years - and there were eight other candidates for the job, which meant the consensus man was only elected in the third round. But he took the job with nerve. "I shall do all I can," he said after his election, "to protect national unity, defend secularism and achieve the distribution of wealth." It was that third aim that was to get him into trouble.

On February 19th, 2001, Mr Sezer used a meeting of the National Security Council to hold Ecevit to account on wealth distribution. The prime minister's coalition was looking shaky, and an IMF recovery plan to rid Turkey of chronic inflation and economic instability was not going well. Mr Sezer accused Ecevit of not pulling his weight to tackle corruption and, in an infamous heated moment, threw a copy of the constitution towards the prime minister, one presumes for his inspection. Ecevit stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

Analysts later said it was not what Mr Sezer said that had infuriated Ecevit, it was the way he said it. Either way, it caused an economic crisis that shrunk the Turkish economy by a mammoth 10 percent. The Central Bank sold 5 billon dollars on the day of the argument alone in an attempt to buoy a plunging market. It didn't work; thousands lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands saw their savings erased. Ecevit's career never recovered. He and his coalition partners were all voted out of parliament the following year in elections that swept Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's religious AK party to power. President Sezer was all that was left of the old guard.

In the years that followed, Mr Sezer vetoed laws, ammendments and appointments by the AK government - more than any of his predecessors. Far from the man who helped bring crisis, among secuarlists he became the stalwart traditionalist force against a new wave of political Islam. For AK supporters, he was a stubborn, inflexible bureaucrat. He became particularly popular among supporters of the Republican People's Party (CHP), with many canvassing him to replace Deniz Baykal. He has always dismissed those calls, but he has made no secret of his dislike of Mr Erdoğan's politics, and admitted to being surprised and dissatifised with last month's election result.

Ahmet Necdet Sezer was a boring, unwavering, unidealistic president. You could say he treated the post like a judge - he used the state's founding principles as his guide, and didn't stray far from them. Some might call that blind progress, ignoring developments around you, but few could argue Mr Sezer didn't play by the book.

His was the slimline presidency - he was never one for pomp and ceremony, he always returned a part of his presidential budget unspent at the end of the year, and even during the AK years he was rarely outspoken in day-to-day politics. He would insist his convoy stopped at red traffic lights. He would leave the confines of the presidential palace to go shopping. Even his darkest hour, the 2001 crisis, was triggered by his urge to make life better for the ordinary Turk. He gave the impression of a good, modest man, a man who assumed the presidency not because of the glamour but because he genuinely thought it a service to his country.

This presidency has had a timely ending. Turkey is richer, more stable and more mature than it was when Mr Sezer was sworn in seven years and three weeks ago. It now needs the energy of a stimulating president to tackle the country's most ingrained issues.

They say good men do not necessarily make good presidents; Ahmet Necdet Sezer was a boring president, but he was still a good one. His stolidness was just the palpable kind of honesty a country of sleaze and corruption needed. And his beaming smiles today show that even the most adamant judge can hang his robes and go home. His work is done.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Wonderful censorship

After a month of grey London, it was sheer joy to land in Istanbul and step out into sunshine brighter than the orange easyJet plane that brought me to it. What wonderful weather, I thought to myself.

I sailed through customs at the delightfully small Sabiha Gökçen Airport and promptly arranged for the Havaş driver to take his bus via Levent, which is closer to home, rather than direct to Taksim, which is slap bang in the centre of town. This he did just for me. What wonderful people, I thought.

Then I jumped on a minibus to realise I didn't have change for the fare, and made to get off to find a cash machine. But another passenger jumped up and paid the driver for me. What a wonderful country this is.

So when I settled down in front of my computer that evening for my semi-regular tromp around a few favourite websites, I was feeling rather happy about things. And happy I stayed, right up until I typed in the address for Jake's Foreign Perspectives blog and was confronted with a rather rude message, complete with dodgy translaton:

"Bu siteye erişim mahkeme kararıyla engellenmiştir.

T.C. Fatih 2.Asliye Hukuk Mahkemesi 2007/195 Nolu Kararı gereği bu siteye erişim engellenmiştir.

Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance."

Turkey has banned WordPress, the blogging platform. This is not a move without precedent; the popular definitions site ekşisözlük and, more famously, YouTube have both been blocked in the past. Turk Telekom's virtual monopoly on internet access in Turkey makes a ban an easy thing to enforce. There is, after all, just the one service provider to submit a court order to. Such a ban wouldn't be as easy in a place like Britain, where multiple companies maintain the country's internet infrastructure.

The man behind this ban is the Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, more popularly known by his pen name Harun Yahya. It seems Mr Oktar took offence at some sentiments expressed about his person on a certain WordPress blog, and proceeded to have his lawyers ban the entire platform. Mr Oktar's lawyers were also behind the ekşisözlük ban, which was only lifted after the entries about him were deleted.

Censorship in Turkey has long been extensive. When it comes to certain sensitive subjects - be it the Kurds, the Armenians, the hidden state or the military - Turkish journalists have always exercised a degree of self-censorship. Even ordinary Turks have a habit of lowering their voices when talking politics, lest they be overheard. In such an environment, the mere recalling of books and banning of websites can be almost second nature.

But despite its long history of censorship, the Turkish state has yet to realise that it just doesn't work. When YouTube was banned for an anti-Atatürk video that appeared in its wares, every other Turkish internet user found a way of watching the video to see out what the fuss was about. I myself have met authors who are delighted when their books are banned and taken away by the police. It makes people want to read them. Surely it's like dealing with a spoilt child - giving attention only makes it worse.

I have very little time for Mr Oktar. He is not an intelligent man. The legal action he has taken against certain WordPress blogs are completely in character and, as far as I can see, without much justification. I don't see how a tiny blog can do much personal harm to him.

But my personal thoughts aside, there is a bigger issue here - the fact that it is possible to ban parts of the Internet in Turkey. The courts should not be able to close entire websites in responsible to a single libel claim. More important than that, though, the internet access of an entire country should not rest in the hands of one single company, however privatised it might be. It's time to break up Turk Telekom.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Now we know - again

Abdullah Gül has just been announced as the AK party's candidate for president again. As anyone who has read anything about Turkey over the last few months will know, he was nominated by his party for the post in April and had to pull out after the most controversial presidential election in Turkish history.

Unlike last time, this nomination comes from the AK party's executive committee, and not the prime minister himself. One of Mr Erdoğan's greatest mistakes last time was to stubbornly keep his choice of candidate secret until the last minute. He announced it a few hours before nominations closed, not even giving his party a chance to digest the news. This time, the party sat down and talked about whether it worth putting Mr Gül forward again. That is a good thing.

Also unlike last time, it seems Mr Gül might have some opposition support. Cihan Paçacı, Secretary-General of the National Action Party (MHP), has said in the last few minutes that he does not "expect a crisis over the nomination". This is not to say the MHP will be voting for Mr Gül, but they have decided to turn up and push attendance over that crucial 367 figure. That would be enough to elect him.

Mr Gül is off canvassing tomorrow, beginning in the morning with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. He is also likely to visit the main opposition CHP and the Democratic Left Party, although both have already said they do not support him. CHP leader Deniz Baykal has described the MHP's decision to attend the vote as "surprising"; Mr Bahçeli countered by saying: "What would our next move be if we did not attend and made it impossible to have an election? We cannot support using crisis and uncertainty to deal in politics." He is absolutely right.

The process is like last time: the first two rounds are on August 20th and 24th, where a candidate needs 367 votes to win. The next two rounds are on August 28th and September 1st, when a candidate requires just a simple majority. Under the precendent set by April's abortive election, there also needs to be at least 367 MPs casting votes for the round to be valid.

AK has a large enough majority to elect Mr Gül on August 28th, provided the MHP comes to watch. But with 340 seats (minus the speaker), they are 25 votes short of electing him in an earlier round. That gap could be easily bridged with MHP support. Another less likely option would be to cobble together the twenty seats of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party with independents and rebels from other parties. Most likely is that Mr Gül will become president in the third round.

The media in Turkey and abroad will probably interpret the renomination as AK defiance in the face of the CHP and the army. That isn't the way I look at it. But the question that far fewer people seem to be asking is whether Abdullah Gül would make a good president. He is a capable man, aware of the country's institutions, and is certainly no-one's puppet. He is the Foreign Ministry's loss.

The answer is yes.