We have moved / Taşındık!

If you're reading this, you've come to the old home for the James in Turkey website. The website has changed servers and adopted a new look ahead of the 2014 local election.

For the latest Turkish politics and election analysis from Michael Daventry redirect your bookmarks to jamesinturkey.com.

Monday, 22 October 2007

A time to be rational

Yesterday saw the acceptance by the Turkish people of a package of reforms that brings about some important changes to Turkey's executive command, and more subtle - but no less substantial - changes to the workings of parliament. Unofficial results gave a solid "Yes" vote (69 percent), although turnout (67 percent) was the lowest recorded for a Turkish referendum.

The public consultation comes as Turkey is in the news for very different reasons, be it terrorism on the Iraqi border or Armenian bills in the US House of Representatives. The referendum has its roots in a government angry at not being able to elect its choice of president. Since then, there has been a general election, followed by a president one, and the number of dead in the southeast has been topped up by another few hundred. So the original motive for a public vote is gone, and there are other pressing things to worry about. Was the referendum worth it?

Of course it was. One of the reforms - electing the president by the people - is material to the way Turks are governed, and we now know Turks do want to choose their president in future. Turkish presidents from now on, including the incumbent Abdullah Gül, will serve no more than two five-year terms.

A less-trumpeted reform reduces the term of parliament to four years. This serves to formalise what has already been something of a tradition for Turkish parliaments for decades; it also reduces the possibility of a new president and parliament being chosen in the same year.

The other changes relate to quorum and voting procedures in parliament. The number of MPs needed for a session to be quorate is explicitly set out at 184 - a third of the total number of members plus one. This should prevent future brawls over the constitution like the one in the spring that annulled an attempt to elect Mr Gül and triggered an early general election.

Critics have dismissed the last change - and therefore the entire referendum - as a redundant, technical matter. They point to Mr Gül's election, the fresh AK mandate, and the work on a new constitution. One critic on NTV last night described it as "madness" that any party would willingly want to reduce its own parliamentary term. But let it not be forgetten that it was a mere "technical" argument over 184 or 367 votes that gridlocked Turkish politics for a fortnight. It was all worth it if only to prevent that from happening again.

The decision to push ahead with the referendum is also a show of principled politics on the part of the AK party: it shows consistency and a belief that a public vote is a way to put issues to the people, not just an avenue to push their man to the top.

The critics do have one very important point. It had not been entirely clear whether Mr Gül would have to immediately step down and contest a direct president election if there was a yes vote. Parliament voted just last week to clear up that anomaly, but voters based outside of Turkey had already been voting on the original text at border checkpoints since September. You can't change the rules after the game has started, however small the change might be.

The Turkish press has been remarkably uninterested in the news this morning, and that is unsurprising. The referendum coincided with the deaths of twelve Turkish soldiers in a PKK attack on the village of Dağlıca, close to the Iraqi border. Up to thirty terrorists were killed in the hot pursuit that followed, but army sources estimate there were up to 150 PKK members involved and most of them had disappeared back over the border. No country can tolerate attacks of this size and frequency for long.

The big question is whether the AK government will use its fresh parliamentary approval to launch a cross-border raid into Iraq and seek out the PKK camps. The answer is that Turkey has about as much right to enter Iraq as coalition forces did in 2003. The reality is that a raid would probably have little effect, just like the twenty-four attempts that preceeded it. But this is a country that is getting impatient and insecure. Acumen doesn't come into it.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

This resolution is not the answer

And so it passes. A few hours ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives voted 27 to 21 in favour of a bill that finds the Armenian massacres of 1915 to be genocide. It passed a lot narrower than many expected - the very public objections of State Secretary Condoleeza Rice and several of her predecessors will have helped with that - but pass it still did. From here, the bill moves to a full vote in the House.

The Turks are angry. President Abdullah Gül has responded already, accusing the voting members of "sacrificing large-scale issues for small domestic political games". At the vote, a Turkish parliamentary delegation expressed its sorrow; the Armenian delegation burst into applause. There have been small-scale protests outside the US Embassy in Ankara, and there are expected to be more tomorrow. Oh, and armed police guards have already appeared at Istanbul's Armenian churches.

It is a victory for America's pro-Armenian lobby. The slim Democratic majority means that it is likely, though by no means certain, that both houses of Congress will vote the bill through. President Bush has made his opposition clear, which scuppers the chance of any formal policy change for the moment. And in any case, the bill is non-binding. The United States will continue to not use the word "genocide" when referring to the events of 1915.

So why such vociferous Turkish anger? Part of it is down to the bill itself (avaliable here). Historically speaking, it is a crude effort. The first article of section two, in particular, is highly contested: "The Armenian Genocide ... (resulted) in the deportation of nearly 2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed, 500,000 survivors were expelled from their homes, and which succeeded in the elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland." Even those Western historians who refer to an Armenian genocide will tell you they can't speak in specific numbers. No-one knows how many people perished; politicising history won't help us find out.

But there are two other reasons for Turkey's anger, rooted far beyond the content of the American bill. First, many Turks genuinely believe they could not have carried out such an atrocious act. "I cannot believe we were able to organise ourselves into doing it," a friend once told me. "We can hardly organise the day-to-day workings of government." Second, there is the very real issue of financial compensation to the descendants of those Armenians who were deported.

This evening, the tabloid Hürriyet's website carried an American and Turkish flag under the headline "Is this the end of a hundred-year partnership?" Of course it isn't, and Turkey isn't about to kick the United States out of İncirlik Air Base (usefully close to the Iraqi border) either. The US leadership knows precisely how sensitive the Armenian issue is, and it also knows how valuable Turkey is as an ally.

But that does not mean Turkey should just stand around grumbling to anyone who will listen. There are two things it can - and should - do. Firstly, it should unilaterally open diplomatic relations with Armenia, irrespective of that country's continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Secondly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should fulfil his earlier promise and appoint a delegation of Turkish, Armenian and Western historians to investigate what exactly happened in eastern Anatolia between 1915 and 1923. As Mr Erdoğan has said before, it is a question for historians, not politicians.

The Chairman of the House committee, Tom Lantos, described today's bill as a "sobering choice" between the desire to condemn "this historic nightmare" as genocide against a possible greater risk to US troops. It will do neither; nor, it seems, will it have the happy side-effect of reigniting historical debate on the matter. It is the Turkish side that needs to take the initiative with that.