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

Thursday, 30 December 2010

New Year cheer: how Top Gear offended Turkey

Fans of the BBC's popular motoring show Top Gear will be aware that their latest adventure saw them drive across the Middle East towards Bethlehem. They were following in the footsteps of the Three Wise Men, they explained, but intended to replicate their journey in sports cars - part of which took them through southeastern Turkey. It was a hugely entertaining episode and I enjoyed it immensely, but it was characteristically outspoken and managed to offend some Turks in the process.

That in itself is not a particularly difficult to do, but for those foreigners who don't understand why the Turks were offended - and, indeed, those who haven't seen the programme - here's my guide to Top Gear's transgressions. It comes complete with "blunders thou shall commit" warnings of my own, in case you plan to tread on a few toes yourself. We begin fifteen minutes into the programme, outside Irbil in Northern Iraq.

After spending their first few days travelling wearing bulletproof vests, the presenters come to the conclusion that northern Iraq really is not as dangerous as its more southerly regions. Sitting in the garden of their hotel, Jeremy Clarkson says:
I'm glad we've gone to Iraq. I'm sorry, I know this is Iraq, okay, but it's the Kurdistan region of Iraq, so it's full of Kurds...and they're all lovely. Everybody's very friendly. It's about as dangerous as Cheltenham.
and they all proceed to remove their bulletproof vests. Blunder #1: do not suggest Kurdish people are nice. Especially if you're about to visit Turkey.

That is precisely what they do. At the border, their cars are combed by border guards and sniffer dogs on the Turkish side. The presenters are taken aback by levels of security they haven't seen so far, and in fact will not see again until they reach Israel. At one point, the guard finds a cigarette lighter in the shape of a bullet, and the theatrically jittery way Richard Hammond shuffles over to explain himself makes him look like he's actually smuggling heroin.

Once they are allowed through, the trio are handed an envelope from the programme's producers containing new instructions on how to reach Bethlehem. It reads:
You idiots. You have escaped from a region where there is no war into a region where there is. The Kurds are fighting the Turks for independence so if you really are Wise Men you will get to your hotel in the safe zone by nightfall.
Attached to the instructions is the British Foreign Office's latest travel advice to British citizens for the region, which Jeremy Clarkson proceeds to read out. It currently says:
We advise against all but essential travel in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt and Tunceli and visitors should remain vigilant when travelling in other provinces in south eastern Turkey. Terrorist attacks are regularly carried out against the security forces in the south east of the country by the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party.
They all proceed to put their bulletproof vests back on.

Blunder #2: Never suggest Turkey is a dangerous place or slander the country's good name by daring to mention there are terrorists about.

The rest of the Top Gear team's time in Turkey will be familiar to any foreigner, and many Turks too. They drive through endless potholes and complain about the quality of the roads; they are relieved when they finally find a decent bit of dual carriageway, and bemused to discover both directions of traffic are still sharing the same piece of road; they encounter police checkpoints; they are eager to reach their destination before dusk to avoid driving at night; and one of their number gets food poisoning.

Blunder #3: Do not complain about Turkey's infrastructure, its traffic management, its driving habits, or the quality of its food. You're wrong.

But all that was before the killer remark, just after the border into Syria was cleared:
We've only been in Syria for half a mile and already it's better than Turkey.
Blunder #4: Ouch!

Turkey's most-watched news channel, NTV, said "exaggerated remarks" were made in the programme that "disparaged Turkey". The report went on: "The presenters wore bulletproof vests and helmets and said that the southeast of Turkey should be considered a war zone." The Doğan News Agency said the programme "showered Turkey with insults", while Sabah said that "as they crossed into Turkey, the three presenters exhibited panicky behaviour [as a vehicle for] their propaganda of fear".

Also interesting was the online response. The user "Gejo" on Ekşisözlük, a popular social networking site, accuses Top Gear of supporting an unlikely alliance of the PKK terrorist organisation and Fethullah Gülen, an influential Islamic cleric who is currently living in self-imposed exile in the United States. The user adds: "some heavy insults have been made towards Turkey, they must definitely have been funded by America". If only so - British licence fee payers would be delighted.

Of course the comments on Top Gear should not be taken seriously - I certainly don't. But the minor furore surrounding this episode has exposed something about Turkish people: they are ashamed of the state of the southeastern region. They are proud of their country and want visitors to see its best bits, not the parts with the dilapidated roads and heavy security. But this is more than just attempting to sweep ugliness under the carpet. There is a feeling of sorrow that Turkey is bundled together with Iraq, Syria and Israel - countries more prominently associated with volatility.

The reality is that parts of southeastern Turkey are extremely dangerous. Security forces do clash with PKK members. Both sides shoot to kill. There probably are more terror attacks in that part of the country than in Iraqi Kurdistan. But it was safe enough for a motoring entertainment show to visit, and while that's not exactly going to herald an influx of tourists, it does indicate a degree of normality for a region that has spent most of the last three decades in a state of emergency. That counts for something.

Happy New Year - my best wishes to everyone for 2011, an election year for Turkey. My thoughts and predictions coming here next.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

WikiLeaks revelations: Turkey snubbed over NATO deal

Turkey had spoken loudly and resolutely against Anders Fogh Rasmussen taking the reins at NATO when the secretary-general post became vacant early last year.

The Turkish position was entirely personal: Mr Rasmussen, then Danish prime minister, refused to clamp down on pro-PKK television stations inside Denmark. Turkey also objected because of Denmark's handling of that cartoon crisis. It was only resolved when Barack Obama personally intervened. But all this  was already known.

What we didn't know then, but do know now, is that part of the deal was for "a qualified Turk" would be considered for the position of Mr Rasmussen's deputy. But the Turkish foreign ministry official goes on:
Instead...a German of uncompelling merit was selected. "We suspect a deal between Rasmussen and Merkel." ... "We missed an opportunity with the selection of the Assistant Secretary General." [the official] added: "We let Rasmussen have Secretary General, because we trusted you."
Who is this German of "uncompelling merit"? NATO's website throws up no clues.

Turkey aided al Qaida, apparently

Turkish aid has gone directly to al Qaida in Iraq, while the United States has similarly assisted the PKK in the region. That, at least, is what is rumoured to be in some of the US diplomatic correspondence that is to be imminently released by the online whistleblower Wikileaks.

The Turkish press picked up on the story over the weekend as it emerged Turkey was one of the countries briefed by the US State Department. It appears there has been a warning to expect something "potentially embarrassing". To whom, and in what way, remains to be seen.

Being only rumours, there's little real comment I can make. You don't need me to tell you that, if vindicated, this could be explosive. But it all does seem just a little too far-fetched.

The Twitter scene seems to think there will be a release at 4.30pm New York City time tomorrow (Sunday). We shall wait and see.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Is Bursa a racist town?

This isn't a football blog. In fact, I can't remember the last time I wrote about it. But the bizarre response to a recent game in the northwestern town of Bursa recently has some telling signs for the way some Turks think.

For the uninitiated, some quick background: Bursaspor are the current Turkish champions. They won the national league in May in a thrilling twist on the final day of the season, becoming only the second team outside of Istanbul to do so. But they were destined to become runners-up until a simultaneous game involving Trabzonspor went Bursa's way: Trabzon, who was out of the running for the championship, defeated the only other contender, Fenerbahçe, to ensure a Bursa victory.

The new season is now well underway, and Bursa and Trabzon played each other - in Bursa - for the first time this season last Saturday. Trabzon won the game 2-0, thus taking the league leadership from a hitherto undefeated Bursa side. I must declare an interest at this stage - I am a Trabzonspor fan, and have been since childhood, and was delighted by the result. But what I found remarkable wasn't the game so much as a televised incident that occurred the following morning on Bursaspor's TV station.

While reviewing newspaper coverage of the game, Seda Çapçı, the presenter, launched into an astonishing rant about Bursa's Black Sea community, ostensibly in response to anti-Bursa chants by Trabzon fans at the game.

"We always saw them as one of us, we never discriminated," she said, before adding: "They opened businesses here, earned their bread here, lived here, sent their children to school here, found work here, and we were happy." She went on to identify specific neighbourhood of Bursa where people from Turkey's Black Sea region tend to live, and taunted them for not showing their faces in the town centre after the game.

Two things are striking about Ms Çapçı's comments: firstly, that they appear to invoke a sense of racial difference where many Turks would not have dreamed of thinking one existed, and secondly, that they had such resonance around the country.

The Laz, as people from the Black Sea are known, have their own language and a distinct language and culture based around the mountainous, fertile region where they have lived for centuries. It's fair to say they are more closely integrated with the rest of Turkey too: they tend to be bilingual, and separatist aspirations have seldom been seen. They are also the butt of several jokes, largely because of their unusual accents and mannerisms, not unlike the Irish or Welsh would be in some English circles.

I spoke to a long-time Bursa resident who told me members of the city's Black Sea community had long been conspicuous in the city. Sometimes their actions would be comical: "I knew this one family who must have moved from a village straight into the city, because - hand on heart - they tended a cow in their fourth floor flat." But never, she told me, were there racist tensions. They were Turks moving from one part of Turkey to another.

However, in the week of Eid al-Adha, when news is slow, Ms Çapçı's comments found nationwide coverage. The day after the broadcast, a group of Trabzon fans gathered outside the main Ataturk memorial in Bursa's central square to read a statement condemning the broadcast, but police had to be called when a fight broke out with fans of the home side. Four Bursa fans were arrested.

Bursaspor TV has since disassociated itself for the comments and issued an apology. Ms Çapçı has been fired, and might be facing charges for inciting hatred.

So, the question remains: is Bursa a racist town? No. As with most football-related incidents, this appears to be the opinion of the few. But it does provoke thought on the mindset of some people in Turkey.  This isn't the first time I've highlighted signs of antipathy towards a minority; what is encouraging is that, this time, Ms Çapçı's views did not go unchallenged.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

You propose an alliance?

One of the long-standing customs of Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bayramı, the Festival of Sacrifice) is for people to use the holiday as an opportunity to visit their relatives. Turkish politicians do much the same with their political rivals: for the week-long holiday, hands are wrung, tea is served and baklava is awkwardly nibbled, as representatives from Party X chat to Party Y's people about what a wonderful time of year this is. Of course, the cameras are there to capture the moment.

On the whole, these are tedious affairs that last little longer than half an hour in practice and barely thirty seconds on the evening news. This year, however, there has finally been a reason for excitement: the pro-secular Republican People's Party (CHP) met the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) for the first time.

That in itself is quite something. CHP has long snubbed the smallest party in parliament during the holidays, largely because they have tended to regard the BDP as too close to the PKK and too far from the concept of a undivided Turkish state for comfort. But CHP is under new leadership, undergoing a period of significant renewal, and yesterday's visit revealed that the two have more in common than they think. Both are - ostensibly, at least - parties of the centre-left. Indeed, both were represented at this week's Socialist International council meeting in Paris.

During yesterday's Eid visit, in full view and earshot of the assembled journalists, the BDP proposed an electoral alliance. Unity among the Turkish left has not happened for more than a quarter century, but many proponents believe it is a key step towards unseating the governing (centre-right) AK Party at next year's election.

There would be other material advantages too: BDP members would presumably run on the CHP list, thus avoiding entanglements with the 10 percent electoral threshold. For CHP, it would deliver instant and solid gains in East and Southeast Turkey, a region where they haven't won anything for years. Besides, they have a common rival: BDP's only main challenger in the region is AK. The opportunity for a credible opposition is clear.

So they'd be mad not to go for it, yes? Well, the matter is complicated by the BDP's Kurdish connection. There is a significant nationalist contingent within CHP who, disgusted by the prospect of an alliance, could split the party and take its votes elsewhere - to the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), for example. As Ahmet Altan points out in today's Taraf, "the girl who threw stones at the BDP convoy during a party visit to Izmir [a CHP stronghold] last year would not easily vote CHP".

It is definitely too early to say, but this could be the start of something special.

UPDATE: Milliyet has CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu being rather unequivocal about all this. "Our view is clear: we want to govern alone," he told reporters in Ankara. "We have no search for an alliance, nor have we called for one."

That's that, then.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Despicable journalism on Turkish television

Tonight saw one of the worst examples of news reporting I have seen in my career.

It all revolved around the story of a three-year-old boy from an Istanbul village, who went missing on Monday. A massive search operation involving the gendarmarie was launched, but by Wednesday evening there was still no news. As residents helped with the hunt, the media went into overdrive. Turkey's plethora of news channels were all reporting live from the scene; at one stage, when there was nothing fresh to cover, they appeared to be taking it in turns to interview the boy's family.

On Wednesday evening, Kanal D, one of the country's "big four" stations, sent a reporter into the boy's family home to provide live two-ways and speak to the family during the main evening news bulletin. During one interview, the reporter, Özay Erad, announced (to camera, not to the boy's mother) that she had just been informed that a child's body had been found a few kilometres outside of the village. The boy's mother is seen to collapse into a frenzy and, as the camera pans in upon the family trying to calm her, the reporter shouts over the commotion that she had misheard her earpiece, and that it was a child's voice that had been heard outside the village.

The boy has since been found safe and well.

A recording of the incident is available on NTVMSNBC, but be warned: the scenes are distressing.

It is journalism at its very worst - causing distress, spreading incorrect information - but all too common among Turkey's mainstream bulletins. So often the news on all four big channels is car crash television: presented by elderly men to an epic film soundtrack (ATV opts for Gladiator), sensationalism is their main ingredient. A typical bulletin may begin with a graphic footage of an overturned lorry on the motorway, followed by close-ups of the blood on the ground from a midnight neighbourhood brawl, interspersed with pictures of the prime minister walking in and out of buildings as a voice drones about proceedings in parliament, before finishing with shots of female European tourists sunning themselves at a Mediterranean resort.

There was plenty wrong with Kanal D's broadcast tonight, not just that the reporter misheard what she was being told by her director. Ms Erad should not have been in the house in the first place: if she had to be near the scene, she should have stationed herself outside. If she had an inkling of doubt, she should have asked the gallery to repeat the report to her. She should have emphasised that the report she was communicating to the viewers was unconfirmed. The first time the boy's mother heard the rumour that her son might be dead should not have been from this reporter. None of it should have been on live television.

Kanal D should be ashamed. I certainly would be.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

What does Turkey's referendum change? The Constitutional Court.

Summary: The proposed new Constitutional Court would be larger, appointed in part by parliament but largely still by the president, and see its military representation reduced.
Turkey's present constitution was drafted by the country's last military government in 1982. It is a flawed document: weak on personal freedoms, power is placed firmly in the hands of the state, and plenty of checks and balances are held by the military. All major political parties agree it should be completely rewritten, but disagree on how to do it.

In Turkey's civil legal system, the Constitutional Court is the highest authority, handling matters relating to the constitution and frequently called upon to resolve disputes. Since AK came to power in 2002, opposition parties – in particular, the CHP – have used the Court as one avenue to prevent what they see as the government’s gradual dismantling of the secular system. Frequent appeals have made the Court highly influential cover current affairs; the current president, Haşim Kılıç, has been something of a regular in this blog.

As it stands, the Court is made up of 11 permanent and 4 reserve judges. Candidates for membership are nominated in lists of three by the highest level courts in the country, including military ones, with some input from a board of university rectors (see table). The president then appoints one judge from each list of three.
If Sunday’s referendum passes, the current system of appointing four 'reserve' judges would be abolished. All would sit on the Court for a single 12-year term, and their number would increase by six to 17 judges. The institutions that elect members to the Constitutional Court would be also altered: the Court of Appeal, for instance, would be allowed to appoint one more member, whereas the Higher Education Council would see its representation tripled.

The changes being put to referendum on Sunday would also loosen the president's monopoly on appointing members: parliament would approve two members from the Court of Accounts – the highest auditing authority – and one from nominees in the legal profession. All three would be approved by simple majority.

So what’s controversial? The big fuss is over the "senior individuals" category. The constitutional amendment defines these individuals as selected from among “high-grade directors, lawyers, top rank judges and prosecutors, and Constitutional Court rapporteurs who have served for at least five years”. The president would be granted powers to select four individuals that are suited to that description. He does not have to refer to any institution, nor is he required to accept formal advice. It’s effectively a personal appointment for four judges, who would represent a fifth of the enlarged Court.

As the above chart indicates, the "senior individuals" group of judges (coloured orange) wouldn't see a drastic change in representation if the changes are approved. More significant are changes to the Higher Education Council (teal) and the Court of Accounts (mauve), which increase their representation, while the two military representatives (green and purple) are reduced.

The government says this enlarged court will broaden representation on the highest court in the land.  Writing in Hürriyet last month Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, CHP leader, argued that the increased representation of institutions largely appointed by the president and cabinet – such as the Higher Education Council and Court of Accounts – is an attempt by the executive to seize control of the legislature.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Turkey will say 'yes' in next month's referendum, according to poll

Quite in contrast to my predictions of a tight result at Turkey's constitutional referendum on 12 September, GENAR have released a poll that suggests quite a strong yes vote:

Yes: 56.2%
No: 43.8%

The poll predicts a turnout of 87 percent, which is higher than the last referendum (67 percent) and strikes me as rather high even by Turkey's recent electoral record. Predictably, much of the voting is along party lines: a crushing number of governing AK Party supporters (98.1%) will vote yes, while a similarly huge number of opposition CHP supporters (91.8%) will vote no. 

Murat Yetkin writes in today's Radikal that the Kurdish vote is something Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, is depending on to pass his prized reforms. The pro-Kurdish BDP has boycotted the referendum, but more than half of its supporters say they will vote anyway and are more likely to vote yes than not, GENAR's polling suggests. BDP leaders have offered to support a yes vote in exchange for some promises for further reform from the government, but polling like this appears to indicate the BDP holds less influence over Kurdish voters than it likes to believe.

GENAR asked about awareness of the package being put up for referendum: 80.3% said they hadn't read the proposed changes. Of those who had, a narrow majority (23% vs 20%) said they would be voting yes. Those who they had followed debates in the media to some degree (59.7%) were more likely to be voting no.

I'll have more analysis of the referendum package - and that all-important Kurdish vote - in the coming days.

General election voting
GENAR also asked how respondents would vote if there was a general election on Sunday. The headline percentages were (with changes from the last GENAR poll I covered in January):

AK Party: 41.0 (+4.5) [Justice and Development Party, governing, religious conservative]
CHP : 28.0 (+5.1) [Republican People's Party, secular]
MHP : 14.9 (-3.9) [Nationalist Action Party, nationalist]
BDP : 5.1 (-2.0)* [Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish]
SP : 2.7 (-1.3) [Felicity Party, strongly Islamist]
Others : 8.3 (-2.5) [includes independents]

The changes look quite large, but remember that there is an eight-month gap between this and the previous poll. Support for AK is up; support for the CHP is up by a greater amount, attributable to the rise of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

More interesting is the exodus from the right-wing MHP: almost a third of people who voted MHP at the 2007 general election said they would not vote for them again. A quarter of these floaters said they would now switch to CHP. This reflects a trend in recent GENAR polls: many MHP voters appear to be disenchanted with their party. Only 74 percent said they would support their party's position at the upcoming referendum (as opposed to 98 percent and 92 percetof AK and CHP voters respectively). Turkish voters at large seem to feel the same way: 84 percent said they could never imagine Devlet Bahçeli, MHP leader, becoming prime minister.

How would these latest voting intentions look in parliament? Well, keep in mind that the following is a crude uniform swing, assuming the BDP's 20 MPs run as independents and retain their seats (with changes from the present situation):

AK Party: 259 (-77)
CHP : 177 (+74)
MHP : 94 (+24)
BDP : 20 (NC)

So in parliament this would represent a clear swing from AK to CHP. It would also be coalition territory: AK would be just short of the 276 seats needed to govern alone; CHP+MHP together wouldn't be able to reach this threshold either.

GENAR interviewed 2274 people in 16 Turkish provinces between 31 July and 8 August 2010. The full survey can be found here. * Figures compared with the Democratic Society Party, now banned.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Three things that can lose you a referendum

It's referendum time in Turkey again. On 12 September, 49 million or so Turks will be asked to approve the latest package of substantive changes to the constitution drafted 28 years ago by the country's last military junta. In the best traditions of irony, voting day wil also mark thirty years since the coup that put that junta in power.

The last time Turks were consulted on constitutional change was October 2007, when the headline reform was to the presidency. "We want a president elected by the people," the AK government proclaimed, "and may he hold office for two five-year terms." 69 percent of voters agreed. Changes relating to parliament's voting rules and term in office were bundled into the same package. All said, an easy win.

Three weeks tomorrow, voters will be called back again, but this time it won't be as straightforward for the AK Party. Opinion polls indicate the yes vote is ahead, but only narrowly so, and a large proportion of voters are still undecided. Three reasons help explain why 2007 won't be repeated again.

The first is the Turkish army, which is not a factor in this referendum. In 2007, the General Staff published its notorious "e-coup" online, criticising the government and the threat it posed to the secular state. The gamble back-fired: AK called a snap poll, was returned by an increased majority, and went through a honeymoon period that helped it comfortably win the referendum too. Many AK supporters then were simply those alarmed by the prospect of a military intervention.

This time, there is no stand-off with the military. Aside from a spat surrounding the appointment of one particular general to the post of Land Forces Commander, the government and army have been in full agreement - over the fight against the PKK - and there is no anti-coup sentiment to exploit.

This helps partly explain the second reason why history won't be repeated - that the government's support base is shrinking. 2007 saw a strong government with a strong mandate presiding over a strengthening economy; 2010 brings us a weaker government with a nearly-expired mandate, presiding over an economy out of recession but facing unemployment above 10 percent. Put another way, the people are bored with this government and aren't all that richer than they were three years ago. Besides, they now have a credible alternative.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected leader of the opposition CHP in late May. Turkish voters were interested: here at last was a personality to rival Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, who spoke colloquially about jobs and public services, and didn't have that aura of elitism that followed the former CHP leader around.

Mr Kılıçdaroğlu has maintained his party's support of a no vote, not entirely out of a compulsive rejection of anything proposed by AK, but also because of rational argument: why, for instance, is a package of such diverse reforms being voted as a whole, rather than as individual clauses? The CHP leader's voice will sway many in the next few weeks.

The third reason why this referendum will be no easy win is that the proposed reforms are hideously complicated. I certainly can't profess to understanding them all yet, and I suspect a lot of the Turkish public is with me. Part of the reason for this is the lack of any headlining reform: in 2007, people were promised the right to elect their own president. Most people understood that. In 2010, people are being promised that senior judges will be appointed in a slightly different way. A marketing dream this is not.

As it stands, the governing AK party is supported by the far-right Great Union Party (BBP) and the religious Felicity Party (SP) in a yes vote. Aside from the CHP, the major parties urging a no vote are the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the centre-right Democrats (DP) and the centre-left DSP. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) are currently boycotting the vote, but have incidated they may switch to a yes if some of their demands are met.

But more on that in a future post. Over the coming weeks, I'll examine the arguments of the yes and no camps, cover the political machinations as Mssrs Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu campaign, and come to a - no doubt highly influential - conclusion over what verdict Turks should reach on 12 September.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Poll shows first CHP lead in eight years

The week's events in the Mediterranean have clouded many things, including an interesting set of opinion polls published by SONAR at the end of last month. Here are the topline percentages for voting intention, with changes from the company's last published survey in January:
CHP: 32.5 (+5.4) [Republican People's Party, secularist]
AK Party: 31.1 (+1.6) [Justice and Development Party, governing, religious conservative]
MHP: 18.6 (-1.8) [Nationalist Action Party, nationalist]
BDP: 4.3 (-2.0) [Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish]
SP: 3.7 (-1.8) [Felicity Party, strongly Islamist]
DSP: 3.5 (+0.5) [Democratic Left Party, centre-left]
DP: 2.4 (-1.7) [Democrat Party, centre-right]
Others: 4.0 (+2.1)
This poll represents the first time in eight years that the governing AK Party has lost the lead in SONAR polling. The source of the CHP bounce is, of course, largely the rise of Mr Kılıçdaroğlu to the leadership: the fieldwork was done in the five days immediately following his election. A new face at the head of a major political party means increased media coverage at the expense of the governing party, and a general sense of change and optimism.

On a crude and entirely unscientific swing, assuming the 10 percent electoral threshold is not lowered and the pro-Kurdish BDP's 20 MPs decide to run again as independents, this poll would roughly produce the following seat distribution in parliament (with changes from the present situation):
CHP: 209 seats (+110)
AK Party: 201 seats (-135)
MHP: 120 seats (+51)
BDP: 20 seats (no change)
Were a general election to produce this result, this would be firm coalition territory for Turkey. CHP and AK would be near equals in parliament, both requiring the support of the nationalist MHP to form a government. It's disconcertingly reminiscent of the 1970s, when CHP and the centre-right Justice Party were near-equal forces, and wholly dependent on smaller parties to govern. Regardless, it's a striking change from the last opinion poll I looked at in January, which produced a clear AK lead just short of an overall majority.

SONAR are making much of the fact that it is the first time their polling has shown a CHP lead for eight years. While that is a remarkable achievement, there are some points of caution:
1. AK has also recorded an increase in support, albeit considerably smaller than that of CHP.

2. Voters are becoming polarised. It appears the anti-government vote - supporters of the MHP, the BDP and the centre-right DP - is rallying behind CHP, while the CHP's recent prominence has persuaded some supporters of the strongly Islamist SP to turn to the AK Party.

3. The difference between CHP and AK - 1.4% - is well within SONAR's margin of error of 1.7%, which suggests CHP's lead is still extremely slim, and that the poll could have produced a narrow AK Party lead.
There are other anomalies too. Support for the centre-left DSP has increased at a time when the centre-left appeared to be collecting around Mr Kılıçdaroğlu. Rahşan Ecevit, the DSP's founder, former stalwart and wife of the late prime minister Bülent, is among those to shift her loyalties to the CHP, which is why the DSP increase is interesting.

The large increase in support for other parties is partly down to SONAR no longer publishing the results for the far-right Great Union Party (BBP, 2.2% in January) separately.

Most important, however, is that this poll was conducted in its entirety before Israel stormed that Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza. The response of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, has been strongly endorsed by many Turks. As in most cases of international crisis, the opposition - including Mr Kılıçdaroğlu - have been sidelined into issuing mild statements of support. It will be interesting to see how that reflects into the next opinion poll.

SONAR interviewed 3000 people in towns and villages in 16 Turkish provinces between 24 and 27 May 2010. The full survey can be found here.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Thoughts on yesterday

Reading back on my entry yesterday, I feel I should make clear how appalling I have found the events of the last 48 hours. Israel's attack was largely unprovoked and wholly disproportionate. It will ill-thought out and badly executed. It demonstrated again Israel's habit in recent years of blindly marching against the heed of the international community. It is a deeply troubling trend.

Turkish-Israeli relations are at the crux of this crisis. Turkish politicians are being most vocal on the international scene, the protests of Turkish people are drawing the most attention around the world, and it is the Turkish government who pushed for the Security Council and NATO to convene extraordinarily. My concern is, I believe, shared by level-headed people everywhere: I simply do not know where things will go from here.

Monday, 31 May 2010

A latent fury at Israel shows its ugly head in Turkey

Israeli flags were burned in Istanbul, tens of thousands of Israeli tourists cancelled Turkish holiday reservations and a lawyer attempted to punch an Israeli cyclist off his bike today, as relations between the erstwhile allies plunged to depths not seen in decades.

It was sparked by Israel's interception of a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara more than twelve hours ago, but there is very little we know for certain beyond that. We know the Israel Defence Forces stormed the ships with commandos in the dead of the night, but we don't know precisely what happened on board, and who provoked whom. We know several people have died, largely Turkish citizens, but don't know how many. We also know that the Israeli government has been vocal in justifying its actions: the flotilla was warned, it was invited to dock at an Israeli port, weapons were concealed on board the ships, are among their claims.

The anger in Turkey is palpable. The interception came literally hours after seven Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack by PKK separatists on a navy base in İskenderun. But this morning's flotilla incident has done more than compound anger at that attack. A latent fury at Israel has shown its ugly head in Turkey.

It had been brewing for months, probably since Israel's Gaza offensive in January 2009. It was in response to this that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stormed off stage at a debate with the Israeli president at the World Economic Forum, almost causing a diplomatic incident but generating much acclaim back home.

A year later, I expressed concern about how an actual diplomatic incident - involving a Turkish TV drama and the Israeli deputy foreign minister - indicated two worrying trends: first, a mutual lack of respect at the highest level of Turkish-Israeli relations, and second, the growing popular resentment of Israel in Turkish public opinion. "The episode has injected further tension into the already icy relationship," I wrote at the time.

The first trend has certainly deteriorated. Mr Erdoğan described this morning's operation as "an act of state terrorism". His deputy, Bülent Arınç, used a press conference to demand the immediate return of those members of crew being treated in Israeli hospitals - almost as if they were hostages. The Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv has been recalled to Ankara for consultations for the second time this year. And Ahmet Davutoğlu, foreign minister, is in New York right now, preparing to table the matter at the UN Security Council. How far old friends can fall.

Things are also far worse in terms of the Turkish public's attitude to Israel. Most will now have seen pictures of the thousands who filled Istanbul's streets this afteroon. Flags were burnt; sections of the crowd shouted for retribution. Too often for comfort, the words "Israeli" and "Jew" were used interchangeably.

Turkish police today provided increased protection to the Israeli team at a cycle tour in Tekirdağ, in the country's northwest. The added measures seemed justified: a local lawyer sporting a Palestinian flag attempted to punch a passing Israeli cyclist off his bike. And the anger exists in reverse too: in a matter of hours today, tens of thousands of would-be Israeli tourists cancelled holiday reservations to towns in southwest Turkey.

Things are bad, far worse today than they were in January.

I don't think I need to get into culpability at this stage. The grainy mobile phone footage and limited Israeli army videos we have all seen so far tell their own story. Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, makes the important point that the commandos themselves are not to blame, at least not as much as those who decided to launch the botched operation.

How can Turkish-Israeli relations be rebuilt from this?

(Image from guardian.co.uk)

Israel storms aid ship

A few points on the storming by Israeli forces of a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara.

1 - In the last few minutes, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has told a press conference that Turkey has recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he says, has called an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council. There are no plans as yet to send military forces to recover the Turkish ships, although Mr Arınç did call for the immediate repatriation of those people taken to Israel for medical treatment.

2 - The media was expecting this conflict. Al Jazeera has journalists on board the ship who filed after Israeli troops boarded. Pictures from the Doğan News Agency are being shown on news channels worldwide. The Israeli military was prepared too: it has released footage of a radio warning issued by the navy prior to their interception. This is attack was not surprise.

3 - The Chief Rabbinate of Turkey has said it shared "the public reaction this operation has created in our country and express our deep sorrow". Mr Arınç did not directly respond to reports that Israel has called for Turkish Jews to emigrate immediately to Israel. He simply said Turkish Jews are citizens of Turkey, and that was confident the protests outside the Israeli embassy and consulate in Ankara and Istanbul would not target the Jewish community.

4 - Bear in mind there were ships belonging to other countries in the fleet. One such country is Greece, where the Israeli ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry.

5 - There is no word as yet from either Britain or the United States, but it is still very early in the morning in Washington.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Is drug smuggling a military offence?

Just when we thought we'd seen enough of him, he's back. Haşim Kılıç, head of Turkey's Constitutional Court, made another appearance in front of television cameras to announce a decision. We hadn't seen him for all of two months, when he announced the closure of the Democratic Society Party (DTP).

Their latest decision is to repeal a recent, controversial AK party amendment to the constitution that paved the way for Turkish military personnel to be tried in civilian courts. It was a groundbreaking decision at the time, representing an unprecedented foray into military matters by a Turkish government.Support for the amendment was far from universal, however, and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) immediately announced it was taking the change to the Constitutional Court. It is this CHP complaint that was resolved this evening.

The change boils down to one word in Turkish (my translations).

Original quotation: "...including a state of war or emergency, judgements relating to the duties of military tribunals remain reserved."

AK Party amendment: "...in the event of a state of war or emergency, judgements relating to the duties of military tribunals remain reserved."
The Constitutional Court this evening decided unanimously that "in the event of", which translates as one word ("halinde") in Turkish, should be struck off. But a majority - not a unanimity - took the further decision to scrap the words "state of war or emergency", which would leave us with:Constitutional Court version:
"...judgements relating to the duties of military tribunals remain reserved."
It's not clear this evening, but there are dozens of ongoing court cases that could be affected by this ruling, not least the investigation into the alleged would-be assassins of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç.

CHP figures have welcomed the decision; AK ministers are more muted, but clearly disagree with it. Bekir Bozdağ, the head of AK's parliamentary group, was on NTV a moment ago asking: "is drug smuggling a military offence?" CHP spokesman Mustafa Özyürek said the law change was a rushed effort. "It was wrong," he said, "and now it has gone."

Rumours abound that this case will only serve to fast-track the AK government's plans for a new constitution. For the moment at least, it seems two separate legal systems will continue to run in parallel in Turkey.

Bombing mosques and war with Greece?

Taraf yesterday began serialising what it calls the detailed plans for
a coup in 2003 under the leadership of Çetin Doğan, commander of the
first army.
Operation Mallet would have involved orchestrating the bombing of two
prominent Istanbul mosques during Friday prayers, provoking Greece
into shooting down a Turkish fighter jet over the Aegean Sea, and
forcing parliament to declare a nationwide state of emergency.

Said Commander Doğan has already called the plans "the product of
unsound minds". They are certainly colourful, and my initial reading
is that they are a little too much like a Valley of the Wolves
storyline to be entirely true.

Taraf (http://www.taraf.com.tr) today published its second day of
revelations, with the promise of more to come.

More from me here when I've had a chance to peruse things.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Have we forgotten already?

For someone currently based in London, it is impossible to avoid coverage of the disaster that is continuing to unfold in Haiti. Radio and television here has frequent updates on the relief effort, while newspapers are urging everyone to make a donation.

What about coverage in Turkey, where the Haitian story should sound horribly familiar? Nomadic View makes the observation that coverage in the Turkish press has been limited, preoccupied instead with such matters as the Ayalon fracas.

The Turks are experienced at earthquake rescue, and some of the country's finest rescue workers have done some heroic things since arriving in Haiti a few days ago. However, it is the United States that is driving the aid and relief effort, and Nomad says that coverage of this point has been scant.

It is immensely difficult to explain the sensation of an earthquake to someone who has never been in one. Like most people in Turkey on Tuesday 17 August 1999, I was woken at 3.02am - when the walls of my seventh-floor flat began bobbing and revolving like a boat on stormy seas. We made our way downstairs in the dark to sit in the car and listen to the confused overnight radio presenter tell us that she had no idea how bad things were.

The mobile phone network was jammed; everyone, like us, was ringing relatives who lived closer to the epicentre. It is the sense of fear that is most difficult to describe, and is what Haitians will have felt too: fear of a great, faceless, brutish wave that destroys a way of life in mere seconds.

I was in Ankara for Turkey's earthquake, hours away from the epicentre, where the only earthquake-related casualty that night was the city's electricity supply. I will never forget how hauntingly bright the stars were in the sky that night.

Anatolia, the land mass upon which Turkey lies, is riddled with fault lines, and history has recorded hundreds of destructive earthquakes there. Istanbul, a city of 12 million, is particularly vulnerable, but so is the whole of Turkey's northwest, as the country learned so painfully on 17 August. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck that morning officially killed 17 thousand, but an order was later quietly made for tens of thousands more bodybags. It remains Turkey's worst natural disaster.

Seismologists have been saying for the last six years that another tremor on the scale of 17 August can happen at any minute in Turkey's northwest. A parallel but rather low-key discussion in the press has been questioning Turkey's preparedness. But there has been some considerable planning, from determining high-priority roads to introducing stricter construction regulations. The Turkish Red Crescent ran an exercise in Istanbul in May last year, and schools in the area do now teach children to take refuge under their desks.

But critics say the campaign needs a much higher profile, and that everyone needs to be made aware of what to do, how to prepare and whether their homes are in a high-risk area. The problem, some say, is that people are inclined to forget painful memories rather too quickly.
Milliyet cover originally published Friday 20 August 1999. Available online at the Milliyet archive.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

AK support down in latest GENAR poll

GENAR's quarterly survey was published earlier this week. For national voting intentions, the headline percentages were (with changes from the previous quarter):

AK Party: 36.5 (-1) [Justice and Development Party, governing, religious conservative]
CHP : 22.9 (-1.8) [Republican People's Party, secular]
MHP : 18.8 (+1.3) [Nationalist Action Party, nationalist]
BDP : 7.1 (+0.5)* [Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish]
SP : 4.0 (-0.4) [Felicity Party, strongly Islamist]
Others : 10.8 (+1.5) [includes independents]

On a crude uniform swing, assuming the BDP's 20 MPs run as independents and retain their seats, this would translate into following seats in parliament (with changes from the present situation):

AK Party: 247 (-90)
CHP : 155 (+58)
MHP : 128 (+59)
BDP : 20 (NC)

Such a result in a general election would leave Turkey in coalition territory again: AK would not have enough seats to govern alone, but would need just a handful of seats (i.e. within the broad margin of error) to enter into coalition with BDP. CHP and MHP would also be able to form a government together with these figures, although the balance between these two would be much more evenly weighted.

Of course, the above paragraph is entirely hypothetical. It assumes many uncertain things: that the voting trend would be exactly the same nationwide; that the Democratic Left Party (DSP) would run on the CHP ticket, as it did in 2007; that BDP MPs would run as independents to overcome the 10 percent threshold, as they did in 2007; and that no other party members will try the BDP's tactic.

The election itself is still 18 months away, and there are a few things we know will happen before then. Abdüllatif Şener's Turkey Party has yet to make an emergence, while Mustafa Sarıgül's new centre-left movement has yet to mobilise. Political parties are transient things in Turkey, you never quite know how they come and go, but it seems pretty certain they will make some impact.

Support for the government's "democratic initiative" - that is, its policy of new rights and institutions for Kurdish citizens - appears to be strictly along party lines. While AK voters support the programme overwhelmingly - 63% - all opposition voters are overwhelmingly against: 87% of CHP, 89% of MHP and, interestingly, 68% of BDP supporters expressed the opinion that the initiative "would not succeed". Overall, 61% said they found it "not positive" or "not positive at all".

GENAR also asked about the government's parallel initiative towards Alevi citizens, which appears to find slightly greater support. AK voters were the only majority supporters again, albeit by a much narrower majority (52%). Opposition party voters ranged from a near-even split (BDP and Democrat Party voters, 48% and 46% in support respectively) to a strong rejection (CHP and MHP voters, 22% and 17% in support).

The survey also appears to suggest:

- The recently-merged Democrat Party has made little impact, polling just 2 percent (change from previous survey unknown).
- The nationalist vote has shifted towards MHP. The Great Union Party (BBP), a spin-off grouping that displays even more extreme right-wing tendencies than the MHP (if such a thing is possible), had done rather well by taking the town of Sivas in last year's local elections. GENAR's latest poll suggests support for the BBP has halved. In response to another question, nearly 10% gave MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli as their "favoured politician of 2009", placing him second only to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (27%) and ahead of CHP leader Deniz Baykal (8%).
- Abdüllatif Şener, leader of the low-profile Turkey Party, does have some limited recognition. He also featured on the "favoured politician of 2009" list. 1.5% of respondents mentioned him by name; a third of them were CHP supporters, more than any other party, even Mr Şener's former AK.
- Valley of the Wolves: Ambush, the programme at the centre of the past week's diplomatic spat with Israel, topped the list of favourite television dramas for 2009.
has nationalist vote. BBP got just 1.6 percent.
GENAR interviewed 2095 people in 17 Turkish provinces between 02 and 11 January 2010. The full survey can be found here. * Figures compared with the defunct Democratic Society Party.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Dangerous tantrums and casual antisemitism

Such was the anger of Israeli deputy foreign minister Daniel Ayalon that he decided to pull a bit of a stunt. To demonstrate his disapproval of the portrayal of Israelis in a dodgy drama on Turkish television, he summoned the Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv to his office. He deliberately kept the ambassador waiting in the corridor, in full and awkward view of the waiting cameras. Once ushered inside, the ambassador was seated on a low sofa while ministry officials towered over him opposite. Placed on the coffee table between them was a solitary Israeli flag – no Turkish one alongside it, contrary to diplomatic convention. All done to implicitly shame the ambassador and convey the displeasure of his hosts over a certain issue.

Done well, a rebuke of this kind can be rather effective. But Mr Ayalon got it wrong. His departure from subtlety – he pointed out the height difference and absent flag to the gathered reporters – was where his rebuke became an insult. Israeli television carried the footage on Tuesday; nearly every Turkish newspaper carried Mr Ayalon’s behaviour on their front pages on Wednesday morning. All, from the fiery Vatan to the level-headed Radikal, were outraged.

Mr Ayalon used to be Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, a man not unfamiliar with the subtleties of diplomatic protocol. He is also a masterful performer: when I saw him speak at the London School of Economics last October, he was placid in the face of the loud abuse he received from pro-Palestinian members of the audience. The heckling prevented any reasonable debate, which also helped him disguised his more controversial policies. Why he got it quite so wrong with the Turkish ambassador is a mystery to me.

The television programme, Valley of the Wolves: Ambush is a lowbrow mafia drama, popular for its protagonist Polat Alemdar, a gun-wielding secret service agent fueled by a love for his country and no small amount of testosterone.

The offending episode, broadcast in December, shows him infiltrating the Israeli embassy, where Mossad agents are holding a Turkish child they’ve abducted to take back to Israel and convert to Judaism. The perpetrator, surrounded, takes the child hostage, but is killed by a bullet through the head. Blood splatters onto the Israeli flag hung conveniently on the wall behind him. The impact of the crucial blood-on-flag moment was lessened somewhat by an on-screen advertisement encourage viewers to download the series’s background music on their mobile phones.

In principle, the diplomatic summons was entirely reasonable. Had it been Israeli television showing Turkish agents abducting children and having their blood splattered on the Turkish flag, the Israeli ambassador to Ankara would have been summoned to have his knuckles rapped in quite the same way. In practice, however, the episode has injected further tension into the already icy relationship between Turkey and Israel.

There are two causes for concern:

Firstly, the degenerating relationship between the countries is not a good thing, neither for Israel, nor for the Middle East process, nor for Turkey's newfound courage as an emerging regional power. Reports suggest Turkey was previously very close to brokering a peace between Israel and Syria; Israel now refuses to accept Turkey as a mediator.

Second, Turkey's increasingly anti-Israel tone is driven to largely by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The current mood began with Israel's attack on Gaza last year and the Turkish prime minister's infamous walkout from a debate on the situation during the Davos Economic Summit. Mr Erdoğan exchanged harsh words with Mr Peres during that debate, has been outspoken on Israeli actions ever since, and has led Turkey into closer ties with Iran, Lebanon and Syria.

But there is more to Turkey's Israeli stance than Mr Erdoğan's views. Last year the director of a culture association in Eskişehir attracted headlines when he placed a notice outside his centre that read "Dogs are free to enter this building" above another: "Jews and Armenians may not enter." The director said his move was in response to an Armenian citizen who allegedly hung a similar notice on his door banning dogs and Turks. What was worrying about the incident was that the director's decision to include the word "Jew" appeared to be unprovoked.

The Valley of the Wolves episode is another such incident that appears to indicate latent feelings of casual antisemitism are becoming more prominent in certain sections of Turkish society. Most Turks would be horrified at the idea of insulting members of another faith - indeed, Mr Erdoğan himself criticised the Eskişehir director and said it was wrong for "one group of citizens in this country to stand up and provoke another group of citizens." But in a society where high profile Jews are few and far in between, and where ordinary Jews keep a low profile, such antisemitism does go unchallenged.