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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.