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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Here we go again

In the last three hours, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the eastern Turkish province of Van. The first images from towns in the area show plenty of destruction: buildings in rubble, parked cars crushed under falling debris, residents shifting bricks and mortar to reach those trapped beneath. There are reports of student housing collapsed in the town of Erciş.

To most Turks, these images - and Turkish television's coverage - are chillingly familiar. Communications are severely disrupted by the sheer number of trying to contact loved ones, which makes it difficult to build a picture of the damage. No fatalities are yet confirmed but lives will have certainly be lost: shoddy construction techniques will have ensured that. It feels exactly like that fateful night of Tuesday 17 August 1999. At least 20 thousand people died in that earthquake.

But there are differences between then and now. The Turkish Red Crescent's response has been swift, with thousands of tents and supplies of drinking water despatched immediately to Van. Appeals have been launched through the media for local businessmen with diggers and other heavy machinery to come forward, and for ordinary citizens to keep the roads clear by not driving themselves to the earthquake zone to see if they can help. This "disaster tourism" was a major obstacle to relief efforts after the 17 August quake struck.

Turkish building methods, once again, have a lot to answer for, but at least disaster-relief lessons appear to be learnt.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Printing the explicit photo of a woman stabbed by her husband was the right thing to do. Sadly, it didn't work.

The woman is topless, lying face down on a hospital bed. Out of her back, a little above her waist, protrudes the wooden handle of a large knife. Only a small part of the blade is visible; the rest is buried deep into her abdomen. There is remarkably little blood, but the photograph is no less horrifying. It's a harrowing sight.

It appeared on the front page of last Friday's Habertürk, one of Turkey's most popular newspapers, intended to raise awareness of domestic violence in the family. The woman in the photograph, who later died, was beaten regularly by her husband.

A carefully-chosen, striking photograph in a mass-circulation newspaper can sometimes do in a day what a well-organised pressure group can't in a year: it can whip up public anger, steal the agenda and force someone somewhere to start changing a law.

This photograph, which you can see for yourself by clicking the link at the bottom of this post, is certainly shocking enough to do that. But it didn't work: a week has gone by since that edition of Haberturk went to press, and yet more Turks appear angry at at the editor for printing the photograph than at the husband for wielding the knife.

Women's rights groups gathered outside Habertürk's offices to protest on Sunday demanding a withdrawal and apology from Fatih Altaylı, the paper's editor. Think of the children who saw it in all its lurid detail, they said. Mediz, a media monitor for women's rights, called the photograph "the ultimate stage in pornography" (referencing Habertürk's headline, "the ultimate stage in violence towards women") and said the newspaper had become a perpetrator of the violence by publishing it. Even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, disagreed with the decision.

But Mr Altaylı has been bullish. "I would have printed this even if it was a photograph of my own mother. In fact, I would have enlarged it," he wrote in an editorial on Saturday. "I printed it so that my 11-year-old daughter could see, at her young age, the violence that a male-dominated society inflicts on women. I printed it so she could learn to reproach those who remain silent." An article in the Wall Street Journal has him go further:
Mr. Altayli described women's-rights organizations that protested outside the newspaper's offices Sunday as "idiots" who knew nothing about "real life" and what it took to make the government act. "I knew people would criticize me, that they would say I was cruel, but someone had to do it," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "Another six women have been killed since her."
The figures given by the Wall Street Journal are chilling enough: 42 percent of Turkish women say they have suffered physical or sexual abuse from their partner. Nearly half of those victims didn't tell a soul what happened; an astonishing 92 percent didn't seek what little help the authorities can give. Şefika Etik, the victim in the Habertürk photograph, was one of the rare few who actually took refuge at a safe house before her husband came calling a reconciliation. He had a bunch of flowers, Habertürk reports, and was extremely sorry. Within an hour of her return home, the knives came out.

This photograph was printed to horrify and provoke, and it succeeded on both counts. The anger at Mr Altaylı has been palpable. Journalists from Habertürk and rival papers alike have written to criticise the decision to publish. One commentator writing in Bugün, a centre-right daily, questioned Mr Altaylı's apparent conversion to feminism by trawling through some of his earlier journalism, which includes some unflattering stories about a long-distance runner who had an affair with her personal trainer.

But however sinister Mr Altaylı's motives may or may not be, and even if he only wants to sell more newspapers, he has brought prominence to a shameful truth about the place of women in Turkish society. In too many marriages Turkish women are "bequeathed" into the moral ownership of their husbands. Mr Erdoğan's government has shied away from daycare projects to help mothers back into work, abolished a cabinet portfolio for women's rights in favour a Ministry for Families, and frequently calls for newlyweds to aim for "at least" three children. These policies reflect a deeply conservative strain in Turkish society that promotes the family unit over the individual; Mr Altaylı's critics, many of them liberal-minded, are guilty of pretending that strain doesn't exist.

Click here, with caution, to see the Habertürk front page for Friday 7 October 2011

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Election 2007: timetable of events

Following on from yesterday's missive, a quick guide for when to expect what in Turkey's election today. Let's hope for a few surprises.

7am - voting begins in 32 eastern provinces, 8am in the west.
4pm - voting closes in the east, 5pm everywhere else. Counting begins soon after the queuing remainders have voted.
6pm - first results start trickling in to newswires and Twitter. Turkish TV wringing its hands showing lifestyle programming: no-one is allowed to report the results until the Electoral Commission lifts its election news ban.
Midnight - Scheduled end of Electoral Commission's ban on TV results coverage, allowing ample time to make sure every ballot box in the country is safely tucked away.
6.50pm - Around now, Turkish TV loses patience and switches to live coverage of Electoral Commission's front door. Reporters shout for permission to read out results that anyone with an internet connection has already seen.
7pm - Electoral Commission spontaneously announces every ballot box has been found, no-one is still voting in a remote village, and acquiesces: TV results coverage permitted.
7.01pm - Explosion of results. More than a quarter of all votes should have been counted by now; most will be from eastern provinces, where voting finished earlier. AK dominate in the northeast, so will have won most of the seats so far. The fate of the BDP independents should be clearer too. Watch out for Leyla Zana in Diyarbakır.
7.45pm - First substantial results from the west by now. If vote counting is as fast as it was in 2007, the networks should be calling the election for AK around now too. The size of their majority will depend on whether MHP has crossed the threshold.
8.30pm - Vote share for all three main parties should be roughly clear by now, unless the MHP really is on a knife-edge.
10pm - Final colour of Istanbul's 85 seats should be clear by now.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Golden Numbers of Election Night

Alas, James in Turkey will shirking its good name for this Sunday's election. The bright lights of other events around the same time have been enough a distraction to prevent travel to Turkey, or even to cover the vote from afar. Selections from this blog's coverage for the last time the country did this is still available, though.

By way of recompense for the radio silence around this election, however, allow me to offer the Golden Numbers of Election Night. This is your indispensable guide to the numbers to watch out for as the votes are counted, categorised by political party:

AK Party
Justice and Development Party, religious conservative, governing
276 - absolute majority: the number of seats AK need to govern alone for a third term.
330 - the number of seats needed to change the Turkish constitution, pending approval in a referendum
367 - supermajority: the number of seats needed to change the Turkish constitution without a referendum

Republican People's Party, centre-left, main opposition
21% - CHP's share of the national vote in 2007's general election
23% - CHP's share of the national vote in 2009's local elections
Anything above 25% would represent a significant improvement on CHP's previous performance, which had exploited a saturated secularist constituency.
Anything above 30% would be an excellent result, a victory for leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and possibly enough to prevent AK receiving an absolute majority.

Nationalist Action Party, right wing, opposition
10% - the national share of the vote MHP must cross to win any seats. Stay above, and they could win as many as 70 seats. Fall below, and even provinces the MHP is projected to win - like Mersin and Osmaniye - are likely to fall to AK, possibly helping the governing party towards a supermajority.

Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish, candidates running as independents
20 - the minimum number of seats required to form a group in parliament, receive additional funding, and be represented in parliamentary select committees
21 - the number of seats won by pro-Kurdish candidates at the last election
30 - the highest number of seats pro-Kurdish candidates could realistically win in this election, making them kingmakers in a parliament where AK falls short of one of its majorities

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Erbakan: a leader who offered something new, and didn't deliver

Necmettin Erbakan, former Turkish prime minister, leader of the "national outlook" branch of politics and convicted money launderer, died of heart failure today at Ankara's Güven hospital. He was 84, and had been in poor health for a number of years. He served just under a year as prime minister before being forced to resign in the "post-modern" coup of 1997, but his impact on the political scene was far longer than the time he spent at the top.

There are two things he will be remembered for: the political ideology he founded, and the manner of his departure as prime minister. He ought really to be remembered for a third - embezzlement of party funds - but probably won't be.

His political ideology, founded in 1969, was based partly on anti-Western values and the principle of economic self-sufficiency for Turkey. It was named Milli Görüş ("national outlook"), a confusing name seeing as it advocated Turkish independence in the context of political Islam. It was this that attracted such a broad spectrum to Erbakan's following, from the observant villager to the pious cleric.

That said, his movement was not immediately successful, and the Turkish people elected him prime minister only after they had tried everyone else. His National Salvation Party hopped between left and right-wing governments as a junior coalition partner throughout the 1970s, and he was one of the four main party leaders arrested and banned from politics by the army after the 1980 coup, but it wasn't until 1991 that his party won more than 15 percent of the vote and he moved from the fringe to the centre stage.

The Nineties were a fractious time in Turkish politics, with inconlusive elections and unstable coalitions. Part of the problem was a derth of political talent: the generation that should have emerged during the Eighties had been stifled by the generals. That meant that those leading politicians of the left and right, Bülent Ecevit and Süleyman Demirel, came back to ply their trade just as they had done before the coup unseated them.

But everything in Turkey had changed since they were last in power, and politics had descended into a brawl. Mr Demirel's traditional centre-right voting base was occupied by a rival party concerned mostly with distinguishing itself from him. Ecevit faced a similar opponent. And this at a time when private television was showing new programmes and new ideas, the free market economy was bringing greater choice and competition (but plenty of opportunities for shady deals), and Kurdish separatism was on a crescendo. In all this hysteria, Erbakan preached stability, a return to religious values and, most importantly of all, something new.

It worked. To the alarm of the secular elite, he topped the December 1995 general election with more than 6 million votes, a 21 percent share. It was far from enough to govern alone, however, and the centre-right parties concluded a shabby truce to keep him out of power. It wasn't to last, however, and by June 1996 Necmettin Erbakan became prime minister and Turkey's most powerful Islamist since the last sultan. He was backed up by one of those bickering centre-right parties, True Path (DYP) under Tansu Çiller, on the understanding that the top job would be rotated to her after two years.

Erbakan's premiership was everything the secularists feared it would be. Turkey turned definitively east: after brokering an oil pipeline deal with Iran, he made a much publicised visit to Libya, where he signed an agreement of friendship with Muammar Gadafi, and branded the United States and Israel "agents of terror" in the process. At home, in scenes that have never been replicated under today's AK government, Erbakan's Welfare Party (RP) organised rallies in towns after Friday prayers which descended into demonstrations calling for sharia law.

The army's patience wore thin. On 4 February 1997, it sent 20 tanks through the high street in Ankara's Sincan suburb, where a number of pious RP festivals had been held, in a barely-veiled show of force. It followed this with a series of demands to curb fundamentalism during a nine-hour meeting with the government on the 28th. The public prosecutor then launched a case against the RP on anti-secularism charges. The coalition managed to cling on until June, but lost its governing majority through resignations from both RP and DYP. Erbakan resigned on 19 June, fully expecting Mrs Çiller to be asked to form the next government under his coalition deal with her. She wasn't. Necmettin Erbakan was never in government again, his RP was shut down the following year, and he was handed a five-year ban from politics.

From there, it all went downhill. Erbakan played puppermaster to the RP's successor, the Virtue Party (FP), as the Turkish electorate began to turn away from Milli Görüş. The 1999 election saw the FP slip into third place, shedding a million votes. Ecevit topped the poll, but the real victor was the second-placed Nationalist Action Party (MHP), catapulted into parliament for the first time in twenty years. Again, the Turkish electorate was trying something new.

Erbakan the puppetmaster resisted calls for change after that election. He worked hard behind the scenes to stop the FP's reformist wing, under Abdullah Gül, from winning a leadership election in 2000. When the FP too was shut down the following year, it was succeeded not by one party but two. The traditionalists, under Erbakan's watchful eye, launched the Felicity Party (SP), The reformists formed the Justice and Development Party (AK), which broadened into a coalition of the religious, the business-friendly and the liberal. It really was the "something new" the Turkish electorate was looking for, and in 2002 became Turkey's first single-party government for fifteen years. Erbakan's SP, meanwhile, crashed out of parliament and never returned.

What is more, in the last decade Erbakan was able to add a non-political conviction to his name. The notorious "missing trillions" case relates to substantial sums of public money that mysteriously disappeared from the coffers of the Welfare Party before it was shut down. Erbakan was handed a prison sentence and ordered to repay 12.5 million in Turkish Lira. The sentence was commuted to house arrest on the grounds of his ill health, and he was pardoned in 2008 by his former protege, now President Abdullah Gül on the back of medical reports that he did not have long to live. He was well enough to reassume leadership of the Felicity Party, however.

As for the money, the 12.5 million was reduced to 1 million lira under the government's recent amnesty law. In reality it is unlikely even that will be repaid.

For all the polite tributes that politicians have been paying today, Erbakan's time in office was a disaster. He ostracised Turkey from Europe and the United States, provoked the country's fourth military intervention in as many decades, and failed to stem the chronic inflation affecting those Turks who voted him in looking for something new. The public fell out of love with Milli Görüş when it failed to adapt to their needs; it is now little more than a fringe movement. His funeral on Tuesday will surely draw some crowds, but he won't be remembered fondly for much longer.

Necmettin Erbakan, former Turkish prime minister. Born 29 October 1926, died 27 February 2011.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

MHP crashes below threshold in opinion poll, but result is really a CHP victory

Just two parties are likely to cross the 10 percent threshold at the next Turkish election, according to the latest Haberturk/Konsensüs opinion poll. The results, which paint a dangerous picture for voter representation in Turkey, suggest the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) has the support of only 8.5 percent of voters, which would be the party's worst showing at a general election for nine years.

Just under a quarter of respondents were undecided, said would spoil their ballot or declined to answer the question. Here was what Konsensüs found, with the undecided vote shared among the parties and changes from the previous month's survey in brackets:
AK Party: 49.6 (+3.6) [Justice and Development Party, governing, religious conservative]
CHP: 26.8 (+0.3) [Republican People's Party, secularist]
MHP: 11.1 (-1.4) [Nationalist Action Party, nationalist]
BDP: 6.9 (+0.2) [Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish]
SP: 0.8 (-2.4) [Felicity Party, strongly Islamist]
Others: 5.6 (+0.5)
AK Party sources were delighted: this poll appears to confirm that their oft-repeated target of a 50% is quite attainable. Press coverage has also focused much on the fate of the MHP, which falls foul of the electoral threshold before the undecideds are shared out. It confirms fears that the dwindling support of the nationalists means that they have a real battle on their hands to ensure they actually make it into the chamber.

But press coverage of the results seems to have overlooked the support of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). Take a look at my estimated calculations of what parliament would look like (based, as ever, on my calculations**, and with changes from the 2007 election result):
AK Party: 301 (-40)
CHP: 162 (+50)
MHP: 67 (-4)
BDP: 20 seats (no change)
Total: 550 seats
These results would give AK a majority to govern alone - just. But they would also give the CHP their best results since 2002, but this time in a parliament of three parties, not two. This parliament would have a much stronger opposition, despite the rise in AK's share of the vote. It would be an excellent result for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, CHP leader.

A few other observations from this opinion poll:

  • Voters appear to be flocking towards the larger parties. Fewer people said they will vote for the far-right BBP or the fundamentalist SP. This trend suggests Turkish voters are increasingly aware fringe parties are unlikely to be represented in parliament.
  • Konsensüs posed a number of "problems" in Turkish current affairs and asked which party was best-placed to solve them. The AK Party, unsurprisingly, led in them all, but it was interesting that just a few percentage points separated them from the CHP when asked which party was best placed to solve "inequalities in income distribution". A sign that the CHP's return to social democratic roots might be taking hold?
  • Most importantly, this poll was conducted well over a month before the election campaign kicks off. There's plenty that can change between now and 12 June.

* Konsensüs interviewed 1500 people by telephone across Turkey between 2 and 10 February 2011.
** This is 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.

Friday, 18 February 2011

This man is going home, but watch what he does next

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu isn't a name that is instantly recognisable, neither in his native Turkey nor the many countries he represents across Europe. His job title - President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe - is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s an influential role in an institution that keeps itself busy, even if doesn’t have the greatest amount of clout.

Earlier this evening, following a lecture at the London School of Economics, I asked Mr Çavuşoğlu what his ambitions were. Surely after eight years in the Council of Europe, a man of his experience and skills has ambitions back home?

“This is the first time I’m saying this publicly,” he said, “but once my term comes to an end I intend to return to Turkey.” That would be an unusual move for his role: presidents of the assembly are permitted to stand for re-election three times, and most of his predecessors have done so. But Mr Çavuşoğlu is cutting his time is Strasbourg short to go back to Turkey, and that’s significant for two reasons.

Firstly, he's built a reputation for himself abroad. Serving as one of Turkey's 12 representatives on the assembly since 2003, he was elected president just over a year ago. It was hailed as a triumph for Turkey's rising diplomatic prowess, nicely complementing the country's Security Council seat and the Turkish secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. "A very shrewd political operator," an enthusiastic commentator wrote in Today’s Zaman at the time, adding: "he will have to take positions which may not always be welcomed in Turkey".

Much of his work is subtle. “My number one priority,” he said, “is improving parliamentary diplomacy among Council of Europe member states.” That means meeting junior members of parliament in places like Armenia and Moldova and getting them to speak to their counterparts in other parliaments. It’s not quite headline-grabbing material; it’s about spreading democratic values, but it also means he will be recognisable to the next generation of European leaders. Clever, if it works.

The subtlety extends to Turkish politics too: Mr Çavuşoğlu is a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, and was reportedly not offered a place in the cabinet two years ago purely because of his Council of Europe ambitions. But his distance from home doesn’t stop him commenting on it: this evening he was openly critical of the 10 percent electoral threshold that his own government won’t lower, and said there was much more to do in Turkey’s handling of its Romani community. In response to persistent questioning from William Horsley, of the Association of European Journalists, he was extremely defensive of the AK government’s record on press freedom, claiming not a single journalist had recently been jailed in Turkey “because of freedom of expression”. A doubtful claim, but he was confident enough to make it.

This leads to the second reason why Mr Çavuşoğlu’s return home is significant: he hinted very heavily at pastures new. At this evening’s talk, I raised the example of the cabinet which, despite the presence of heavyweights like Ahmet Davutoğlu, foreign minister, is rather bereft when it comes to international experience. Many members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, speak little English.

If, when his term ends in eleven months’ time, he truly doesn’t run for re-election, it will be a rather different Turkey he returns to. The 2011 election will be out of the way, and a fresh AK government will be in power. The question of President Abdullah Gül’s term in office – either five years, ending in 2012, or a single term of seven years – will have finally been settled. We will also know whether Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, who has already said he won’t be leading his party at the end of its next term in government, will attempt a rise to the presidency.

Mr Çavuşoğlu won’t yet have the gravitas at home necessary to contest a party leadership contest to replace Mr Erdoğan, but he could be the man from whom to seek support. He could easily be a future foreign minister, handed the reins of Turkey’s new “zero problems” policy.

"I don't know what I will do," he said. "It's not always for me to choose." Then he grinned broadly.

Not the mimics of a man dreaming of an early retirement. This man is one to watch.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The democratic deficit in Turkey's electoral system

Supporters of proportional representation rejoice! Turkish voters have true equality in our time. Turkey's constitutional court has just ruled that Turkish members of parliament should be elected not according to their province, but the number of voters that live in it. It follows a challenge from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) to a law passed in parliament last year.

Turkey is divided into 81 provinces, ranging from tiny Bayburt (in the northeast, population 90 thousand) to gargantuan Istanbul (where everyone thinks it is, population 13 million). The number of MPs allocated to each province is determined by the Electoral Commission, which looks at each province's record population for the previous year and shares out Turkey's 550 MPs accordingly.

That might sound quite fair. But Turkey's population is heavily concentrated in the country's northwest: the further south and the further east you go, the smaller provinces become. So small are some provinces - such as Bayburt - that the proportional system would barely allocate them a single member of parliament. The unrevised law would have ensured every province had at least two representatives.

Is it a vote winner for the opposition? Possibly. The smallest provinces are likelier to vote for the ruling AK Party than the CHP. Bayburt no exception: they voted overwhelmingly (60 percent) for AK and will likely do so again, meaning that they'll now return half as many AK representatives. The superfluous MP, meanwhile, will be allocated to a larger town where CHP has a better chance.

But there is a broader question about democratic deficit here. What if the sitting MP resigns his seat, or dies in office? Provinces like Bayburt would be left with no representative at all. And by-elections are rarely held in Turkey: hours after the 2007 election, a newly-elected MP for the third-placed Nationalist Action Party was killed in a traffic accident while on his way to collect his credentials. He was not replaced.

The real problem is that Turkey has too many provinces. There were originally 67 of them until Turgut Özal, prime minister for much of the 1980s, had the idea of upgrading certain larger towns, mostly in the deprived southeast to provinces. This gave them their own governor (appointed from Ankara), a larger share of the state budget and, crucially, their very own licence plate code. Since then, the promise of provincehood has become something of a vote winner, and sure enough the cake is to be divided further: two towns are to break off from Hakkari and Şanlıurfa provinces, both in the southeast, after the next election. What is really needed is a complete reorganisation.

Update 11am, 18 February: it would appear from Tarhan Erdem's calculations in this morning's Radikal that the only province that would be reduced to one MP is indeed Bayburt. Istanbul's tally soars from 70 to 85. The only region of the country outside of the northwest to be represented by more MPs after the next election is, interestingly, the southeast.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Did Erdogan tell Mubarak to go? Just a little bit.

Amidst all the drama coming out of Egypt, there's been a bit of a buzz about the Turkish prime minister's call to Hosni Mubarak. A number of outlets - notably the excitable Los Angeles Times - have been reporting that Mr Erdoğan used his speech today to turn against the Egyptian president and call on him to step down. That's not strictly true. Here's what he said:

"I want to make a very genuine recommendation, a very heartfelt warning to the President of Egypt Mr Hosni Mubarak," the prime minister said earlier today. "We are mortals, not permanent. Each one of us will die and will be questioned on that which we have left behind. As Muslims, we will all be going to a two-cubic-metre hole (in the ground). ... All that comes with you will be your shroud. 

"That is why we should listen to the voices of both our consciences and our people. Lend an ear to the people's cry, to their most humane demands, and meet their call for change without hesitation. ... Freedoms can no longer be delayed or overlooked in today's world. Elections that span over months cannot be called democracy."

A few points on this:

1. These were carefully crafted remarks. Mr Erdoğan did not explicitly call on Mr Mubarak to go. He urged "quick action" so that there is "no opportunity" given to those "dark forces" who want to "exploit the people's call for change" - all those words are his.

2. This is not a call from the Turkish parliament. Mr Erdoğan was addressing his parliamentary party, not the general assembly, when he said the above. No motion has been tabled or passed.

3. The obvious: Turkey is Muslim. Clearly, it's significant that the democratically-elected leader of the Muslim world's best example of a democracy has spoken out in defence of Egypt's protest movement. Mr Erdoğan's stock has risen in the Arab world over his outspoken comments on Israel. The question is whether his words carry weight now.

4. America's implicit support: Mr Erdoğan was one of the world leaders to receive a call during Barack Obama's telephone diplomacy session over the weekend. I would be astonished if today's statement comes as a surprise to the United States.

5. For you seasoned followers of Turkish domestic politics, the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) used the events in Egypt to send a warning to the prime minister. "Abuse of the state's power and resources can have consequences," said Devlet Bahçeli, party leader, in a speech to his own parliamentary party. He is absolutely right: it's partly why his own party was booted out of government in 2002.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

MHP chauvinism: make your wife vote for us

News from the bastion of Turkey's right wing: the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) is on the prowl for the female vote. It appears, according to this story from Habertürk (via NTV), that it has finally dawned upon the party leadership that their support base is overwhelmingly male. At the last election, the MHP appears to have learned, the six million votes it received were not equally split between women and men. In fact, fewer than two million women voted them.

This shouldn't be news to anyone other than the MHP. The party leadership has spent years ignoring opinion polls telling them that their support base is overwhelmingly patrilineal. This gender inequality is reflected in the party leadership: Devlet Bahçeli's top team is almost all male. Indeed, many have speculated he himself is an Edward Heath-esque bachelor. The division can also be seen in parliament, where just two of the party's 70 MPs are women.

The MHP's explanation for this electoral deficit comes from its deputy leader, Osman Çakır: our voters' wives aren't voting for us.

"Either these four million men are bachelors, or their wives aren't voting for us," Haberturk quotes him as saying. "A large majority of these men cannot be bachelors, which means votes have not come to the MHP from the women in these households."

Astonishingly, he goes on: "That is why we joke among ourselves by saying 'these men don't treat their wives well, so they react by voting for another party. If they treated them better, this wouldn't be the case'."

Turkish women are woefully under-represented in parliament. The MHP's two token MPs are at the bottom of the pile. The ruling AK Party and opposition CHP have slightly better ratios - nine and eight percent of their parliamentary parties respectively are women - although there are only two women in the cabinet. Both AK and the CHP have pledged to increase female representation at the next election, but it seems unlikely they'll reach the standard set by the pro-Kurdish BDP: one-third of its MPs are women.

Meanwhile, the message to MHP men is clear: treat your women better, because your political party is at stake.

The party leadership is planning to launch its campaign on 28 January under the slogan "Raise your voice, Turkey", when a number of electoral pledges aimed at women - state support for childcare and maternity leave - will be announced.

Last week in my prediction piece for the upcoming election, I said Turkey needed a third party in parliament, and that the MHP should cross the electoral threshold. But with the likes of Mr Çakır in the party, it isn't always that easy to support that.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Who will win Turkey's next general election?

Some astonishing news for you: Turkey's parliament is playing by the rules. That's right. The Grand National Assembly is preparing for an election at the scheduled time.(*) For the first time in decades, longer than most of us can remember, Turkish people will not be dragged to the ballot box because of an exodus of MPs from the ruling party, or a collapsed coalition, or a military intervention. No, the 2011 general election will take place because the rulebook, Turkey's constitution, says it is time for one.

You could say this is a sign of more stable, predictable times in Turkish politics. To a certain extent, you would be right. With six months to go until voting day it looks like AK, the party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, is set to win a third consecutive victory.

That shouldn't surprise many people. Mr Erdoğan's party has a solid record of progress, and it would take someone quite obstinate to argue Turkish people are not better off now than when AK came to power in 2002. Opinion polls suggest the ruling party is likely to win around 45 percent of the vote, close to what they got last time.

But even though the victor is already pretty clear, it is an important election for Turkey. This is what I will be watching out for over the coming six months:

1) Distribution of seats in the new parliament

An AK victory might appear inevitable, but the size of that victory is far from certain. One reason for this is the resurgence of the main opposition CHP. Their newish leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been working to collect the anti-AK vote under one roof, and has had some success in broadening his party's appeal to voters who supported the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at the last election.

Analysts believe that if the CHP can win 30 percent of the vote (up from 20 percent in 2007), they can seriously dent AK's chances of governing alone by winning enough seats to rival them in the chamber.

AK's target is for at least 50 percent of the popular vote. CHP are aiming "to govern alone". Both seem quite far-fetched at this stage, but both objectives reflect the two parties' urgency to win as many seats as possible.

2) The fate of the nationalists

Turkey's electoral system operates a 10 percent threshold. If a party's national share of the vote does not cross that line, it cannot be represented in parliament, regardless of how well they do in individual provinces. As I blogged yonks ago, it's too high and needs to be lowered, but it has helped the AK Party win two crushing parliamentary majorities. Unsurprisingly, they aren't about to kick away the ladder that carried them up to where they are.

AK and the CHP are probably both going to cross the threshold this year, but the same can't be said for the MHP. Polls suggest Devlet Bahçeli's party is in trouble. By some estimates, they may crash below the threshold and out of parliament. That would be in the interests of the two larger parties, giving both of them more seats to play with.

It would not be in the interests of democratic representation. Just over half - 55 percent - of Turkish voters were represented in parliament after the 2002 election because AK and the CHP were the only parties who crossed the threshold. MHP joined them after the 2007 election, meaning that four in every five votes, a better proportion, were represented. Turkey is too pluralistic for at two-party system. A third party must cross.

Nonetheless, all three parties have been stepping up the nationalist rhetoric in recent weeks, which might explain Mr Erdoğan's bizarre intervention to tear down a statue near the Armenian border or his recent war of words with German chancellor Angela Merkel over her recent visit to the Greek side of Cyprus. Expect Israel or the EU to come up before long.

3) What will the prime minister do next?

This is the biggie. Mr Erdoğan has already said that this next term will be his last as leader of his party. He has spoken somewhat wistfully of disappearing somewhere quiet and warm to write his memoirs, but most commentators reckon he has ambitions for the next rung of the ladder - the presidency.

Whether he can achieve this depends on what happens to the incumbent, his former deputy Abdullah Gül. When Mr Gül was elected by parliament in 2007, it was for a single seven-year term, much like his predecessors. But one month later the constitution was amended by referendum: Turkish presidents are now elected - by the people, not parliament - for a maximum two five-year terms.

It is still not clear whether Mr Gül's term of office will measured by the old rules under which he was elected, or the new rules that replaced them. He could have to stand for re-election as early as next year, or serve until 2014. Of course, Mr Erdoğan could start work after the parliamentary election on a new constitution that changes the system entirely - rumours abound of a French-style presidential system, which Mr Erdoğan is understood to covet.

4) The date and the candidates

Sunday 12 June is everyone's best guess for voting day, supported by both CHP and MHP. The government has until March to fire the starting gun, however, and chances are they'll take their time.

In the meantime, the parties have been thinking about their candidates for parliament. Political parties in Turkey are extremely centralised, with every list - 81 of them, one for every province - being personally endorsed by the party leader. In 2007, AK notoriously culled large numbers of its 2002 intake to make way for those who had curried greater favour, and could do the same again.

Interesting names are being banded about, too. Erkan Mumcu - a former AK minister who held the key for Mr Gül's first presidential run, dropped it, then disappeared into nothingness - is reportedly considering a run on the MHP ticket.

An interesting few months await.

(*) Well, nearly. Following the 2007 referendum, Turkish terms of parliament were reduced from five years to four, which means this year's election should be held on 22 July, but given that people last time were queuing in temperatures above 35°C last time, voting looks likely to be brought forward a month.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Martians 'invade Turkey', Court dismisses case

One of the amendments brought in by last September's referendum on constitutional change was the right for Turkish citizens to apply directly to the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body in the land. The court tended to busy itself with constitutional disputes, such as whether the ruling AK Party should be closed down, and only accepted applications from politicians and the like.

Now, the Constitutional Court will be an additional level of appeal for ordinary Turkish citizens who feel their cases were not adequately handled by the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. The move has been hailed as an emancipation, a Great Leap Forward for Turkish citizen rights and a way for a court so often seen as aloof to connect with ordinary people.

How fitting, then, that the first ever "ordinary" application to the court has come from someone claiming his mind has been invaded by Martians.

"I suspect my mind has been invaded by Martians," NTVMSNBC reports the applicant as saying. "I have evidence to support this. Please intervene."

Regretfully, the applicant has been sent a response saying Martian coercion is outside the Constitutional Court's remit. It's a shame: we may never know what the evidence was.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Time, gentlemen: Efes Pilsen, Turkey's top basketball team, is forced off court

Turkey's most successful basketball team found out yesterday that it must change its name or close down because it shares its name with an alcoholic beverage. The team falls foul of new laws passed by parliament that broaden the ban on alcohol and tobacco advertising to the naming of sports clubs. Efes Pilsen, the team named after Turkey's most popular beer, is the most prominent victim of the new rules.

Alcohol has a long history of sport sponsorship around the world. One Canadian brewer that backed England's football Premier League for years now has its name splashed all over the Carling Cup competition, whilst rugby union's Heineken Cup would be an entirely different affair without that famous Dutch beer. It's happened in Turkey too: Efes Pilsen and Tuborg are two examples of teams carrying their sponsor companies' names.

Turkey's latest alcohol advertising ban is not unusual. France, where the Heineken Cup is abbreviated to the "H Cup", also restricts alcohol sponsorship in sport. But critics say the Turkish version was passed to placate the pious supporters of the governing party. The AK Party is mildly Islamic, to put it, well, mildly, and few doubt that some sections of its voting base would happily see alcohol banned in the country entirely. Council leaders have often spoken of plans to move all licenced restaurants and bars within their town to an allocated zone, effectively a red light district, and to issue a ban outside it. Nor is the trend restricted to excitable local politicians. The cabinet has not been shy to raise the consumption tax on booze - it increased by as much as 30 percent last October, much to the chagrin of consumers such as the Turkish Wine Forum.

Efes Pilsen now has a year to change its name, and it's not clear what route the team is going to take. Anadolu, Efes's parent company, has signalled it might pull out of basketball entirely. That would be a tragedy, depriving Turkish basketball of its most successful team ever: Efes Pilsen has won the national league 13 times and has a European title under its belt too. Another possibility is to drop Pilsen from the name, so as to become Efes Istanbul or Efes Anadolu. A third option would be to merge forces with an existing club - Beşiktaş Efes, anyone?

UPDATE (09 January, 2pm): An internet campaign, "Kulübüme dokunma - Don't touch my club" has appeared collecting signatures against the new law. See it at kulubumedokunma.com.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Things we already knew: Kılıçdaroğlu better than Baykal

There's been a smattering of coverage in the Turkish press of a public opinion survey that paints the leader of Turkey's main opposition party in better light than his predecessor. "The Kılıçdaroğlu vaccine has worked" trumpets today's Cumhuriyet, a staunchly secular newspaper. 68 percent of the party's voters think its new leader is more successful, while 13 percent prefer former leader Deniz Baykal, it reports. So far, so good for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu?

Possibly. Trouble is, that was the easy part. Many party members - and many others outside the party, like this blog - were so disillusioned about the CHP's direction and agenda under the previous leadership that a change at the top was seen as the only way forward. So not being Mr Baykal had already guaranteed Mr Kılıçdaroğlu points.

New leaders of major political parties tend to experience a public opinion bounce. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu's honeymoon period was particularly short: events in the eastern Mediterranean involving a certain flotilla put paid to that. In the months that followed, the new leader's challenge was to win over his party, a party whose leader had gone, but whose old guard remained. It appears quite clear, following a period of internal skulduggery that culminated in a stormy party congress late last year, that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu now has that steady grip on the CHP leadership.

Some of these poll results will be encouraging to him. 53 percent of respondents think CHP was a "revolutionary" (awkward word, I know) party, as against 33 percent who say it represented the status quo. That result would certainly have been the other way around during the Baykal era. There were also positive responses when asked whether the CHP leadership was "in touch with the people": more than 9 percent name him as the politician they most admire, ahead of Devlet Bahçeli, who has led the third-placed Nationalist Action Party for donkey's years, and well ahead of Mr Baykal's best results.

However, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu was only third in the popularity contest. Prime Minister Erdoğan was first (22 percent) and President Abdullah Gül second (10 percent), which illustrates the scale of his next challenge: winning over the country. A majority of Metropoll's respondents (56 percent) believe Mr Kılıçdaroğlu and his team can not lead the CHP to power, and an overwhelming 72 percent do not believe the party could solve the Kurdish issue.

The next challenge, then, is for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu to win over the country. He has recorded a modest improvement in his party's standing, as the latest Metropoll survey shows, but the governing AK Party remains firmly in the lead. He has six months to prove his worth.

Metropoll interviewed 1504 people in 31 Turkish provinces between 25 and 29 December 2010. The full survey can be found here.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Opinion poll suggests huge gains for CHP; hollow victory for AK Party

Metropoll's latest opinion poll* just over a week ago asked, among other things, for voting intention. Here are the topline percentages, with changes from the 2009 local election:
AK Party: 45.3 (+6.5) [Justice and Development Party, governing, religious conservative]
CHP: 30.7 (+7.3) [Republican People's Party, secularist]
MHP: 13.8 (+0.3) [Nationalist Action Party, nationalist]
BDP: 6.5 (+2.7) [Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish]
SP: 1.3 (-0.3)** [Felicity Party, strongly Islamist]
DP: 0.6 (-0.5) [Democrat Party, centre-right]
HAS Party: 0.8 (-2.9)** [People's Voice Party, split from SP]
Others: 0.5
These findings suggest a flock in support towards the four mainstream parties. This is interesting considering we are probably just over six months away from a general election, and Turkish political parties tend to proliferate - rather than unite - around this time.

If this were replicated at a general election, this would be a substantial stride forward for the CHP and its best result in 34 years. For other parties, this poll appears to reproduce the 2007 election result: the governing AK Party stages a recovery from its poor local election showing two years ago, whereas the MHP records a small drop in support that is within the margin of error. All other parties, save the BDP whose members will probably run as independents, fall below the 10 percent threshold.

So how would parliament look in such a scenario? Interestingly, despite the similarities in vote proportions to 2007, the seat distribution would look remarkably different:***
AK Party: 265 seats (-70)
CHP: 180 seats (+79)
MHP: 85 seats (+15)
BDP: 20 seats (no change)
The AK Party would shed around a fifth of its seats and lose its governing majority in the process. The CHP, meanwhile, would be far from able to govern alone and would seriously struggle to lead a coalition with these numbers, but would still become the single largest opposition party AK have ever seen. But why?

The answer lies in vote representation. In 2007, 89 percent of Turks voted for parties and independent candidates who ended up being represented in parliament. Under this poll, the figure would be 96.3 percent. If the findings of this opinion poll are correct, it represents an exodus of voters from the smaller parties. It suggests Turks are aware their vote is less likely to be represented if they don't vote big.

* Metropoll interviewed 1504 people in 31 Turkish provinces between 25 and 29 December 2010. The full survey can be found here.

** The HAS Party split off from the SP late last year. Figures for both parties are compared to SP's 2009 local election result.
*** The above is 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).