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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.