Turkey’s politicians shifting towards détente

Sunday 28/08/2016
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) greets Republican People’s Party opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Ankara, Turkey, on July 25, 2016.

Ankara - The leaders of three of Turkey’s main political parties recently met to discuss cooperation in the fight against terror­ism and consider a modest packet of constitutional changes.

Only a few weeks ago such a meeting between the three men — Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP); main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaro­glu of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP); and Devlet Bahceli of right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — would have been unthinkable.

The August 22nd meeting was the product of a new spirit of coop­eration between the parties that is one of the few good things to have emerged after the attempted coup on July 15th, an event that all Turks — including hard-line Kurdish radi­cals in the south-eastern Turkey — fiercely opposed.

The need for solidarity was un­derscored two days before the meeting when a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep was bombed, killing at least 51 people.

This common front of opposi­tion politicians in the face of an at­tempt to overthrow the country’s government led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to receive the leaders in his palace. All three agreed to drop the series of court cases, mostly for insults, against each other and work together.

However, a fourth party, the left­ist pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP) was excluded from the dialogue. Its leaders — Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag — and four other of its members of parliament are facing prosecution for praising terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in speeches. They strongly deny the allegations.

The government, which passed a special amendment to lift their parliamentary immunity, refuses to enter into dialogue with them.

Nevertheless, a new consen­sus seems to be forming in main­stream Turkish politics. The softer attitude is not just a product of the unanimous condemnation of the coup. It is reinforced by threats to the country from terrorism on three fronts.

The first and most urgent of those threats is seen as the Gulen-movement, an eclectic Sufi group accused of infiltrating the army, civil service and universities and staging the coup. Though Fethul­lah Gulen, the US-based alleged leader of the group, strenuously denied any involvement, almost all politicians and public opinion in Turkey blame the movement and support government calls for him to be extradited from the Unit­ed States.

Also, since July, approximately 50 police officers and soldiers have died in clashes with the PKK in south-eastern Turkey. That in­cludes three attacks in mid-August that killed ten police and soldiers.

The threat from the Islamic State (ISIS) is equally deadly. Not only was the political meeting over­shadowed by news of the Gazi­antep bombing, which has been blamed on ISIS, but politicians are conscious that attack was the lat­est in an apparently unstoppable series. More than 340 people have died in bomb attacks in Turkey in the last year.

That has led the attitudes of Tur­key’s mainstream political parties to shift towards greater coopera­tion.

Bahceli has become almost an ally of the AKP, backing it strongly on issues such as Kurdish unrest and the fight against terrorism.

The CHP, Turkey’s main opposi­tion, may be tacitly recognising that under Erdogan Turkey is evolving towards a monolithic presidential system. The move to a strong ex­ecutive presidency, which seems almost certain, means that Turk­ish politics will perhaps be closer to the sort of inter-party dialogue around the president that exists in the United States than the classic parliamentary template.

The AKP has dangled enticing political carrots to encourage dia­logue with the opposition. Just be­fore going into summer recess, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed an omnibus law of 75 mis­cellaneous measures. Even though it had easily the necessary major­ity to pass the law, the government bowed to requests from the oppo­sition and removed a handful of highly controversial measures.

These included the right to re­move and replace mayors of mu­nicipalities; the privatisation of 111 state corporations ranging from national broadcaster Turkish Ra­dio and Television Corporation (TRT) to the Turkish History and Language Foundations, bodies mandated in the will of republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. These were seen as major conces­sions.