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July 02, 2010, Friday

Politics as usual

What endangers the transitional process from semi-oppressive forms of state administration -- be that bureaucratic tutelage or a juristocracy -- is the obstinate desire of the political class to hold on to the old-fashioned habits of politics.
This remains unchanged here. For days the political discourse between the government and the opposition centered upon whether or not it was “dignified” to kneel or “stand up like a man” at the trenches on the Iraqi border.

It was followed by another fruitless discussion -- still ongoing -- about who is entitled to invite opposition leaders to a meeting on the issue of terrorism. Time, always an element of waste in Turkish politics, was spent, in vain, on arguing why it would be wrong to attend a meeting hosted by the prime minister rather than the president. Some even argued endlessly on who would visit whom, and where.

Mannerisms and symbolism have constantly overwhelmed the essence of burning issues, and unchanged habits only serve to delay and postpone problems. It adds an extraordinary pain to Turkey’s eagerly watched process of “perestroika.”

In the meantime, the question remains. How will the government be able to lead, with some success, its driven constitutional reform process? Should we expect a snap poll several months down the line?

There are two key elements that help raise the possibility of early elections, possibly straight after the holy month of Ramadan and possibly together with the referendum. The first element was visible yesterday. The Turkish economy registered a high growth rate, which raised the government’s expectations that this will be a year of higher success than predicted. With preparations to implement a package to fight record-high unemployment (together with some other measures), certainly the prospects of early elections have gained some ground.

But, much more than that, the decision for that is strictly tied to what the top court will decide on the reform package itself. The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) petition, demanding a rejection of the package on “procedural grounds,” or five of its articles on their “essence” (for being “unconstitutional”), is pending and due to be considered by the court in early July. That Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on party locals to “spread out into the field” and decided to keep Parliament open until mid-July are strong signs of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) intent.

At the moment there are three scenarios linked to the Constitutional Court:

Total approval: If the 11-member court decides, with a qualitative majority (7-4, at least) to signal a go-ahead with the referendum, Erdoğan -- actually rather unwilling to call early elections -- might decide to fully focus on working for a “yes” vote. (Since it is about a constitutional amendment, a 6-5 vote to reject the package, fully or partially, will also mean a go-ahead with the vote.)

Total rejection: If the court rejects the entire package on procedural grounds, Erdoğan will count on a surge in votes for the AKP (some of the votes will certainly be in protest of the top court’s findings) and declare early elections, turning the political atmosphere on a sort of to-be or not-to-be for constitutional change.

Partial rejection: This is the toughest option for the AKP. Going against the spirit of the current Constitution, the top court may decide to trespass on the ground of “evaluating” the essence of the five articles aiming to reform the high judiciary and find them unconstitutional while giving a go-ahead for the rest to go to a referendum. Even then, despite the hardship faced by the opposition (which of course would support a clipped package), Erdoğan will be inclined to declare early elections. If the AKP wins, the momentum for change will be kept at hand.

The tactics of the opposition are clear: The CHP will focus on the economically affected bulk of society (retirees, agricultural workers and civil servants), whereas the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) hopes to surf on the growing nationalism due to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) escalated campaign of violence. The Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) vote remains solid for the same reasons as the latter. Rather squeezed, Erdoğan may choose to approach two parties on the ultraconservative flank, the Felicity Party (SP) and the Grand Unity Party (BBP), both of which receive 1-4 percent of the vote. But this is only wild speculation at the moment. One hour of politics in Turkey is equal to one year of politics elsewhere.

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