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January 18, 2011, Tuesday

Balancing act

With five months to go until the general elections, the level of acrimony in the society is already reaching unhealthy levels.

Challengers take risks and act more aggressively in the hope of winning voters over to their side. This is the basic rule in electoral campaigns. Parties in opposition have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain. It is therefore hardly surprising that the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, whose party lost ground in the September referendum, went on the offensive against the prime minister.

Incumbents, on the other hand, highlight their achievements and seek to hold on to their constituency with the promise of further gains and more prosperity. Ruling parties that have realistic chances of winning another term -- as is the case for Justice and Development Party (AK Party) according to recent surveys -- need to approach the electoral process with caution. They have to balance short-term electoral strategy with the long-term needs of government in the post-election period.

Prime Minister Erdoğan, these days, seems more focused on the former than on the latter, and the controversies that have erupted in recent days suggest he is storing up trouble for himself in the future.

As is often the case, it is more a matter of style than substance: The prime minister could have expressed his artistic tastes in a subtle way without describing the Kars monument as a “monstrosity.” He could have made the case for the need to protect underage youngsters from drinking without alienating a broad constituency by assuming that anyone who chooses to consume alcohol does so to excess. And he could have countered criticism he deemed unfair without taking Taraf and Ahmet Altan, who was chosen as Today’s Zaman’s Man of the Year in 2010 for the role he played in Turkey’s democratization process, to court.

The prime minister knows he has the majority behind him, the September referendum confirmed it. Yet, in spite of the progress achieved in changing the power balance in Turkey and reducing state tutelage, he sometimes still acts as if his party is the underdog. There have been plenty of conspiracies over the years, but the AK Party has been firmly in the driving seat for a while. Criticism cannot always be dismissed as part of a wide plot against the government. It is only through constructive opposition and critical self-examination that a country can progress toward democracy.

People close to the prime minister say he enjoys nothing more than a good controversy: it brings out his fighting spirit. But while his anger often recedes once it has been vented, his statements have a lasting impact on the society, deepening the cracks.

After the AK Party won in July 2007, the prime minister made an eloquent speech, promising to be a leader for all of Turkey. He will probably be called to make a similar statement in June of this year. Why not lay the groundwork for reconciliation now, instead of burning bridges that will have to be rebuilt? The AK Party has promised a new constitution, and it will need the cooperation of all segments of society to write it. The Kurdish issue, opinion polls indicate, is one of the major preoccupations of Turkish voters, and it will be one of the top items on the agenda of the post-June government. Seeking to attract declining far-right votes will only make it harder to reach a lasting settlement with Kurdish politicians.

Turkey has won plaudits in recent years in the West as well as in the Middle East because it managed to successfully balance conservative and liberal values, allowing different lifestyles and beliefs to coexist. Turkey’s efforts to move closer to European Union standards and its democratization program set it apart from authoritarian regimes in the region, which is why many of them see it as an inspiration.

The thousands of people I saw having fun on Saturday night in Beyoğlu, sitting outdoors on a mild winter evening, were not government enemies. Some of them were enjoying a drink, but there were no signs of drunkenness. They were citizens of this country, enjoying the prosperity this government has brought them in recent years.

As the elections approach, Prime Minister Erdoğan appears willing to sacrifice the liberals who have supported his party until now. The government could in fact win votes across the political spectrum with an inclusive constitution that emphasizes diversity and tolerance, and protects the individual rights of each and every citizen.

Previous articles of the columnist