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March 20, 2011, Sunday

The end of bunga bunga politics?

We’ve all said it once. In fact, we’ve said it so many times that we are peacock-blue in the face. In a democracy, it takes two to tango and it doesn’t help one little bit if Turkey’s opposition has spent nearly a decade trying to dance the fandango with its shoelaces untied. It is not that the government is gripped by the arrogance of power, it is that it suffers from the over-confidence of those who rule unopposed.

One can’t really expect more from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Its appeal, almost by definition, is to its own particular tribe. This is not to say that there aren’t some sensible people on the team or even that the party is still caught in the street gang politics of the 1970s. It’s just that its room for maneuver is limited. The moment it moves too far towards the political center, that place where most of the votes are to be had, it becomes invisible -- a party without umph. A moderate nationalist is like a vegan vampire or a business consultant given to self-doubt. If you don’t rant at Kurdish television or shake your fist at Brussels, you appear to lack conviction. So the question for the coming election is not whether the MHP can form a government, but whether they can get over the 10 percent threshold to win any seats at all. What would help them most is some terrible event that would help polarize public opinion, and frankly that isn’t much of a recommendation in their favor.

The real culprits, of course, are the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who have the history and even the potential to make them a real genuine alternative. Alas, they saddled themselves with a credibility problem as big as their former leader’s ego. Under Deniz “Bunga Bunga” Baykal, the party took a strange turn indeed. It is as if it was set to turn back the clock to before 1972, when Bülent Ecevit became its leader with a “left of center” message that was meant to address the demands of a society caught in the throes of urbanization -- for a new and better life. Instead Mr. Baykal went into denial and tried to turn the CHP into the citadel of state power. He did not so much oppose the Justice and Development (AK) party, so much as refute their right to exist. This never gave him much chance to figure out why they were getting more votes than himself. And he never thought of resigning and never gave the party a chance to bring in fresh blood.

The CHP under new management has not exactly hit the ground running. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the disgraced Mr. Baykal’s successor, has been able to distance himself from the backroom style of politics for which the CHP had become notorious. Yet Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu appears to possess one important quality Mr. Baykal lacked. He wants to see his party win the election. To this end, his party has actually started producing not just policies, but policies that may even win it votes. Only this week the CHP has taken a hard look at the thing that obsesses every Turkish male once they come of legal age -- the obligation to do compulsory military service. Turkey does not need such a large standing army and for many the time spent in uniform is a wasteful distraction from their future careers. In the past, people have been able to buy an exemption to do a reduced stint, but this is clearly unjust. So with a bit of lateral thinking the CHP has come up with a scheme which would allow people to do an abbreviated tour of duty not by forking out a whacking fee but what they can afford.

OK. It’s not a revolution but it is a start. For those who cry “foul,” saying that it is a bit of pre-election populism, that is exactly what it is. But it is not irresponsible and it has made the government flinch. As for the electorate, perhaps they may come to like the idea of political parties actually competing for their vote.

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