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July 03, 2011, Sunday

Turkey’s shambolic new beginning

With Turkey in political gridlock, it’s difficult to believe that a mere three weeks ago, following the parliamentary elections, the country’s political elites were all rejoicing and declaring their readiness to work in harmony -- preparing to roll up their sleeves, and unite in their efforts to create a new civilian constitution as well as take serious steps towards ending to the decades-old Kurdish problem.

Today, as Turkey received the fantastic news that it had the world’s fastest growing economy in the first quarter of 2011 (11 percent), the country is in shambles. The Parliament is handicapped and politicians are back to what they seem to do best: trading insults.

On Tuesday, the bloc of independents acting under the umbrella of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), refused to enter Parliament, let alone take the oath of allegiance. This was to protest the Supreme Election Board, (YSK), decision to annul the Parliamentary membership of its elected member, Hatip Dicle, on the grounds of a previous conviction for promoting Kurdish separatist terrorism. The main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, (CHP), entered Parliament but refused to take the oath because of a court’s refusal to release its elected deputies Mustafa Balbay and Prof. Mehmet Haberal, who remain jailed for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government, from prison. However, they have yet to be found guilty.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), did take the oath even though one of its elected deputies, a retired general currently in prison facing charges similar to Balbay and Haberal, was also not allowed to take his seat.

As President Abdullah Gül, ever the calm mediator, does his very best to soothe frayed tempers in an effort to get the different parties to reach a compromise, no one seems quite sure how long this impasse will drag on for. All parties are busy blaming each other for the mess. True to his character, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is continuing with his defiant approach, condemning the refusal of CHP and BDP deputies to take the parliamentary oath, implying that the CHP and the BDP are abusing the authority vested in them by their voters in the elections by boycotting Parliament. He has said the Parliament will work and function without them. However, with 30 percent of its deputies missing, I really do not see how he is going to be able to do this given that the two top priorities of the government, the writing of a new constitution and the Kurdish problem, require an inclusive approach based on consensus and dialogue. With the persistence of the current status quo, dialogue would seem to be very weak on the ground.

For somebody outside the “Ankara fish tank” it is quite difficult to follow all the rapid developments and have a clear picture of all the ducking and diving of the various political players. However, it seems clear to me that they all share a degree of responsibility for not working together to address chronic legal loopholes. It is obvious that the system is extremely flawed, allowing people to stand as candidates, only to reject them after the voters, fully aware of who they were electing, have cast their ballots.

The CHP only seems to have succeeded in demonstrating that any hopes that the new leadership would succeed in turning it into a party capable of constructive opposition have quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke. I believe that they are making a crucial error by refusing to use the seats. If the CHP is really serious about wanting to streamline and improve Turkey’s somewhat archaic justice system, it needs to be in Parliament demanding the appropriate legal amendments. It is totally nonsensical that the CHP complains that the AK Party displays a go-it-alone attitude while at the same time it continues to refuse to enter Parliament and play its role.

While it seems that not that many people in Turkey are interested in what the EU thinks anymore (something which is regularly pointed out to me by readers of my columns) I still feel a duty, being based in Brussels, to say a few words about it. Frankly, EU officials are never keen about wading into internal domestic issues, which is why there has not been much reaction. The only exception is Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, who has stated that all parties should contribute to the integrity and proper functioning of the Turkish Parliament. Other than that, the EU has done little more than make a half-hearted statement concerning Hatip Dicle; perhaps the EU could have taken a stronger stance here, particularly now that the situation has been further complicated by the fact that his runner up -- from the AK Party -- was sworn in on Thursday

The longer this stalemate exists, the longer it will take to start work on the crucial issues, thus putting the country at risk for more tensions -- particularly in the Southeast. It also does not bode well for the much talked about spirit of compromise and again underlines the urgent need for serious judicial reform.

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