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May 31, 2012, Thursday


With the ghosts of the Uludere/Roboski killings refusing to vanish, with the urgent reform agenda nervously knocking on doors, Turkey is suddenly in the midst of a heated debate on whether Cesarean births are to be limited and abortion banned. This is the menu, imposed and enforced, for everybody. Like it or not.

Side dishes are a proposed mosque on Çamlıca Hill, intense rumors about abolishing the special courts’ jurisdiction (allegedly in order to have detained army officers released) and the Council of State’s decision that those who “encourage” shopkeepers to shut down their shops for political protests be seen as “members of terrorist organizations.”

Is it useful to join the chorus discussing these issues? Not in this column, not at this stage. I am simply here to monitor, among other issues, the vital reform process, with its various ups and downs, never losing sight of the reform agenda.

A more appropriate question, therefore, is what is going through the mind of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who alone is defining the issues in this country? It is apparent that there are some shifts occurring, as I have indicated in previous columns.

Has Erdoğan decided to change the ship’s course? All his recent attempts to divert and dominate discourse suggest that he has. He has clearly been on the defensive: even more aggressive than usual, reacting obstinately to calls for accountability in the Uludere/Roboski case. His irritability cannot conceal the fact that he now has his eyes fixed firmly on a political goal: the next presidential elections. He may not have thought he would launch the campaign so early, but now feels he has to.

The attempt to reframe current debates should not be seen as an act of desperation. Erdoğan knows he enjoys a steady and clearly unprecedented support for himself and his party. Rather, he has been weighing up all his political options to secure a majority base to carry him to the executive powers of the presidency.

Behind this visible shift lies the major choice he had to make after the elections last year: to go down in history as the prime minister who pioneered civilian control over the military and solved all the chronic issues of the country, or as the politician -- given to vanity and unpredictability -- who strove relentlessly to draw all power to his person.

Recent shifts point to the latter. For Erdoğan, it has been important to keep close ties with the conservative voter base and, equally, to lead the nation as president for another decade. The process of drafting a new constitution, revivified since the elections, has therefore been a litmus test for understanding what matters most in his mind: full-scale reform or full-scale power. Erdoğan may have realized that a challenging reform drive is not beneficial to him after all.

The shift reveals how much he has esteemed the outlook and positioning of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) since the elections in June of last year. The Kurdish issue and ruthless determination of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has meant deadlock, no matter how tough and threatening Erdoğan has become. The CHP has also offered continuity under new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, with reactive, tactical, obstructive policies leaving little room for progress in terms of consensus.

What has been left is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). If Erdoğan wants to succeed in the upcoming elections, he knows he must choose between the MHP and the liberal reformists (right, center and Kurdish) in order to secure the win. The MHP, with a voter base sharing many conservative and cultural values with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), seems to be the easy way out (or up).

Thus the reason behind Erdoğan’s rhetoric on abortion, “conservative art,” a grandiose mosque on a precious hill, etc.

If taken, this is a dangerous path. It will mean that the AK Party, still a potential driving force for democratic reform in a stable economy, will instead foster polarization, tension and dismay in more areas of society than it can count.

For those who hold hopes for change, it will mean the elimination of “democratic” from the AK Party’s current brand of “democratic conservatism” and the adoption of a lethal “nationalist conservative” path. It is a venomous blend that steered Turkey into a quagmire of violence in the 1970s. It carries the potential to disperse the increasingly fragile democratic alliance in the country. People will be left to choose between fronts instead. Bad signs indeed.

Previous articles of the columnist