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October 02, 2012, Tuesday

Filling in the blanks

“Which one was the manifesto?” was the question I heard yesterday from many different people. It was inevitable: The time difference between the speeches given by two of the most important figures of Turkey’s past decade was only 24 hours.

 What makes the comparison interesting is also the fact that both President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represent the different facets of the political line which shaped the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as it stands today, since both are the founding fathers of the still enormously popular post-Islamist movement.

Intense spin-doctoring preceding Erdoğan’s speech had raised expectations to new heights; many observers had reset their minds about the roadmap ahead, particularly on two crucial items on the agenda: a new constitution and a political solution to tackle the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) problem and the Kurdish issue. Given the emotional tone and “middle of the field” type of rhetoric of Erdoğan, his speech proved to be anticlimactic. Consolation for the AKP’s followers came instead in the 63-point “roadmap” which was distributed after the oral address.

From an optimistic vantage point, the written declaration can be seen as a pledge for continued reform but without any specifics or clearly defined context. It talks about reforming the political parties’ system, ending the regime of political party closures, a more efficient and swift judiciary, increasing civilian control over the military apparatus, criminalizing hate speech and, on the Kurdish front, more “punctual” reforms on the mother tongue issue (falling short of collective rights). It remains to be seen whether Parliament will be able to tackle those issues more seriously than before, and the general mood has been changing in a sense that -- given Erdoğan’s hard-line political choices since the last elections -- Parliament must be monitored more strongly on a “deeds but not words” basis.

After 24 hours, Gül’s address to Parliament showed once more a statesman of a different style. In a tour d’horizon of the “state of the nation,” the president did not hide his concerns over the gray areas of issues and highlighted all the aspects of the unfinished side of Turkey’s transformation story. Fully engaged in his delicate, but appreciated position, and deliberately choosing an “above the daily politics” stand, he had messages of warning and urgency for the entire political class, particularly putting the spotlight on the consequences of Erdoğan’s management style. Judging by the facial expressions of the latter, it was easy to conclude that, indeed, after the historic AKP congress, a new political ground, with new sets of unknowns, is now taking shape.

“We may become a slave to our own arguments in trying to make our words powerful up to a point where it may be difficult to make amends. ... We must never make deeply-saddening events and misfortunes into a vicious cycle of domestic polemics; on the contrary, we must hold the issue on the balanced merits of scrutiny and accountability,” Gül said. It left no doubt which leader(s) he had in mind.

Regarding the Kurdish issue, Gül once again emerged as a pro-solution, pro-soft power and pro-reconciliation figure, which he had advocated throughout the decade. He opposed the exclusion of jailed MPs from Parliament as well as lifting the immunities of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies. “Everyone who has legally participated in the country’s elections, voted for by the people and won the right to carry the title of member of Parliament should be a part of the legislative activities of this assembly until a final judgment has been passed. ... It is important that all ideas and colors in the country are represented here. … Any missing element in the composition of this assembly will serve no other purpose than that of repeating the practices of the past and delaying the much-needed solutions at this time even further. … We should not fall into the trap of making a wrong turn because of the terrorist attacks which have increased because of current circumstances and once again fall into a vicious cycle. … We must always remember that the place to solve all problems is in Parliament and we must resolutely continue our efforts to draw up the new constitution. … We must enact a new citizenship contract through a freedom based constitution that guarantees rights and freedoms for all and does not exclude anyone,” he stated.

And Gül filled the most important blank left by Erdoğan: “The reputation of a country grows when its writers, thinkers, opinion leaders are able to share their views without fear. … No one should be imprisoned because of expressing their views through the media. A clear distinction must be observed between those who incite violence and those who express an opinion.”

Let us leave the “manifesto” question pending. What we observed in the past 48 hours was two ways -- different enough -- of identifying imminent tasks. It may be too early to predict, but these are the signs of a new struggle, pushing the two founders of the AKP to the fore. Interesting times ahead.

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