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February 12, 2013, Tuesday

Will Erdoğan also hold hands in Uludere?

Are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's series of moves -- re-launching talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), critiquing the legal system, the fourth judicial reform package, extending an olive branch to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) on cooperation for the draft of a new constitution and visiting a hospitalized, retired army commander with a long prison sentence -- signs of shrewd tactical steps for further power-grabbing or a strategic shift toward nationwide reconciliation and peace?

He has once more managed to raise both hopes as well as serious doubts to new heights. At this stage, both senses are valid, simply because, since the prospect of a new presidential system is now irretrievably on the agenda, nobody but Erdoğan can answer the question.

His recent visit to the ex-general in the hospital, filled with powerful symbolism, ought to have embarrassed all those who have wanted to depict him categorically as a dictator. By his slippery pragmatism, Erdoğan has navigated in the domain of arbitrariness.

He did loudly call himself the “prosecutor of Ergenekon” and, just recently, fall slightly short of condemning the very judiciary which has been conducting the case. He went as far as the limits of hate speech by labeling PKK supporters “fire worshippers,” but turned sharply to apologize for the Dersim massacres, declaring that “we are against not only Kurdish but also Turkish nationalism.”

But, all of this only adds to the general confusion. Erdoğan is solely responsible for the blur. He falls short of lucidity, and transparency, and therefore feeds a skeptical wave about his ways, which he then unjustly gets angry about. His flip-flopping style has now become his trademark, an element which strangely does not sink his popularity.

Yet he, perhaps for that exact reason, must be very carefully observed without hasty judgments. His staunch followers in the media tried to downplay the significance of his visit to the general. But, if this was nothing else than holding the hand of a Turkish citizen -- albeit a military bureaucrat -- whom Erdoğan seems to think has been victimized by the system, will he also visit all those poor victims, namely the families of 34 Kurdish villagers bombed to death by Turkish fighter jets? He has refused to acknowledge, so far, the gravity of the incident, and refused to show up at their side.

So, let us now be watchful: If Erdoğan soon does that, crowned with an apology, we may come closer to the conclusion that he genuinely believes in national reconciliation -- in his own ways -- by adopting a constitution which he hopes will be widely supported.

But, his grand personal ambition looms there. Will he use these means to reach his end? One participant -- a young, pious intellectual -- at the recent Abant conference said: “As a common citizen all I expect is my freedom, rights, justice, diversity and equality secured by the new constitution. Erdoğan as an empowered president, or such a presidency per se, is beyond the lowest of my priorities.”

He is spot-on in his concerns about an agenda turned upside down. Turkey's good destiny lies in decentralization, power-sharing at all levels, collective decision-making and participation -- not in an unchecked single-man rule.

On the other hand, it may also be an illusion that Erdoğan will push the proposals on a presidential model to the very end. He may be keeping this as a bargaining chip to test the ground. The draft could instead include a few more additional points to the current executive model and it would actually be enough to fulfill his ambitions. If used extensively, the powers granted to Turkey's president now go beyond those of the US or France in any case.

The timetable is tight. The draft commission, stillborn, will soon throw in the towel. From April 1 on, it will be up to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and other parties to play a different game of give and take. So far it is Erdoğan who is laying his cards on the table. This offers an opportunity to the BDP and Republican People's Party (CHP) to see his hand.

The question is, are they smart enough to steer him in a democratic direction rather than an autocratic one? I have very serious doubts.

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