Intellectuals disagree over rift between prime minister, liberals

Intellectuals disagree over rift between prime minister, liberals

Ahmet Altan

January 23, 2011, Sunday/ 13:29:00/ BETÜL AKKAYA DEMİRBAŞ

Strong criticism from some of Turkey’s liberals directed at the prime minister, whom they accuse of deviating from his pro-freedom and reformist line and engaging in a tug-of-war with his critics, has led to a divergence of opinion among intellectuals.

While some intellectuals believe that liberals are right in their criticism, others argue that the prime minister is being targeted unjustly by liberals who wish to push the prime minister to act more in accordance with their political line.

The cold war between liberals and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reached its peak earlier this week when the latter sued Ahmet Altan, editor-in-chief of the liberal Taraf daily, for remarks Altan made about him in one of his recent columns. Erdoğan is demanding TL 50,000 in compensation for Altan’s “denigrating” remarks. In his column, Altan accused the prime minister of becoming more Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)-like, denying the rights of Kurds and arguing with whoever warns him that he should return to his reformist, democratic and progressive identity.

However, liberals were strong supporters of the prime minister, though they probably were not too keen on his Justice and Development Party (AK Party), since he first founded his government in 2002. Liberals believed that -- and most of them continue to do so -- Erdoğan is the prime minister Turkey has needed for many years. He is praised for working to broaden individual rights and freedoms and to solve Turkey’s chronic problems. But he has recently been criticized due to a loss of momentum in carrying out reforms and engaging in more polemics with his critics.

According to Professor Mehmet Altan, a columnist for the Star daily, the prime minister should take “friendly” warnings from liberals seriously. He referred to recent columns penned by some of Turkey’s leading columnists, who warned Erdoğan to focus on reforms rather than polemics, and asked, “The friendly warnings from liberals should have a meaning for the prime minister, shouldn’t they?” For the columnist, the AK Party may face elections results that are “very different” from those of past elections if the prime minister insists on turning a deaf ear to such warnings.

The AK Party garnered slightly more than 34 percent of the national vote in 2002 when it first entered the elections. In 2007, it swept nearly 47 percent of the votes cast.

Columnist Mehmet Metiner from the Bugün daily, however, does not agree with his colleague. For him, the recent tension between liberals and the prime minister does not mainly stem from a shift in Erdoğan’s reformist line. Rather, it is linked to “unkind” and even “rude” criticisms of the prime minister by liberals. “It is not correct that there is tension between the prime minister and all liberals in Turkey. What increases the tension is that some liberals do not watch their language when criticizing the prime minister. Liberals can criticize the prime minister, for sure. That is a requirement of democracy. But insults are hard to tolerate,” Metiner argues.

In one of his recent columns, Taraf columnist Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı stated that warnings given to the prime minister from liberals are mainly intended to help him “maintain” his reformist, pro-democracy and pro-freedom stance. According to the columnist, people voted for the AK Party -- both in the 2002 and 2007 general elections -- for the prime minister’s “vision” and “courage” regarding Turkish politics. However, the concern that Erdoğan may turn his party away from its much-anticipated line has spurred liberals to warn the prime minister, the columnist said.

Kütahyalı also directed criticism at his editor-in-chief, Ahmet Altan, for “disproportional” criticism of the government and the prime minister. Though, he is hopeful that the tension between the prime minister and Altan, and likewise Erdoğan and liberals, will ease up soon. “Both [Erdoğan and Altan] are realistic and upright men. They help their enemies when they are in a difficult position and do not kick anyone when they are down. They do not feel happy about other people’s sufferings, and do not refrain from fighting against the powerful. … They are never backstabbers and do not prioritize their interests. They do not sell their friends, and their ‘names’ are more important than their lives. They prefer to die rather than see their names ‘sullied’,” he added.

İsmail Küçükkaya from the Akşam daily approached the issue from a different perspective and claimed that the emergence of an “alternative” for the AK Party has urged liberals to be more critical of the ruling party. The alternative, for the columnist, is the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Küçükkaya defined the recent tension between the prime minister and liberals as a “breaking point,” and said: “What drove a wedge between liberals and the AK Party government is the CHP. By saying liberals I am mainly referring to leftist intellectuals. They probably said ‘yes’ in the [Sept. 12] referendum, but their primary preference [in the elections] is not the AK Party. The strong support of liberals for the AK Party stemmed mainly from the ruling party’s pro-change, pro-freedom, civilian and democratic characteristics. Liberals liked that the AK Party kept using the arguments of leftist parties and defended social democrat principles. There was some sort of alliance between the AK Party and liberals.” He added that a recent transformation in the main opposition CHP has led to speculation that the AK Party is no longer “without an alternative” for liberals.

The CHP’s long-serving chairman Deniz Baykal was replaced by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in May of last year, bringing a “wave of change” for the main opposition party. Kılıçdaroğlu has so far worked to eliminate the legacy left behind by Baykal and Önder Sav, the CHP’s former and influential secretary-general. The change in the CHP cadres has given hope to the party’s supporters that the CHP will finally become a democratic and pro-freedom party.

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