The Turkish Presidential Election

Teetering on the Brink of Chaos

In Turkey, the process of electing the country's president has been accompanied by ongoing demonstrations against the ruling AKP. Attila Azrak spoke to Ertuğrul Kürkçü, site coordinator of the independent communications network, about the situation

In Turkey, the process of electing the country's eleventh president has been accompanied by ongoing demonstrations against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). An important segment of society has taken to the streets with the backing of the army to oppose the likely election of the candidate nominated by the AKP. Will Turkey's future be shaped by this election? Attila Azrak spoke to Ertuğrul Kürkçü, site coordinator of the independent communications network, and asked him what he thinks

Has Turkey ever been in a situation like this before or is this the first time the presidential election has been so controversial?

Ertuğrul Kürkçü: Actually, all of Turkey's presidential elections have been characterised by this sort of tension and contention. If we look back, for instance, at the presidency of İsmet İnönü, who succeeded the first president, Mustafa Kemal, or at that of Celal Bayar, İnönü's successor, all of Turkey's presidents have either ascended to the state's top office as a result of considerable domestic strife, or have been appointed with the parliament's consent as a means of ensuring post-coup military continuity.

From this standpoint, it is apparent that in recent history, elections in Turkey have been very tense. I remember that at the time of Özal's presidential election, the very same political actors employed the very same rhetoric they are using now.

At that time, Deniz Baykal, the party leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), said, "We'll bring him down from that office in disgrace." Now, he's saying, "I won't let him (Erdoğan) take that office." But who is to know whether Abdullah Gül is a more suitable candidate for society?

Why is the office of president so important in Turkey?

Kürkçü: I see the office of president as the office of an oligarchic dictatorship in which extremely antidemocratic powers, which have not in fact been authorized by society, recognize one person by law. In this office, it is not possible to accomplish anything beneficial to society. If you ask me, it is inevitable that whoever becomes president will — by virtue of his position and function — behave like the senior judge of an assize court.

For this reason, as a constitutional system, the office of president needs to undergo radical change. In my opinion, a symbolic president is sufficient. Moreover, it is nonsensical for the power of the executive to be divided and shared in this way.

The power of the executive needs to be balanced by a very strong parliamentary system, by very powerful legislative and judicial branches. Yet the constitution not only treats the executive and legislative branches as almost identical, it also leaves oversight of the judicial to the legislative and executive branches. This is what makes it a completely dictatorial-oligarchic system.

This system, which is anchored in the constitution, was established on the assumption that, from the standpoint of the 12 September regime of 1980, individuals like Kenan Evren would remain at the helm of the state. The power behind the 1980 coup, i.e. the army, has now fallen victim to its own weapon. They now see themselves faced with the fact that a socio-political segment of society, to which they are bitterly opposed, has nominated a candidate for the office.

Had today's parliament been formed as a result of a fundamentally fair election - which, by the way, is a consequence of the laws originating in the 1980 coup - the Justice and Development Party (AKP) could never have obtained the majority it now commands.

What is your interpretation of the statement made by the General Staff and the subsequent decision handed down by the Constitutional Court?

Kürkçü: In my opinion, the statement made by the military was intended as a warning, something along the lines of the fact that if the Constitutional Court not handed down the decision it did, the military would have had no choice but to seize power. Similarly, CHP party leader Deniz Baykal's attitude that, "If a decision to annul the vote in parliament is not handed down, chaos will ensue," was intended to reinforce this warning.

The Constitutional Court has handed down a decision that, from a legal point of view, is completely absurd and reflects neither the spirit nor the letter of the actual constitution. It was pressurized into this decision by the military with a view to saving the country from chaos. However, in doing so, it overstepped its authority.

This decision will have long-term consequences; it paves the way for a great deal of confusion and unrest, and will call into question the legitimacy of past presidential elections. It will make it very hard for the parliament to come up with a new timetable and will make it quite difficult for elections to be held at an early date.

In conclusion, one could say that the constitutional system in Turkey has sustained a broadside torpedo hit, and until it takes refuge in a tranquil port, attempts will be made to stay the course by baling the boat and administering sedative tablets to the passengers and crew.

First there were demonstrations in Ankara, then there were demonstrations in Istanbul. What kind of influence do the people have on presidential elections?

Kürkçü: I imagine that fewer problems would have been experienced had the populace made a greater contribution. The principal issue is the election of the parliament and the formation of the government. The idea that Turkey needs a powerful president is, to my mind, a notion peculiar to those who yearn for dictatorship.
We are experiencing this whole crisis because the majority in parliament is determined by a minority of the electorate in Turkey.

What must be done to change this situation?

Kürkçü: For the situation to be changed, we need societal will. I would have expected the CHP, the main opposition party in parliament, to drum up support among all of Turkey's societal forces and take the initiative to bring about lasting constitutional change. Instead, throughout this period, reforms relating to the European Union and topics like the Copenhagen criteria have topped the agenda.

Turkey could have seized this opportunity. Instead, the CHP chose to speak for the powers that are in favour of maintaining the status quo. As a result, an utterly asymmetrical and confrontational situation has emerged.

It is actually the ruling, right-wing, religion-oriented party that has been implementing the reforms society expects to the extent that it has proven politically expedient. The so-called populist and left-wing opposition party, on the other hand, is trying to block these reforms. It's an utterly ridiculous situation. I mean, Turkey is experiencing a representational crisis.

I am sceptical as to whether this can be avoided in the elections. The overall picture is one of secularists up in arms against the threat of the foundation of a religious state; yet this threat is not as great as it is made out to be. Yes, of course we have seen the ascendancy of political Islam, but this is offset by a powerful will of the people. From the standpoint of the current government, the steps that can be taken are quite limited.

For instance, had this so-called "secular segment" of the population not been occupied by a fear of the Kurds, the Justice and Development Party would not have succeeded in getting its forty MPs from the South-East into parliament.

The existing election system stipulates that a party must receive at least ten per cent of the national vote. This means that the votes of four out of every ten voters are not reflected in the parliament.

The fact that the opposition party has not sought to ensure that society's wishes are reflected in parliament has unfortunately made it impossible for it to fulfil its role. I'm not altogether sure we will be able to change this overall situation in the general elections, either.

Is the fact that Erdoğan nominated Abdullah Gül as candidate an indication of all this?

Kürkçü: Yes, definitely. As far as I can see, those in favour of progressive, secular, social justice and the salvation of the downtrodden face a serious problem: the offices of president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker will all be in the hands of a party that is right-wing in its world outlook, emphasizes metaphysical and religious elements in its social views, seeks to promote creationist theory in national education, and lives by a system of beliefs that believes women ought to be restricted in social life.

This will adversely affect educational and professional life in Turkey.

In terms of equal opportunities on the labour market, women have already begun to be intentionally left behind. Women are not being encouraged to participate in professional life. Everywhere they turn, they encounter subtle messages that hint at the virtues of bearing children and being a housewife. Once all the components of such an administration have fallen into place, it will constitute a grave problem for us all.

However, it is fair to say that the option of inviting the military to prevent all this would be at least as appalling, because all of this has happened as the ultimate consequence of a process of military intervention that chose religion as an ally in the "struggle against communism."

Do you expect there to be a change in Turkey's political landscape after the election?

Kürkçü: I don't expect any change in fundamentals. Perhaps in foreign policy there may be a change in perspectives and some re-evaluation. When it comes to the question of whether talks will be held with Talabani or whether to further cooperation with the European Union over the Cyprus issue, the answers may change to a lesser or greater extent.

In the final analysis, however, no great rift will arise between the army and the government on these matters. The power that the Justice and Development Party now holds is disproportionate to the proportion of society it represents. The ability of this situation to last depends on avoiding confrontation with the army and securing the approval of the international community.

Interview:Attila Azrak

© 2007

Translated from the Turkish by Nat Riley

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