Once again I am exercising my power as this blog’s macdaddy to go off topic and discuss some pressing matters in Turkish politics. To say that Turkish politics is going through an interesting time is clearly an understatement. Not only has Turkey recently embarked on a disturbing reversion from solidly illiberal to near authoritarian governance, they are wrestling with fundamental constitutional changes of selecting their president and the authority of the office. The most charitable characterization of the care in which these changes have taken would be reckless abandon. But we need to back up for one moment to contextualize the changes in post-1980 environment.
The republic president is an office that carries mostly ceremonial powers. While he is technically the commander in chief of the armed forces and carries a veto power over the parliament, military autonomy ensures that he exercises no real power over military affairs and parliament can override a veto with procedures no more difficult than a majority vote or two. Formerly, the president of the Republic was chosen in a series of votes taken in parliament. Generally, the high numbers of parties in parliament and the deference (read sycophantic capitulation) MPs would show to the military, ensured that the president would have relatively broad support amongst MPs and be properly vetted by the TSK (central military command). Until 2007, this worked swimmingly for the TSK, as you’d expect it would given that they wrote the constitution themselves. That is until the rise of the AKP. As a result of the 2002 election, the AKP had a solid majority in the parliament, the first government in a generation that didn’t require a crazy quilt of coalition for a confidence vote.
In 2007, Turkey stepped as close as it had to a military coup as it had since 1997’s “post modern coup” where PM Erbakan resigned just as tanks began to roll out of the barracks in Ankara’s suburb of Sincan. Just to give you sense of the military posture in Ankara, it’s a surrounded by military bases, with tens of thousands of troops (not just TSK bureaucrats) permanently stationed therein. A very visible reminder close to my old home near Umitkoy, was a tank on permanent display next to the freeway with it’s barrel pointed directly at the parliament building, a symbolic cue proudly displayed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer (and yes, I checked the line on Google Earth). But I digress. The constitutional crisis centered around PM Erdogan’s nomination of then foreign minister Abdulah Gul. Erdogan had the audacity to appoint Gul without vetting him through the military or the political opposition, as his majority in parliament was sufficient to carry the vote without any other support in the later rounds of balloting. Despite following the military’s constitution to the letter, the Kemalist establishment was furious, demanding that a new election be called before the president be chosen. Rumor has it, that a meeting of the national security council had been held discussing the possibility of a coup (a right they reserved for themselves in the constitution, ain’t that peachy) and that every force commander wanted to pull the trigger, save the chairman Yasar Buyukanit, who ordered a “wait an see” posture. Long story short, the coup was avoided, a parliamentary election was held with the AKP taking a larger share of the vote, and Abdullah Gul became president with as clear of a mandate from electorate as possible and the tacit ascent of the MHP.
To avoid this sort of nonsense in the future, the AKP forwarded a national referendum to amend the presidential selection system by throwing the decision to popular vote. Well the geniuses in the AKP elite didn’t really think out a few obvious contingencies that even foreigners like me were asking. Along with the popular vote, the single 7 year term of president was shortened to 5 years, with the possibility of a single reelection. But how would this apply to President Gul? Must he abide by the old term? Was he eligible to seek reelection? No one had answers until the constitutional court chimed in, basically pulling a ruling out of the air. In fairness, they had to this time, as they had no guidance whatsoever in the constitution, the amendment, or the law.
Another lingering question is the partisan nature of the office. Formally, the office is non-partisan. Though the nominations are made with the support of a given number of MPs and then a series of parliamentary votes chose the winner, once the person took office, they would eschew their former political ties, rise above petty squabbling, and focus on being a figure of unity in a highly fragmented political system. With a half dozen or so parties in any given parliament, a multi-party consensus (albeit militarily facilitated) had to be reached. Not so anymore with the decision made by the electorate and MPs free to nominate whomever they wish. While Gul has done this far better than most had predicted in that he's not been as overtly partisan ad some had feared, the question remains for future holders of the office: Can a future president rise above the fray now that they’re popularly elected in a ridiculously polarized system? Smart money would suggest no.
With Gul’s term coming to an end, and an election looming, Turkey is again at a crossroads. Who will be the candidates? What role are the parties going to play? What other changes are in store for the office?
On the question of who, this is still an open question. Erdogan is clearly in the running. Despite the office not carrying much power at the moment, it still is an office of high prestige, and this schnook’s all about showiness and prestige (the tackier and cheaper, the better). Also, he’s got designs on transforming the constitutional powers of the office. Given his personality and nihilistic political ethic, he might not wait for the formalities of constitutional amendment. While he and his supporters would tell you he’s aiming for a French style semi-presidential system, the reality’s certainly far darker. He’s already got more relative power than the French President does. At best, we’d see a Russian model of weak institution with the locus of power being where the boss wants it, or possibly the Hugo Chavez model of hard fisted, slash and burn kleptocracy. This rightly sends shivers up and down the spines of everyone in the various opposition parties, or those with any liberal democratic sensibilities. This puts the opposition parties in a conundrum and the structural incentives of the new presidential selection system is pushing them towards (wait for it…) a non-partisan invisible primary! Well shit fire, who’d a thunk that?
Normally the main parties of the opposition are farcical, and I don’t think this is contained to the AKP era. Their irresponsibility is probably due in large part to both the crazy assed coalitions of the 90s and the absolute majoritarian nature of governance. Apologies for the language, but that is the only way I can describe it. What else would you label a government composed of conservative, fascist, and socialist parties (well, socialist for Turkey) as they had in the wake of the 1999 elections? Other coalitions weren’t much prettier. How does an opposition even begin to oppose such governments? Near as I can tell, throw rocks at whatever it does, and hope you hit a soft spot on occasion forcing a confidence vote or early election. Not a particularly strong model for electorally responsible parties.
As to the absolute majoritarian bit, this is another curse of Turkish illiberal democracy. In days past, when coalitions were necessary for confidence votes, coalition partners were hardly partners in any sense. They’d simply divi up the ministries as per negotiated terms and exercise exclusively within their domains, each party using the ministries’ budgets like ATMs and dolling out the positions to their peeps. Even communication was difficult between ministries of different parties, as several foreign NGOs discovered in the relief efforts of the 1999 earthquake. What kept graft somewhat in check was the fact that not a single party controlled the whole pie, and that there was a constant churning of governments preventing any one party from controlling too much, for too long. The advantage of that natural check on corruption came at the cost of good governance and stability. When politics is simply a zero-sum game to control patronage, neither those in government or opposition are particularly incented to create viable, programmatic platforms to present to the voters. But again I digress.
In the current AKP era, opposition has been limited to two parties: the CHP and the MHP (yes, there is a Kurdish party, though my heart is with them, their marginalization is so severe that they can hardly be considered a “normal” opposition party as they stand alone in this). Both parties are caught in a trap of trying desperately to maintain their bases, which by necessity limits their programmatic appeals to the broader electorate.
The CHP is a nationalist party that waves the Ataturk flag most briskly of the lot. Despite the fact that it quite literally isn’t the party Ataturk founded (that party was closed with all the others in 1980), the “new CHP” founder Deniz Baykal successfully claimed their label and substantial financial assets in the early 1990s. An old expat friend of mine from my Ankara days, referred to them as “sad old Kemalists.” Though a bit of generalization as there are some young folks in the party, it’s not that far off psychologically. The base of the party is largely the same today as it was throughout the first six or so decades of the Republican era: people who are part of the military-bureaucratic elite or the primary beneficiaries thereof. Though Baykal is now out, brought down in a sex scandal a few years ago, the current leadership follows the standard Turkish model of cadre parties where power is highly centralized, intraparty democracy is non-existent, and order is maintained through highly personalized networks within the party. The closest the CHP comes to a political platform these days is a collective mourning of their lost privileges of old and rather nondescript appeals to secularism that generally comes out as rather course anti-religious rhetoric.
The MHP is in no better shape. The MHP is a neo-fascist party that picked up on a thread of racial identity politics that emerged, gee wiz, in the 1930s and 40s. Turkish identity has always been rather nebulous, but I think it’s safe to say that most Turks take a rather benign definition of it, framed in Ataturk’s often cited “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene.” Roughly translated: How happy is one who calls oneself a Turk. As Ersin Kalaygioglu puts it, if you say you’re a Turk, you’re a Turk! I can dig that. Not so the MHP. They’ve long exhibited the key traits of a true fascist party: ultra-nationalism, wrapped up in a biologically determined identity, a rejection of liberal individuality, voracious xenophobia, proclivity towards violence, glorification of an imagined history, ideally reinforced by a heavy handed state. While their current leader Devlet Bahceli says reasonable sounding things from time to time regarding the abuses of power by the AKP, never forget Bahceli came to power in the party and maintains his power in the party by the naked use of force. Thankfully the electoral base of this party is a bit smaller than the CHP’s, but it usually wins enough votes to break the ten percent threshold making it a persistent player. Their politics are what you’d expect from a fascist party – repugnant. While they’ve gone through some window dressing in attempts to mainstream themselves for broader appeal (with a degree of success), their core fascistic values remain intact. Straying too far from them has proved risky in the past, and they’re unlikely to stray too much in the future (they’ve made some consensus to Islamist elements in years past, which pushed out some hard core identifiers, but that’s another story).
So, what now? Both of these parties are undoubtedly going through an internal invisible primary right now to forward some names to the Turkish people. I don’t rightly care about that, since they’ll lose. As the invisible primary is all about triangulating on viable candidates, which often means going with a number two choice, here’s my advice to both the CHP and MHP: Go with Gul.
That’s right, I said it. Go with Gul.
I say that not for their sakes, but the sake of Turkish democracy. Here’s why…
In the current political landscape both the opposition parties are sure losers. I don’t care who they nominate, the Turkish electorate will not go for another CHP hack moaning about how hard it is to be a White Turk these days, or an MHP blowhard doing his fascist thing, nor should they. Should both these parties nominate their stereotypical selves, hello President Erdogan. Gul has a genuine shot here. His presidency has been unremarkable, which a Turkish presidency ought to be. While he’s taken heat for giving ascent to some repugnant AKP legislation, his veto would have been superfluous in the end as the parliament would just override it on majority vote. Is he in my ideological camp? Of course not, none of these people are. But in democratic, electoral politics you play the cards you’re dealt.
Is such a marriage easy? No. Hell no! Despite inhabiting a lot of similar ideological space (statism, nationalism, xenophobia), it goes against the virtual DNA of both the MHP and CHP to work together given their history. They are nearly as harsh of one another as they are of the AKP. But if Bulent Ecevit could hammer out a coalition deal with his DSP and the MHP, there’s always that possibility (the DSP inhabited identical ideological space as the CHP does, just with a different leader, did I mention parties were personalized in Turkey?). Though the result of that government was clear disaster, negotiating and governing with that coalition was a far taller order than agreeing on a candidate for a largely ceremonial position. All of which is nothing to say of the difficult pill to be swallowed by the CHP and MHP agreeing to endorse Gul individually. He’s the most prominent face of the AKP save Erdogan himself, and his very nomination to president was the cause of the 2007 crisis. But recall, that it was the MHP that facilitated Gul's election in 2007, by attending a quorum call (a quorum that the constitutional court pulled out it's ass in its absurd annulment of the first attempt at Gul's election). Not an easy pill to swallow at all; but necessary.
Though I hate false dichotomies for the sake of rhetorical leverage, the way I see it, the opposition in Turkey has two options: nominate you own candidates to face Tayyip, get your ass handed to you in the election, and hold on for whatever grand, looney, and destructive ideas he’s got in store for the office and the nation. Or, go with Gul. You have a known quantity who’s probably not going to recklessly blow holes in the constitutional order to immortalize himself as the greatest statesman that ever ruled, anywhere, anytime. Are these good options? Not really, but again, play the cards you are dealt. Gul might be an ace in the hole.
Make no mistake, I’ve got clear baggage in this. I think the current constitution is rotten to the core. Militaries suck at constitution writing; period. Additionally, my disdain for all the main political parties ranges from strong to absolute, as liberal democratic values aren’t embraced by any of them. But we must grasp at whatever shreds of democracy we can to prevent Turkish democracy from backsliding into genuine authoritarianism. For all its faults, the present constitution is probably better than whatever Erdogan has in mind. And though Gul and I share little in political values, he clearly doesn’t have the messianic hubris that Erdogan displays. Should an Erdogan-Gul contest be held, it’s anyone’s guess as to the result as I’ve seen no polling on it; but I like those odds far better than an assured Erdogan win which the CHP and MHP will hand deliver if they insist on nominating their own candidates for the presidency.
Who knows, perhaps Erdogan getting spanked by Gul would signal the end of his career. If only we could be so lucky.