Monday, July 05, 2010

Trench politics

The biggest story in yesterday’s Turkish newspapers seemed to be the “format” of the visit Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) new leader, paid to army trenches in the southeastern corner of the country. Did he stand up tall, or kneel down? Did he look determined to finish off the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or not? How was he treated by the commanders and soldiers?
And so on and so forth.
Some papers published two photos together; one taken directly after the attack at the border post -- with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kneeling together with the top commanders -- and a standing Kılıçdaroğlu, almost hidden behind a high wall of sandbags.

The CHP leader’s visit had other types of symbolism, again noticed and exposed by the same papers: He was invited by Gen. İlker Başbuğ, the chief of General Staff, to visit the trenches, but later -- to his expressed surprise -- he was on the journey assisted by the Land Forces commander, Gen. Işık Koşaner, and the commander of the 2nd Army, Gen. Necdet Özel. Now, this was a sort of military troika: The current top commander asks his successor and his successor’s successor as chief of General Staff in the coming four years or so to accompany a fresh political alternative. Should we pay attention to that? Naturally (we all know where most of the officer corps’ sympathies lie), but not too much.

The forest of symbolism somewhat blinded an important aspect (perhaps another symbolism) of Kılıçdaroğlu’s instant visit. He chose to be flown to the military side of the conflict rather than meeting the people, the natives, the Kurds, with whom he has many things in common. He did pay a visit to a village, but the one chosen was known for its armed fight with the PKK. One can only imagine how a common Kurd would react to such a format and choice of symbols. Kurds are good at that.

Meanwhile, I was attending a meeting in İstanbul which brought together some creme de la creme members of Italian and Turkish businesses, joined by a large group of European colleagues. There, I bumped into Gülsüm Bilgehan, a highly respected and dignified figure of the “new CHP” under Kılıçdaroğlu. Now at the top layers of the party, she truly signaled hope and change in the attitudes of the main opposition, in particular those towards accession negotiations to the EU. Responding to chief EU negotiator Egemen Bağış, she underlined the common points of her party’s EU strategy with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than its differences. When she concluded her intervention with the point that “we all want the membership because of our children and grandchildren in a world of peace and prosperity,” a wave of applause filled the room.

Now, this was a clear deviation from the line drawn by Baykal devotees like Onur Öymen, who, if he were present, would easily turn an event like this into a sour shouting match.

At the moment, the CHP is -- as we have seen from these two examples -- raising more questions than presenting answers. Clearly the party is much keener than its previous leadership to convey to the foreign observers a political line formed by hope rather than bitterness and obstinacy, but when it comes to the crucial details of a holistic vision and strategy in the major issues, it seems adrift. Much of it has to do with the slow motion tectonic shifts taking place at the moment on the top level. Kılıçdaroğlu is still uncertain of how much room to maneuver he has, in the thick and complicated structures remaining after Baykal.

The recent example of stepping back and forth came when he declared -- albeit in very vague terms -- that he would solve the headscarf issue. The same day he backpedalled, saying he did not say anything about the headscarf in universities, and that there were court decisions about it. He showed that he would be too keen on not scaring some solid parts of the party and the staunchly conservative-secular segments of the electorate.

It was like sticking one’s head up and then ducking again in the trenches. It is even more unclear where the CHP will stand on the Kurdish issue. The visit to the “Kurdish frontier,” taking photos with the soldiers and neglecting to meet the dismayed residents, may at the moment look like a safe choice. After all, what the CHP is waiting for, more than any other actor in politics, is to see what the top court will have to say about a constitutional reform package it objected to.

That its attitude goes against the expectations of the considerable part of the EU does not seem to concern Kılıçdaroğlu (who could discontinue the Baykal line and rescind the petition filed with the Constitutional Court), who hopes that an annulment -- in whole or in part -- of the package will open the doors wide open for his party to rise as an alternative from the autumn on. Until then, it is safer hiding behind the sandbags, avoiding any “real” visibility on issues such as the Kurdish problem or the one concerning the headscarf.

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