Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kurdish boycott’ a fading option

With the referendum approaching, a review of public and not-so-public opinion polls present the following view: “Yes” votes seem to be stabilizing at around 55 percent, and “no” votes and undecided votes (which may be dominated by intimidation or political pressure) at 45 percent. Several serious pollsters I have constantly been in touch with agree that “yes” votes are on the slow increase.
We have rough ideas of where party support stands. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), more than three pollsters say, is now above 42 percent, which is explained by the so-called “Supreme Military Council [YAŞ] crisis” -- on the choices and appointments of the top echelons of the military command. It is rather obvious that the public perceives the “crisis” as a political “derivative” of what happened on April 27, 2007, when the top command issued an extremely threatening e-memorandum against the government.

All pollsters point out that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is descending from about 30 percent to slightly above 20-23 percent. The surveys say that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s performance during the referendum campaign has created some disappointment, mainly due to harsh, combative, out-of-context rhetoric, perceived as a “bad copy” of Baykal’s style. One may predict that a possible defeat of the “no” side will mean trouble for the new CHP leadership, which could have chosen a softer style, leaving its voters more flexible and free. An obstinate “no” campaign now seems to be a huge gamble for the Kılıçdaroğlu line and might diminish the chances of preparing the CHP for the next national elections as a credible, hopeful, intelligent and reformed party.

The divisive effects of the referendum are also to be seen within the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which carried out a staunch “no” campaign from the very beginning. But the feedback it received has, it seems, been that of confusion and objection. A reliable source recently told me that the last meeting of the party’s executives turned into a session of harsh criticism of what is seen as the “obsessive line” of MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli. The growing vocal discontent there is based on surveys that say around a quarter of the MHP grass roots might defy the party line and vote “yes.”

Some party officials see danger ahead if the “yes” votes win, as the MHP will sink into a destructive vortex. Prominent figures feel uneasy that, by sticking to a categorical “no,” the party, which has performed relatively well in terms of protecting parliamentary democracy in recent years, now risks being perceived as an anti-democratic one -- the more the AK Party drives the reform line and the more lasting the PKK cease-fire is.

The PKK and its elected political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), are also being forced to seriously reconsider their stance. The PKK’s declared cease-fire, however fragile it may be, has two basic causes. First, the resolution of the YAŞ meeting in favor of the ruling AK Party has shown that civilians are slowly, but surely, taking control over the “autonomous” military, and this does not escape the attention of the common Turk or, more importantly, the Kurds.

Abdullah Öcalan and PKK commanders as well as the BDP have come to realize that, if the Kurdish initiative is to continue, it will have to be with the government and no longer the “state within.”

Second, the very nature of the reform package, and in particular its symbolic way of dealing with the ill spirit of the military coup, has led to a division among Kurds. And when this state of mind was confronted with the mine explosion incident in Batman (where four known Kurds died) and Dörtyol (where complex relations between the PKK and the deep state elements were exposed), a new civilian Kurdish dynamic emerged, forcing the PKK/BDP line to declare a cease-fire and phase out the rhetoric on calling for a boycott.

At this juncture, how the Kurds will act (without forgetting the traps of the fragile cease-fire, certainly) will define the future path of reform and normalization. My Kurdish sources, both hawks and doves, agree that this cease-fire is the “most serious one” after the one in 1993 that was initiated by the late President Turgut Özal. They agree that both sides are now extremely tired of fighting, and this may revive the “initiative.”

At the moment, the question is no longer whether the Kurds will boycott the Sept. 12 referendum. Rather, it is how high their turnout and how strong the “yes” vote will be. Polls (some unpublished) say over 75 percent of Kurds in Diyarbakır have declared that they will -- if necessary -- defy the boycott (this was before Öcalan said that the boycott was not a necessity).

In this sense, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stands once more before a great opportunity to strike a “bond of fraternity” with Turkey’s Kurds. He will visit Diyarbakır on Sept. 3 as well as other predominantly Kurdish cities around the same time. What he says, and does, will have a tremendous effect on the outcome of the vote as well as the pace and content of the reform process. There is no doubt that winning the hearts of Kurds will mean winning the battle for democracy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Erratic behavior is a loser

Who is the winner of the extended standoff between the government and the military over appointments to the top echelons of the army? After a deeply suspenseful week, it must be said, with slight caution, that a minor but significant tectonic shift occurred in the ever-so-sensitive relations between those elected and those appointed.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to have entered the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) with the same sense that has dominated his general approach to the commanders in the past year: mistrust. The reason for his mood was obvious; persistent reporting by the press -- fed by leaks from within the high command -- since the last national elections has shown that the high command acted in secrecy, often refusing to address the public at all in direct and honest institutional responses, or, at best, taking side routes to clarify questions that arose as a result of the revelations.
More importantly, all attempts to build trust were destroyed by allegations that some parts of the “headquarters” were until very recently engaged in clandestine political activity to weaken the ruling party and the work of its government. The clouds of suspicion never dispersed before Erdoğan’s eyes about obstacles to establishing normal relations.

The mistrust has led to different behavior than before: He took part in the YAŞ meetings with the determination that it was time to use powers granted to the civilian government to assert its will on choosing the commanders it wants to work with. These powers more often than not had remained on paper, but were never fully applied by the civilian predecessors. In this sense, it was a groundbreaking act.

For the military, always keen on its privileges and its self-declared “record” of interfering in political affairs, it was yet another frontline battle to keep the institution as it had been: autonomous, closed to civilian scrutiny, largely secretive and strictly defensive about its “homemade” appointment designs deep into the future. Yet, the predominant mood among the top generals could not be described as self-assured; some of them were self-conscious about the state of the institution as harmed and questioned in the eyes of the public. The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to implement the tough rhetoric as well as the means to “keep the civilians away.”

As a colleague recently put it in his analysis, the confrontation in the tense YAŞ meetings, day after day, showed that a shaken and stirred top military had repeated the erratic behavior that caused it great harm in the form of an e-memo on April 27, 2007.

This time, again, obviously ill-advised, top commander İlker Başbuğ chose the flawed path of attempting to create a deadlock by insisting on appointing Gen. Hasan Iğsız as land forces commander, defying Erdoğan’s will. The will, Başbuğ refused to acknowledge, was based on a constitutional right given to the prime minister. Complicating things even further, a replacement considered a midway solution ended badly when Gen. Atilla Işık suddenly declared his early retirement. Was this act the result of the top command “persuading Işık” to destroy Erdoğan’s “game plan”? Persistent allegations say it is, but we cannot be certain.

Was the “resistance” of the generals mainly driven by Başbuğ’s personal concern that he might be implicated in the ongoing trials -- for example, the one about the extrajudicial killing of Kurds in the early ‘90s under his command -- when he retires at the end of August? Even if this were the case, it still exposes the flawed nature of the collective act, as much as it did when the entire corps of officers -- 101 of them -- “disappeared” in order not to be interrogated by civilian law enforcement in the ongoing Sledgehammer case.

From whichever angle one approaches it, this was a staged act bordering on absurdity, displaying an institution in despair. In other words, the “crisis” was not actually about the confrontation between the government and the army, but the top echelons of the army itself.

The end result has been an encouraging one. Despite tensions, Turkey’s fragile system passed yet another test of durability, as it became clear that the elected can -- and hopefully will -- prove that it is the power of the vote that defines who will decide on the appointments in the bureaucracy and -- again, hopefully -- restore harmony within the state, and not vice versa. Furthermore, what took place has also become a lesson for the militarist segments of the press, which now realize that the days of myth-building around the military are nearing their end.

There remains only one blurred point, and this is whether the generals have come to the realization that their institution truly needs reform and adaptation to the realities of the world today.