Monday, May 16, 2011

Tap dancing at the businessmen’s club

When two professors a week ago in a well-attended meeting were through with their presentation of a rough draft constitution, which they had prepared together with some 20 experts and opinion leaders for the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), Cem Boyner -- a charismatic liberal businessman and the husband of the organization’s president -- took the floor.

He bluntly but gently told the audience that the progressive draft would meet resistance both from within and without. Emphasizing the need to “stand behind” it as a crucial choice “no matter what,” he turned to the members of the board at the podium and said, “If you feel that you cannot carry this through, you had better cut it off right now, right here.”

It was one of the earliest signals of unease creeping in.

Boyner’s words would later be right in their prediction and be confirmed.

After days of intense debate in public, TÜSİAD seems to be at internal pains to be the focal point of accusations from newspaper columns devoted to establishment positions and political parties such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Boyner had already received the signal. When he returned to his seat, one elderly, conservative and powerful businessman whispered in his ear that he must be congratulated for his intervention. “You were so right in saying that we should cut it off. We really should,” he told Boyner. One can take it for granted he was not alone in thinking so.

So, it is again the old and new TÜSİAD marked for infighting. As the two respected professors boldly declared the infamous introduction to the current Constitution must be abolished and that there must be no unamendable articles except the one underlining the republican character of the country, many members of the organization shifted about tensely in their seats. The draft proposal, sponsored by TÜSİAD, had come as a cold shower for its conservative, Kemalist flank.

The internal frictions must have come to the boiling point because two days ago the board issued a lengthy statement saying “it was not a TÜSİAD proposal,” distancing itself from some main points and principles the draft highlights. It leaves the working team rather alone, and removes some of the weight from what they had concluded, which was initially a powerful entry into the debate.

Now, some members -- remaining anonymous -- complain through columns that the leadership under Ümit Boyner had not informed them -- not even Erkut Yücaoğlu, chairman of the high advisory board of TÜSİAD -- of its content.

This “turn” must cause concern for the debate after the election but is not unusual. When TÜSİAD ordered another draft constitution proposal some 10-12 years ago from the late Professor Bülent Tanör, there were only two people who at that time backed it -- İshak Alaton and Can Paker.

The rest of the membership had not liked what they heard and argued that the organization should not deal with politics but only with business and the employment of the workforce. Those were the hard times under the heavy influence of the military, which was eager to go on with social engineering, so the draft constitution was shelved.

The recent “retreat” of TÜSİAD shows that the great divide between the mainly Kemalist “pro-establishment” flank and reformists continues. It also shows that the organization will feel increased pressure to be part of the national mobilization for a new constitutional order, or stand by and watch with extreme caution.

It is now apparent that TÜSİAD President Ümit Boyner will continue to walk on a tightrope as Turkey enters the elections.

When TÜSİAD announced the report last week, it gave the impression that the powerful figures of business would exert even pressure on all the parties, in particular the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Now, after the declaration, it may have eased it.

An undecided and divided TÜSİAD will not be of much help. Its choices and clear stand remains a hope because it understands that Turkey can no longer proceed with the legacy of the generals of the 1980 coup.


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