Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

One step further

Turkey’s Erdogan continues to pursue his domestic agenda of personal hegemony, with less by the week standing in his way, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Selahattin Demirtaş co-chairs a legitimate political party. The Democratic People’s Party (HDP) is the third largest party in the Turkish parliament after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The fourth is the far-right ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP). The HDP is largely seen as a pro-Kurdish rights party, which made its entry into parliament a precedent, but because of its stances on women’s rights and minority causes in general it has come to appeal to a larger electoral base. As the head of a political party, Demirtas has the right to appear on television at least once a week to address supporters and the general public. He has been deprived of that right.

International newspapers and satellite television networks offer the only outlet for Demirtaş’s speeches and press conferences. Inside Turkey, one only happens across a televised statement by him by rare accident, on some rogue broadcast. Fortunately, so far at least, he appears more frequently in print among the few remaining holdouts in the face of the massive siege against press freedoms and journalists, such as Cumhuriyet. In spite of the many assaults and campaigns of intimidation, the newspaper has managed to remain true to its liberal and democratic principles in accordance with which it opened its pages to the leader of the third largest parliamentary bloc, not necessarily because it agrees with his views but because it believes that it should serve as a public forum for diverse views. Demirtaş’s views happen to be harshly critical of the government and, above all, of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom he accuses of attempting to build a dictatorship using the “coup attempt” that was staged mid-July as his cover. To be fair, Demirtas is not alone in this. In fact, some commentators, only half sarcastically, say that Erdogan has already created his dictatorship and that he now wants to legitimise that de facto reality with a new constitution.

Selahattin Demirtaş, as reported by Cumhuriyet on Saturday, said that, for Erdogan, states of emergency and decrees are a rare and precious fabric that can be cut to order. “Didn’t he, himself, say that the coup was a gift from God?... May God punish those responsible for the coup attempt a thousand times. There can be no defending them. However, may God also punish those who think it right to use the coup attempt as an excuse to visit an even worse injustice on the people.”

Speaking at an HDP solidarity banquet, Demirtaş held that the AKP controlled government was using the state of emergency and the decrees in its name to malign, silence and imprison opposition voices, prime among whom are members of the HDP.

How long will this continue? Unfortunately, it appears that Erdogan will continue to use that “gift from God” to the fullest until he gets what he wants, namely a “Turkish-style” presidential system. Talk about this subject had all but faded for a couple of months, but now it has resurfaced in full force in a government-orchestrated “debate” so as to pave the way for the legal codification of what already exists in practice. After all, Erdogan presides over cabinet meetings, attends security summits, holds regular meetings with village mukhtars in his palace, and does virtually everything that a head-of-state is supposed to do. Under the Turkish constitution, the presidency is effectively an honorary post, while the prime minister is the acting head-of-state. But Erdogan has had little time for such constitutional details when they did not serve his purposes.

Contrary to Demirtas, who would be lucky to have five minutes of public TV time a month, not a day goes by in Anatolia without extensive footage of the “Reis”. One moment he is delivering a speech in a university to mark the commencement of the scholastic year. The next he will be inaugurating some mega project and, of course, speaking again. That the inaugurated projects/“achievements” are nowhere near completion remains unmentioned and unmentionable. The point is to keep his face in constant view, to remind the people of his great promises, to make sure they see him shaking hands with world leaders, speaking at international podiums and, in short, appearing where the prime minister should presumably be, at least according to the constitution. In all events, if the prediction of an opposition MP is correct, the current prime minister will be headed for the same fate as the last one in a couple of months.

Meanwhile, the task of the current prime minister is to do what he was hired to do, which is to push for the constitutional amendments that will lay down in law the powers and jurisdictions that the president has already secured for himself by other means. The prime minister, in turn, has turned the heat up on lawmakers in order to secure the 330 votes that are required to bring a constitutional amendment to a public referendum. So, now its payback time for the MHP and, specifically, Devlet Bahçeli who narrowly survived an insurrection challenging his leadership of that party. With MHP’s MPs added to the AKP’s 316 MPs, the amendment should receive a comfortable majority.

The wily Bahçeli is ready and willing, but he needed time. After all, he could not be seen performing a 180 degree turn overnight on his long held and oft-repeated opposition to doing away with the parliamentary system that was one of the hallmarks of the republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.

After the MHP received a stunning defeat in the “early” elections in November 2015, losing 40 of its 80 parliamentary seats, one would have expected Bahçeli, who had led the party for 20 years, to step down. But as with many Third World politicians, that is not his style. In May, a large and angry faction of MHP members tried to hold an extraordinary congress, but their way was blocked by police (the Ministry of Interior, nudged by a power higher up, offered some feeble excuse about security precautions). Eventually, the “rebels” held their congress in a hotel in Ankara and called for a change of leadership, but the meeting was deemed invalid as it did not have the required quorum as stipulated in the party bylaws. Meanwhile Bahçeli, who is unstinting in the lip service he pays to democracy, dug in his heels against all calls for a rotation of authority within the party.

According to available information combined with stories whispered by activists fearful of the regime’s ears in every wall, Bahçeli secretly turned for help to a former aide who had since defected from the MHP in order to join ranks with the AKP, Tuğrul Türkeş. Türkeş was accused of betraying the principles of his father, Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the MHP. But evidently Bahçeli felt that such details can be overlooked in times of need.

Then— so the story goes — Bahçeli received a phone call one night and heard a familiar voice asking him, “Are you in trouble?” Bahçeli meekly acknowledged that indeed he was and volunteered to do what was necessary for the welfare and stability of the nation. As an opposition MP put it, this was Bahçeli’s way of signalling that he would support the arrangements required to fulfil Erdogan’s dream. In return, security forces descended to forestall the extraordinary congress and with lightening speed, the court issued a ruling that put paid to the MHP insurrectionists who, had they succeeded, would have not only ended Bahçeli’s career but also put paid to the imperial presidential dreams of the occupant of the Ak Saray.

Therefore, when PM Benali Yildirim whistled last weekend, Bahçeli came running. Yildirim, as part of his PR campaign for the constitutional amendment, has argued that the failure of the parties to form a government following the 7 June elections last year is proof of the need for a presidential system. This is the only way to attain the political and economic security the country needs in order to defeat terrorism, he said. He did not mention that his boss — Erdogan — was the agent responsible for obstructing the creation of a coalition government by stipulating conditions that were impossible for the CHP to meet.

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