03/11/2002 - Analysis
For nearly two years Turkey has been experiencing serious economic difficulties but now it is undergoing a political crisis also. The government coalition, that has been led by Bülent Ecevit since mid-1999, has had its day. After months of instability the Prime Minister has finally accepted to call for an early general election. This will take place on 3rd November.
Genealogy of the political crisis
Well before Bülent Ecevit first went to into hospital on 4th May 2002 the government's inertia, especially in terms of pro-European reforms, the threat of financial bankruptcy linked to the deep economic crisis that has been effecting the country for over a year and the numerous internal divisions within the government coalition led a good number of politicians to question the Prime Minister's ability to govern the country.
Bülent Ecevit, who is 78 years old, has a long political career to his name. He was appointed Prime Minister for the first time in 1973 at the head of a coalition with Necmettin Erbakan's Islamist Party "National Salvation" (MSP). The following year he ordered the Turkish invasion of Cyprus after the coup d'état by the Greek Cypriot nationalists who wanted the island's re-unification with Greece. After the military take over in 1980, Bülent Ecevit was banned from politics. Rahsan, his wife created the Democratic Left Party in 1985 which he became leader of once the ban had been lifted. In 1998 he was appointed head of the Turkish government for the third time. On 16th February 1999 the arrest of Abdullah Oçalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and of the armed rebellion in South East Turkey since 1984, guaranteed Bülent Ecevit victory in the general elections of 18th April 1999. The Democratic Left Party became the country's leading political movement, progressing from 14.6% to 22.19% of the vote. His popularity was further strengthened by the EU's acceptance of Turkey's candidature at the Helsinki Summit in December 1999. This populariity was shaken at the beginning of 2001 by a political faux pas that threw light on the ongoing dispute about the fight against corruption between the Prime Minister and the President President Necdet Sezer.
On 25th June, after two months away from power, Bülent Ecevit's own MP's from the Democratic Left Party, asked him to resign. A few days later on 8th July Husamettin Ozkan the Prime Minister's right hand man for over ten years and mediator for the government coalition left his position as Deputy Prime Minister followed by two other ministers and about 20 of the Democratic Left Party's representatives. The following day four ministers left the Government and fourteen MP's resigned from Parliament. At the beginning of July Devlet Bahçeli, the government's Deputy Prime Minister call for early elections and suggested 3rd November .
On 10th July Ismail Cem, Minister for Foreign Affairs also resigned and left the Democratic Left Party. His defection proved to be fatal to Bülent Ecevit's government, that lost 10 more MP's in two days bringing the number of DSP representatives who had resigned to 43 in two weeks. Simultaneously several MP's or local managers of the Democratic Left Party left the party. Ismail Cem, is a diplomat, and with Andreas Papandréou, has helped in the healing of relations between Greece and Turkey. He is also fervently in favour of his country's entry in the EU. He is a politician who commands respect both amongst the Turkish political community as well as in Western circles. Immediately after his resignation the former minister announced his decision to form a new political party with Husamettin Ozkan, the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, who is both a social democrat and resolutely pro-Western. The initiative is supported by a number of representatives of the Democratic Left Party who had resigned.
On 16th July Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit resigned himself to calling early general elections. These have been determined by Parliament to take place on 3rd November.
The Turkish Political System
The Great National Assembly of Turkey, the only house in Parliament, is elected every five years by a proportional vote. The minimum age to become an MP is 30. The candidate must also have a minimum level of primary education. In 1995 changes were made to the constitution and this resulted in an increase in the number of representatives to 550 and the lowering of the electoral majority to 18. In order to be represented in Parliament a party has to present candidates in at least half of the country's provinces and achieve a minimum of 10% of the vote. This measure aims to make it very difficult for Kurdish political groups to enter Parliament.
The Turkish Constitution stipulates that the Prime Minister must also be an MP. Turkish law makes it obligatory for the Government in power to change during the electoral campaign. The Home, Justice and Transport Ministers have to be replaced by independent representatives and the other members of the Government are selected from parliamentary groups according to their size. The Great National Assembly of Turkey elects a President for five years with a majority of two thirds of the MP's in the first two rounds of the election and an absolute majority during the third round. A fourth round can be organised if no candidate wins an absolute majority.
In Turkey there is also the National Security Council, chaired by the President and comprising four Army commanders, the Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Ministers as well as the Home, Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministers.
Most of the time the governments end in a coalition of parties, since the fragility of the political alliances lead to a great political instability. The Government led by Bülent Ecevit, comprised three political groups : the ultra-nationalist left; the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Prime Minister's party, the National Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, the Deputy Prime Minister's ultra-nationalist party, and the Mother Country Party (ANAP), a liberal, pro-European movement led by Mesut Yilmaz.
The Election Stakes
The three parties of the government coalition came to an agreement in July to adopt crucial reforms before the elections on 3rd November that will bring Turkish legislation in line with the European Union's texts. Amongst these are the abolition of the death penalty, the granting of cultural rights to the Kurdish population, the extension of public freedom, and the lifting of restrictions on non-Muslim NGO's. The adoption of these reforms on 3rd August, by a wide majority in Parliament, should enable Turkey to obtain a date for the start of membership negotiations from the Fifteen during the European Council in Copenhagen on 12th and 13th December.
Turkey, that has been associated the Fifteen in a Union customs treaty since 1996, has also been recognised as a candidate country for European integration since 1996; but with integration into the European Union in mind Turkey has yet to complete the democratisation of its regime that is still too authoritarian. The reforms that were voted in at the beginning of August by the members of the Great National Assembly of Turkey were welcomed by Brussels as "a courageous decision". But the European Union is still withholding its opinion as its waits to see whether these reforms are really applied. In addition to this other political problems have to be resolved and in particular that of Cyprus - whose qualification to join the European Union may be announced by the Fifteen at the European Council in Copenhagen. On 25th September, Günter Verheugen, European Commissioner for Enlargement declared: "Serious problems remain: torture, the imprisonment of journalists or MP's because of their beliefs. Negotiations cannot start until all of the political criteria have been. I shall not move from this position by an iota".
However the political criteria are not the only chapter in the conditions for membership. Turkey also has to confront a major economic task. Last year the Turkish GDP dropped by 8.5% and inflation rose to 68.5%. The country's public and private debts reached nearly 210 million euros, ie 104% of the GDP. Over the last three years the International Monetary Fund has granted Turkey 17 billion euros and the World Bank has given nearly 5 billion. Under the direction of Kemal Dervis, former Vice-President of the World Bank and then Minister for the Economy and the Treasury, the country has launched itself into the total restructuring of its economy. The objectives set for 2002 were the following: reduce public spending, the rehabilitation of the banking sector, growth of 3%, the reduction of inflation to 35% and public debt to 68.5% of the GDP. In February Horst Köhler, General Manager of the IMF declared "There is political unity to support this programme", as an exceptional justification of the IMF's support for Turkey. With the political crisis and especially the resignation of Kemal on 10th August from his position as Minister of the Economy, this political unity really has disappeared.
Many analysts believe that the general elections on 3rd November are in fact a real referendum on the European Union and the country's modernisation implied with it. According to all opinion surveys three quarters of the Turks are in favour of their country's integration into the European Union. Only 2% think that it will be possible within the next few years. Today Ismail Cem's leftwing liberals as well as those supporting Mesut Yilmaz and Tansu Ciller are confronting the ultra nationalists of Devlet Bahceli's National Action Party as well as a new "Poujadist" movement, the Young Party and especially the neo-Islamists. The latter have been forecast to be the future victors of the upcoming election. The Islamists are represented by two main movements: The Happiness Party (Saadet) and the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (AK) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, he was convicted and imprisoned for "incitement to religious hate" after having made a public reading of the nationalist poet Ziya Gökalp ("Our mosques are our barracks, our domes our helmets, the minarets are our bayonets and our believers our soldiers"). The former mayor of Istanbul was banned from political activity for a period of five years by Turkey's Constitutional Court that also dissolved the Refah (Prosperity Party) that he was leader of at the time. This decision received the support of the European Court of Human Rights in August 2000 that declared the ban necessary "for the protection of democratic society". After this dismantling the Islamist movement regrouped within the Virtue Party (Fazilet), that was finally prohibited in June 2001 for "anti-secular" activities by the Constitutional Court, after MP Merve Kavakçi presented herself in Parliament with a scarf on her head. The Saadet was then founded with close sympathisers of Necmettin Erbakan, and the Islamist Party for Justice and Development. Recep Tayyip Erdogan believed that the changes to the laws on public freedom annulled his conviction (article 312 of the criminal code that punishes incitement to religious hate was in fact abolished this summer) and he put forward his candidature for the general elections on 3rd November. On 16th September the High Electoral Council did however declare that the two Islamist leaders i.e. the former mayor of Istanbul and Necmettini Erbakan, ineligible.
After the most popular political man in the country was declared ineligible and just one month before the vote the opinion polls - although they are not very reliable in Turkey - have forecast the Islamists to be the victors of the coming general elections; the Turkish political scene is in a state of total confusion. This is all the more so since there is a battle raging in Parliament about the date of the elections. Some political groups believe they will be under threat if this election is held at the beginning of November and want Parliament to delay it. They tried to convene Parliament in an extraordinary session to achieve their aims but in the end they failed. In order to confront the serious economic crisis that the country is undergoing and also the international context and the possible war against Iraq, Turkey needs stability and political unity now more than ever.
Reminder of the general election results of 18th April 1999:
Participation rate: 85,2%
Source Agence France Presse