04/05/2007 - D-7
The perspective of seeing a member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) believed by many to be an "Islamic" movement, elected as President of the Republic has been the source of a political crisis in Turkey.
The First Round of the Presidential Election
The first round of the election took place at the Grand National Assembly, the only house in parliament on 27th April. After the vote the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül (AKP), the only candidate running after the withdrawal of Ersonmez Yarbay before voting started – the latter was a dissident candidate of the Justice and Development Party – had won 357 votes out of the 361 MPs present.
The People's Republican Party (CHP), the main opposition party led by Deniz Baykal boycotted the election along with the majority of MPs from the Mother Country Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) in attendance. As announced before the election the People's Republican Party immediately took the affair to court in order to invalidate the vote since two thirds of the members of the Grand National Assembly, ie 367 were not physically present during the first round. The CHP maintains that the Constitution demands the presence of two thirds of the MPs for the validation of the election of the President of the Republic. For its part the Justice and Development Party maintains that the Constitution does not mention a minimum attendance threshold with regard to the election of the Head of State.
On the eve of the first round General Yasar Büyükanit, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces communicated a text – entitled "the midnight memorandum" to the media on the part of the military authorities. "If need be the armed forces will express their position clearly and will act accordingly. No one should doubt this. All of those against the concept of the grand founder of our Republic, Atatürk, are enemies of the Republic and always will be", reads the press release.
The armed forces denounce certain practices promoted by the Justice and Development party such as for example forcing children dressed in "retrograde" uniforms to sing religious songs on 22nd April, the day before "Children's Day". They maintain that the Islamists have hardened their line since Abdullah Gül's wife, Hayrünsa brought the issue of wearing the veil in universities before the European Court of Human Rights (the veil is forbidden within government offices and in higher education in Turkey).
In fifty years the army has already undertaken three "coups d'état" (in 1960, 1971 and 1980) and forced the government led by Necmettin Erbakan, qualified as an Islamist, to resign in 1997.
The government responded immediately to the accusations made against it via its spokesperson, Justice Minister, Cemil Cicek. "In a State of Law it is inconceivable that the head of the army, an institution that remains under the orders of the Prime Minister, speaks out against the government", he declared.
On 29th April whilst waiting for the decision by the Constitutional Court which had received an appeal on the part of the People's Republican Party one million people rallied in the streets of Istanbul, after an appeal by around 600 organisations to say NO to the election of Abdullah Gül as President of the Republic and to support the armed forces; this demonstration followed the one organised on 14th April in Ankara that rallied 300,000 people against the appointment of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as candidate in the Presidential race. That evening Abdullah Gül said once more that he did not intend to withdraw his candidature.
The Invalidation of the Election and Perspectives for the Future
On May 1st the Constitutional Court, seven out of eleven members of which were appointed by the present President of the Republic, Ahmet Necdet Sezer cancelled, by nine votes to two, the first round of the presidential election on 27th April. The Court approved the People's Republican Party to the surprise of a number of jurists who question whether the Constitution demands a quorum during a presidential election.
During the evening of that day Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the Turks in a speech broadcast on TV and radio. The Prime Minister called for unity. "Dear Citizens, union, unity and solidarity are what we need the most. Turkey needs unity, free of prejudice". Hoping to defuse the crisis he denied wanting to turn Turkey into an Islamic State and promoted the results achieved by his government (high economic growth – 6.1% in 2006 – and the progress made in the country's accession negotiations into the EU) as witness of the openness of his party. "Just four and a half years ago this country was devastated by serious problems which thank God have been conquered one after another. At this moment in time we have already protected stability and peace and we have not damaged the confidence which we have achieved after a great deal of hard work. We do not have a magic wand, we are working seriously, we are quite aware, we assess our objectives and our abilities carefully and of course we are not exploiting Turkey's resources, we shall not do that", he stressed. Qualifying the decision taken by the Constitutional Court as "a shot fired against democracy", he did however say that he would respect it.
The European authorities were quick to react to the crisis. "We hope that one day Turkey will be able to join the EU but for this to happen it must become a true European country both economically and politically", declared European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso. The European Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, stressed that Turkey had to respect the rules of a State of Law and accept the civil control of the army:"If Turkey wants to join the EU it has to respect these principles." Finally the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davies said that he was worried about developments in the situation. "These declarations seem to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the armed forces to influence the election of a new President of the Republic. They should remain in their quarters and stay out of politics. In a democracy the army is under the orders of the democratically elected authorities of the State. The armed forces have no democratic legitimacy and cannot play a political role", he declared inviting the political parties to take a stance against the interference of the armed forces in political procedures.
The Constitutional Court's decision means that there will be general elections within a 45 to 90 day period. They will take place on 22nd July next. "The Constitutional Court's decision has blocked the democratic parliamentary system. To remove the obstacle and to put an end to the domination of the minority over the majority we have to turn to the nation and the people will take the decisions", declared the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hopes to see the approval of a constitutional reform by Parliament before the end of the week. This reform would modify the institutions somewhat, enabling the organisation of general elections every four years (an MP's term in office is five years at present) as well as the election of the President of the Republic by universal suffrage for a five year term in office – renewable once (instead of a single seven year term in office). In addition to this the Prime Minister hopes that the age to be able to be elected as an MP will be lowered to 25 (versus 30 at present).
The whole of Turkey was rocked by the recent events. On 30th April the Turkish Pound lost 4% in comparison with other foreign currencies and the Istanbul Stock Exchange (IMKB 100) dropped by 4.01% and by 3.23% on 1st May. The Exchange immediately recovered (+ 1.6%) and the Pound stabilised with regard to the euro and the dollar after the Constitutional Court's decision and its acceptance by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Presenting Turkey as if it were divided into two camps is criminal. Even though our opinions and ways of life are different we are one country, one Turkey", maintained the Prime Minister who did however fail in calming the fears on the part of the secular community whilst satisfying his supporters who hope to see Islam play a greater role.
The Grand National Assembly adopted a new agenda for the presidential election on 2nd May. A new round took place on 6th May; It may possibly be followed by the second round on 9th May. Abdullah Gül, who will stand alone indicated that he would not maintain his candidature if he failed to be elected president in the first round