David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
As a country permanently on the edge of Europe, both geographically and metaphorically, Turkey has a tendency to invite hyperbole. And, it has to be said, Turkish politicians are no strangers to embroidering fact in the search for votes, with the latest example being warnings from the opposition about a rush toward totalitarianism.
Statements made by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), at a recent meeting with a group of international journalists went some way beyond the normal level of criticism levelled by opposition leaders at an incumbent government, even that of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). "Turkey cannot be described as a healthy democracy, we are rushing towards totalitarianism," he warned.
"If a country has no freedom of expression, how can you call it a democracy," he added, pointing to the short-lived ban on Twitter, the continuing ban on YouTube, and the perennial issue of media ownership and partiality.
These are strong words that Kilicdaroglu justified by pointing to events of the past year. This has seen the routine use of riot police and tear gas to suppress anti-government protests, resulting in the deaths of six protestors, as well as a surprise police probe into corruption that saw dozens of arrests and forced the removal of four senior cabinet ministers and the head of a state bank, but which itself was suppressed through the removal and transfer of dozens of senior police and prosecutors. These events were followed by an even more unprecedented series of leaks onto the internet of telephone conversations involving Prime Minister Erdogan, senior ministers, businessmen and bureaucrats.
But while the police investigation may have been stalled, the Turkish parliament on May 5 voted to establish a special parliamentary commission to investigate the allegations against the four former ministers, albeit one which will be dominated by MPs from the AKP, which holds an overall majority in parliament.
According to Kilicdaroglu, the protests indicate just how much importance Turkey's young population gives to freedom of thought, while the question of corruption is symptomatic of the way Turkey has changed over the 12 years of AKP rule. "Today we have an AKP state: the courts, the prosecutors, the governors, the police – they're all part of an AKP construction," he said, enquiring what kind of state is it where a prosecutor cannot act on a complaint against the prime minister.
No to Putin model
It was for the coming presidential elections in August that Kilicdaroglu reserved his strongest comments, pointing out that media speculation was focusing on whether the AKP would put forward the current President Abdullah Gul as a candidate for a second term, or Erdogan. "This is just the 'Putin model'," he said, noting that it while the president is nominally independent from the political process, Gul has simply approved whatever the AKP government passes through parliament. "First we should debate what sort of president we want. We can't have a president who is suspected of corruption."
That debate though may already be over, with the AKP voting to retain its limit of three terms for sitting MPs, which will see Erdogan and most of his cabinet unable to stand as AKP candidates in the next general election in April 2015. This move all but confirms that Erdogan will be the AKP candidate, with Gul returning to the post of prime minister that he held briefly in 2002-2003.
According to Kilicdaroglu, the two-round presidential poll will see every party field its own candidate in the first round, with most likely a consensus candidate emerging in the second – a process he thinks will enable his party to pick up enough votes to win. No party has yet announced its candidate for the August polls.
Kilicdaroglu is not alone in suspecting that Erdogan might be looking to emulate Vladimir Putin. Such a possibility has been discussed at length in the Turkish media ever since Erdogan first trailed the idea of changing the Turkish constitution to introduce an executive presidency.
"Mr Erdogan has already become that president 'de facto', now he wants to be that president 'de jure', like Mr Putin," says Cengiz Aktar, professor of Political Science and senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Centre, pointing out that the real subject of discussion should not be the mechanics of who gets elected or how, but who should be standing as a candidate. "It's a serious omission, that the ethical angle is not discussed enough in Turkey."
"In a civilised country, people who hold public office and who have been under suspicion of graft, corruption and embezzlement, they resign first and clear their names, then they think about running again for office," he says.
Presidential election schedule
July 8 – publication of preliminary candidate list. All parties expected to nominate a candidate.
July 11 – publication of final candidate list. Some parties expected to drop their own candidates.
August 10 – first round of voting. IF no candidate receives 51% or more, a second round is held
August 24 – second and final round of voting, widely expected to be a runoff between one AKP candidate and one opposition candidate. The candidate receiving the biggest share of the votes is elected.
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