Election tops the agenda in Turkish capital

When people ask me what is happening in the Turkish capital these days, my quick response would be that “the election” is occupying the first and foremost spot on the agenda in this dynamic city. In a post-referendum era, where the Turkish people have approved EU-backed constitutional changes, Ankara has fixated on the parliamentary election that will likely be held in June, a month earlier than planned.

As expected, most deputies in Parliament are worried that they may loose their seats not because of highly contested home constituencies, but simply because of the fact that party leaders may decide to leave them off the candidate list or put them back on the roaster with a slim chance of being re-elected. Bureaucrats in high-level positions, businessmen, professionals and even celebrities are eyeing the opportunities in the pre-election period to join party ranks in order to have the chance to become a deputy in Parliament.

With limited space on crowded candidate lists, many people, while trying to make a sales pitch to party leaders to secure a nomination, have already launched public relations campaigns to promote themselves as well. This is when we in the media get more than the usual number of calls in a regular day from incumbents as well as hopefuls in order to have a chat, provide coverage and run an interview so that they can get exposure. As a public service, we strive to strike a balance between this demand to convey the position of candidates and parties to our readers and fair reporting as much as possible.

The question here, of course, is what happens to all the important and challenging issues both at home and abroad that the government needs to deal with during this election campaign? Well, if there is a good chance that the government will change, then we can presume that the bureaucracy will come to a grinding halt as most high-level bureaucrats would decline to sign up for projects that could be construed as controversial by one or more political parties. They will not risk their careers, professional or political.

We do not see this happening in this election cycle, however, as there is a slim chance that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will lose its commanding position, based on early predictions from various polls. That means the wheels in the cumbersome Turkish bureaucracy will still keep rolling, providing opportunity to pursue reforms that will make the country more transparent and solidify its democracy.

As for contentious issues, like tackling the Kurdish problem and drafting a brand new constitution, the enthusiasm will inevitably lose its pace as these issues are left for the post-election period in mid-2011. My understanding is that the government seems to be determined to solve the Kurdish problem and there are no signs of it backing down. Sure, the major initiatives will be scaled back in order not to risk the wrath of the majority non-Kurds in a political minefield. But the process will go on.

The government uses a twin-track approach to make headway on the Kurdish predicament. On the one hand, the security operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and legal proceedings against the PKK’s umbrella organization, the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), will help relieve the threat faced by the Kurdish population in the country. As violence subsides and threats are minimized, the new environment of security will pave the way for Kurds to express themselves freely, and then we’ll see diversity and pluralism in Kurdish politics. That is why the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) does not want such a process to unfold as it fears the democratization initiatives will erode the strong grip it has on Kurdish politics. On the second track, the government will continue to remove obstacles in the way of the rights and freedoms demanded by Kurds, like reverting names of villages to their original Kurdish names.

I think we have already achieved the most crucial step in solving the Kurdish problem: The need to have an open environment for a free and frank debate on all issues. We were using self-censorship just a decade ago to avoid harsh jail sentences when reporting on the Kurdish problem. Now we are pretty much free to write whatever we want, though there are still bothersome cases out there pursued by overzealous prosecutors. The support for nationalist parties, which saw a huge spike at the outset of the Kurdish initiative, is now declining, providing the government with more room to maneuver.

Due to free and open reporting, non-Kurdish citizens in this country have also learned that the state has committed terrible injustices against Kurds in the name of fighting terrorism in the past. The rumors regarding this were not the propaganda of the terrorist organization, the nation realized. A feeling of empathy has overcome nationalistic and ethnic prejudice and has helped the general pubic make advances on the Kurdish issue.

I do not expect anything to be done about a complete overhaul of the Constitution before the election, but it will be definitely be a major issue on the ruling parties’, as well as other parties’, campaign platforms. We now have enough momentum to build on after the referendum and the government will seek more support to accomplish a brand new constitution. We may even seek a compromise in the new Parliament and hopefully polarization will diminish.

On foreign relations, the government will be more reserved on sensitive issues like rapprochement with Armenia, making up with Israel, fast-tracking the EU harmonization laws and reconciliation in the Cyprus talks. No doubt, the AK Party, the most liberal market-oriented government Turkey has seen so far, will keep pushing even harder for better market access in the region and the world for the benefit of competitive Turkish companies.

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