Campaign game in Turkey’s election

The U-turn by Turkey’s election commission on its controversial decision to bar independent candidates endorsed by the pro-Kurdish party eased the tension in the country. Nevertheless the ensuing chaos and violent clashes for the last three days claimed the life of a young demonstrator and injured dozens of others while the vandalism and destruction of public and private property resulted in bitter feelings among Turks and Kurds alike.

I will not dwell on the undemocratic stand of the Supreme Election Board (YSK) as I have written in this column many times how this archaic body disenfranchised millions of voters in the past, starting with Turkish expatriates. While the constitution provides expats the right to vote, the YSK has never allowed them to participate in elections, citing logistical difficulties and unwillingness on the part of the Foreign Ministry. When the Foreign Ministry disclosed its communications with the YSK, we learned that a carefully drafted plan to allow voting was in place at Turkish diplomatic missions abroad and ready to go the moment the YSK gave a green light. The YSK is the sole culprit in this failure.

Again in the last election cycle, the YSK sent a letter to thousands of disabled people telling them not to bother coming to the polling booths because the facilities were not equipped to allow for handicapped access. They could have ordered to have ballot boxes placed on the ground floor for easy access for the disabled. They did not. The board even refused a plan by local municipalities to provide transport for the disabled on election day when in fact the YSK has enough financial resources to make sure disabled voters have a ride, but it did not. The latest scandal proved once again that Turkey needs to overhaul this board at once to reflect the democratic standards an EU candidate country should espouse.

Now it is time to ponder who is the winner(s) or loser(s) in the reversal of a decision to bar pro-Kurdish independent candidates from running in elections. First of all we have to understand who plotted this scheme and what is it that the conspirators were hoping to accomplish. The justification from a legal point of view is a moot point and does not require an in-depth examination at this stage because of the political nature of the decision. It was rumored in circles in the Turkish capital that the nationalist members of the YSK cooked up the scheme in cooperation with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Judging from the cluster of polling surveys, we know that the MHP is on a razor thin edge of losing out in the upcoming elections because of the 10 percent national threshold for the entry into Parliament.

According to the scenario, the disqualification of high-profile Kurdish independent candidates would have caused an uproar in the Southeast. As is often the case with Kurdish demonstrations, it was anticipated that the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would exploit peaceful rallies, hijack the cause and turn it into violent clashes, provoking the security forces to respond in kind. The end game was to convince non-Kurdish voters in other parts of the country that the government is unable to control what the MHP leader provocatively called the other day “a trial of uprising” in the Kurdish Southeast. This would sway voters from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to the MHP and help the nationalists stay afloat in the June elections. At least, that is what the plotters hoped.

Considering how the agenda in Turkey changes very quickly, my guess is that the government has ample time to do some damage control before the elections. The strong reaction to the YSK’s decision across the political spectrum, with the exception of the MHP, gave the government much leverage to strong arm the YSK into reversing what was a unanimous decision. What is more, the public in Turkey is fed up with the 30-year-long armed conflict with the terrorist PKK and is willing to give more leeway to the government to use means other than security and military-oriented policies to solve the Kurdish problem. Hence playing to the sensitivities of the Turkish public might very well backfire on nationalists at this juncture.

As for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), I think they missed out on a big chance to project the party from a regional ethnic-based one to a national party that is willing to bite the bullet for the sake of internal reconciliation. Their victimization at the hands of the YSK could have helped their numbers rise at the expense of the AK Party, the only other contender for Kurdish votes in the region, provided that party leaders stick to non-violent rhetoric. For the first time in Turkish political history, a pro-Kurdish party received much sympathy from people from all walks of life in this country (with the exception of die-hard nationalists, of course). They could have cashed in on that windfall and positioned the party as an honest broker in solving the long-running Kurdish problem.

But I suspect party leaders blew the chance by opting to provoke an already agitated public over the YSK decision and failed to distance the party from violence, destruction and vandalism of public and private property. Instead of calling for calm and restraint pending the result of the appeal, the BDP added fuel to the fire, damaging the credibility of the party’s ability to solve the problem in the eyes of millions. The overwhelming majority of Kurds do not approve of the kind of political tactics employed by the BDP and will in all likelihood punish the party for belligerent politics. Like Turks, Kurds in this country are also hungry for peace, stability and safety and want to see a promising bright future for their kids. The BDP would be seen as sabotaging that prospect for peace.

In the meantime, the main opposition party chose to play it safe but acted in an opportunistic way when its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, suggested an emergency meeting of Parliament during a recess period on the eve of elections. He (and everybody else in Turkish politics) knew very well that the Constitution dictates any changes made to the Law on Elections do not apply to the next elections if scheduled in less than a year’s time. He also knew that most deputies who did not make the list for the June elections will simply not show up, preventing Parliament from reaching the required 367 votes to make the constitutional amendment. It was a cheap shot by Kılıçdaroğlu and was not taken seriously as a result.

I believe schemes like the YSK’s scandalous decision are destined to fail eventually. My optimism comes from the fact that Turkish society has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades with major transformation taking place across the country, beyond the beltway of traditional power centers. This change was spearheaded by vibrant and increasingly diverse civic groups whose demands seem to be crystal clear: transparency, accountability, rule of law and democratic ideals reinforced by fundamental rights and liberties.

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