Tensions Rise in Turkey in Advance of Presidential Election

By: R. Krespin

As the countdown proceeds towards the May 16 presidential election in Turkey, a sense of panic pervades Turkey's secular circles, which fear for the secular and democratic nature of the Turkish republic. The possibility that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will bid for and win the presidency heads the national agenda, with daily polls, wagers, and guessing games.

According to the Turkish constitution, the president is elected by parliament; at present, the AKP party, whose roots are Islamist, holds the majority in parliament.

To date, Erdogan has been secretive about his candidacy, saying that the AKP will disclose its presidential candidate on April 16, a month before the election.

The thought of an Islamist occupying the highest position in the land has thrown the country into turmoil, and has deepened the rift between Islamists and secularists - and this is reflected in Turkey's divided media.

Business circles, NGOs, and the general public have been expressing their wish for nominating a candidate by national consensus, so as to prevent chaos and instability.

Many of the AKP government's Islamization attempts during the past four years have met with rejection and vetoes by the current president, the staunchly secular Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who has acted as a force for checks and balances. This will be lost if he is replaced by Erdogan.

It is thought that if the AKP adds the presidency to its monopoly on the executive and legislative bodies, it will constitute a serious threat to the core principles upon which the modern Republic of Turkey is built. Such absolute, unchecked rule will even give the AKP the power, in the period between the presidential and general elections, to change the constitution and make Turkey into a religious state.

While some secularists are looking to Turkey's strong military, as the custodian of the republic and of the constitution, to intervene as a last resort, the senior commanders are remaining silent on the matter of the presidential election and on internal politics, with reference to the democratic process and in line with demands by the E.U. to lessen the military's influence. [1]

The following are excerpts from Turkish media reports on the upcoming presidential election.

Secular Turkish Daily Cumhuriyet: "Are You Aware of the Danger?"

Two 20-second television ads [2] by the secular Turkish daily Cumhuriyet ("Republic") angered the AKP and led to discussion in AKP group meetings and the parliament floor about suing the paper. [3]

In the first ad, a ticking clock with its hands moving backwards is shown, and a voice-over says: "On May 16, the clocks are being set back 100 years. Are you aware of the danger? [Defend] your republic!"

The second ad opens with the sound of sirens; then the caption "1881-2007" appears [4] and a voice-over says, "In May 2007 the presidential election will be held. Are you aware of the danger? Defend your republic!" (To view the clips, see http://switch3.castup.net/cunet/gm.asp?ClipMediaID=746296&ak=null ; http://switch3.castup.net/cunet/gm.asp?ClipMediaID=746291&ak=null ).

Turkish Columnist: Erdogan Will Be President, But Will Act as Prime Minister

Turkish columnist Can Atakli, of the centrist, secular daily Vatan wrote: [5] "With Mr. Tayyip [Erdogan] in his office at AKP headquarters sit four of his cabinet ministers, and they discuss the presidential election. The ministers are certain that Erdogan will be the presidential candidate, and they are also absolutely certain that he will be elected. One of the ministers says, 'Tayyip Bey, there are media speculations that if you become president you will lose your power over the government, if it is a coalition government [after the general elections].' [6]

"Erdogan dismisses the argument with a wave of his hand and says, 'Don't worry, we will again be the only party to form the government' [...] and then continues, 'and how could there be any problem with the government - if I am the president? I will use all my powers [as president]. The constitution gives the president the authority to preside over the cabinet when he deems it necessary. This means that the president can act as the prime minister whenever he deems it necessary [...] Therefore, I can attend and preside over every cabinet meeting, if I want to. And I will definitely do that.'

"One of the ministers says happily: 'This is exactly what everyone [in the AKP] wants. This way you will become president, and act as prime minister too, when necessary.'

"Some of the ministers who attended that meeting shared this conversation with their friends. That is how I learned about it. Even if not every word is exact, the essence of the conversation is true."

Turkish Columnist: "What if Erdogan Acts Like Putin?"

In a column titled "What if Erdogan Acts Like Putin?" columnist Mehmet Tezkan, also of Vatan, described a very different scenario: [7] "If Erdogan becomes the presidential candidate, there will be a crisis... If he gives up [the presidency] and gets to be [prime minister] of a single-party [AKP] government [after the November general elections], he will be another [Russian President Vladimir] Putin...

"Putin designed Russia according to his wishes... With the capital... the businessmen... bureaucrats... [and] media... he built the Russia that he wanted.

"Erdogan will do the same. He will become more firm. He won't tolerate loud speech, let alone criticism. In the last year or year and a half, he has been showing signs of this. In 2003, Erdogan was rather timid and hesitant [...] He didn't know power and was unfamiliar with [affairs of] state... Now he has tasted power... He has begun to attack the president of the Higher Education Board... to reprimand university presidents... to accuse media organs of treason... to completely ignore the opposition...He has begun overreacting to the slightest of protests [...]

"So what will he do if [the AKP] comes to power once again? [The answer] is clear... Currently, 670 critical public positions have [only] acting heads. Why is this? Because the government is unable to override President Sezer's vetoes of its appointments. Erdogan will deal with that first. He will appoint [his men], and [the president] will readily sign... He will then pass the legislation he wants... and the president will readily sign... Then he will assign [his men] to the position of president of the Higher Education Board... [and to positions] of ambassadors... governors... security heads... and even members of the judiciary. All institutions will be manned by the AKP...

"Businessmen will get their share too... Those who support the government will get their business done... Those who don't will be [thrown out], and be run over by the wheels of bureaucracy... Then it will be the turn of the media... The [AKP] newspapers and television channels will grow, while others will be lost.

"Foreign capital loves countries where all authority is held by one man. Didn't they love Putin too? [When this is the case,] all doors open and things are easier for them [...]

"That's why I think Erdogan will not become president, and will send to the presidential residence a man who is pallid and humble, who does not like being at center stage... He [Erdogan] will wait for the November elections in order to be like Putin. A powerful prime minister, who does whatever he wants [...]"

Turkish Columnist: The Presidential Suit "Won't Fit" Erdogan

Columnist Hassan Pulur of the secular, mainstream Milliyet wrote: [8] "Not every garment fits everyone; [people] are short, tall, slim, fat... If you insist on dressing everyone in [a particular garment], it will either be loose and unflattering, or too tight, and will rip.

"The presidency is like a suit, and it must fit the wearer. For example, it will not fit someone who says [as PM Erdogan has said]: 'democracy is a tool, not a goal!.' It doesn't fit someone who yells at simple citizens, and reprimands them and sends them away. It doesn't fit someone who says 'Hitler too was secular' [...] or '[secularism] will obviously go away if our people wish it to.'

"This suit doesn't fit someone who has said [as PM Erdogan has said], 'These people [i.e. former Turkish governments] are racing to join the European Union, while the Europeans are making every effort not to accept us. We [i.e. the AKP] do not want to join. The E.U.'s real name is the Union of Catholic Christian States.'

"[This suit] doesn't fit someone [...] who says [as PM Erdogan has said] of the president of the Higher Education Board, Professor Tezic, that 'his head does not work [...], or someone who says there are 27 ethnic groups in Turkey [...], contemplating an Ottoman-style division [...]

"However, there are those who are trying to dress this person [i.e. PM Erdogan] in this suit [...] and who are trying to make us believe that he can be a centrist president who wants to embrace everyone [...] and protects us all [...]

"It won't be long now. Soon you will see how the suit fits when he wears it. It will either be too big and will fall off, or it will be so tight that it rips open [...]"

Former Chief of Staff: If Erdogan Becomes President "There Will Be Chaos"

The secular, large circulation Turkish daily Hurriyet reported: [9] "Answering journalists' questions on a program on Haberturk [TV], [...] former Chief of General Staff General (ret.) Dogan Gures said: 'The face of Turkey is changing; I look at people in Ankara [and see] more and more in Saudi garb. The moustaches are changing; the clothing is changing; the [verbal] expressions are changing [to Arabic expressions]. There is nervousness [in the air] [...]' He added that secularism was in danger.

"Gen. Gures said that the situation was like the period prior to February 28 [1997, the ousting of former Islamist PM Necmettin Erbakan by military intervention], and added: 'I am telling the present [AKP government] to wise up and shape up.'

"Gures told the journalists that if Erdogan became president, there would be tension in Turkey, [since] the post [of president] acts as a valve to prevent social tension. He said that President Ahmet Necdet Sezer had been very successful, and that by vetoing some of the AKP government's policies he had prevented public reaction. He stated that in the event that Erdogan became president, there would be no such mechanism [of checks and balances]. [...] [He said,] 'The Turkish people is very concerned. Erdogan does not have what it takes to fulfill the duties of the presidency - that is, to ensure that the national institutions and bodies work together in harmony. If he becomes president, there will be chaos.'"

Demonstrations Against an Erdogan Presidency; One Million Expected to March on Ankara

Anti-AKP demonstrations have been held across Turkey, with the largest one on March 31, 2007 in Antalya. Recently, the Association of Ataturkist Thought (ADD) issued a statement calling on its members and concerned citizens everywhere to join forces to protest against the AKP government. In its statement, the ADD committed all its resources to the national goal of bringing down the AKP prior to the elections, and invited all followers of Ataturk and of his principles to participate in a massive demonstration scheduled for April 14, 2007 in Ankara. According to the Turkish media, the Ankara demonstrations are expected to draw one million participants, and are to be followed by other demonstrations across the country.

Actors and artists also organized a demonstration in Istanbul, just prior to World Theater Day on March 27, 2007. What started as a protest against the AKP government's decision to destroy Istanbul's Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) quickly turned into a "Don't Destroy the AKM, Destroy the AKP" demonstration. Some 1,000 actors, singers, dancers, and artists from all the state theaters, operas, and ballet companies met in front of the AKM, gave a performance of "No One is Sleeping" from the Verdi opera Nabucco, read poems, and sang a piece composed for the new Turkish film The Republic. In a statement, which was also signed by the members of 14 private theatre companies, they vowed to fight back against the AKP government, which, they said, was at war with the theater. [10]

*R. Krespin is the director of the Turkish Media Project.


[1] Turkey is a candidate for E.U. membership, and is in the process of implementing E.U. criteria, one of which is to lessen the power and political influence of the Turkish military. However, Turkey's constitution gives the responsibility and duty of guarding the Turkish republic's secular regime to the military.

[2] Broadcast through February 2007 in major Turkish TV channels such as Haberturk, Kanalturk, CNN Turk, StarTV, KanalD. They were stopped by a complaint sent to RTUK [Turkish Radio-TV Supreme Council] by AKP that the ads were discriminatory [against AKP] and an incitement to hatred. However after a short break, Cumhuriyet ads were broadcast for a few more weeks.

[3] During 2006, Cumhuriyet was the target of multiple bomb attacks by Islamists.

[4] "1881" is the year of the birth of modern Turkey's founding father and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. "2007" presumably marks the death of Ataturk’s reforms and principles.

[5] Vatan (Turkey), March 12, 2007.

[6] Media organs have been reporting that some in the AKP circles are concerned that if Erdogan wins the presidency, the AKP will lose his charismatic leadership, and thus lose some power in the November 2007 parliamentary elections campaign.

[7] Vatan (Turkey), March 7, 2007.

[8] Milliyet (Turkey), Marc 31, 2007.

[9] Hurriyet (Turkey), March 5, 2007.

[10] Radikal (Turkey), March 27, 2007.

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