Turkish president clashes with Erdogan in ‘silent war’

ANKARA – Ask any foreign investor about last week’s events and he would say that just when things were going smoothly between Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government and the staunchly secularist establishment, the bigwigs in Ankara shoot themselves in the foot. The fact is, things were never going smoothly. The silent war in Ankara surfaced when President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed laws aimed at allowing the banned leader of the ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to become prime minister. What foreign investors see as an unwelcome distraction could well be another excuse for profit-taking in a market that is already on edge over a looming US attack against neighboring Iraq. But beyond emerging market talk, everyone is trying to judge how far the president’s move could deal a blow to political stability. The veto, per se, is not much, perhaps. But that surely won’t be the last time the silent war in Ankara floats up. When Turkey’s official and de facto leaders, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and Erdogan respectively, stationed themselves at the Copenhagen summit to earn Turkey a date for EU talks, their ruling Justice and Development Party (AK), with support from the sole opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), passed constitutional amendments aimed, on the surface, at expanding political freedoms but, practically, at removing the political ban on Erdogan, who is barred from Parliament because of a former conviction for Islamist sedition. The amendments allowed into Parliament politicians who were previously convicted for «ideological crimes,» with those convicted of «terrorism» still barred. They would have let Erdogan stand in a by-election early next year and then become prime minister. But President Sezer, a previous head of the constitutional court, said the constitution could not be altered to benefit one single person. «It is clear that the constitutional amendment is subjective, concrete and aimed at one individual,» he ruled. But the president’s limited powers do not allow him to veto the laws a second time. The AK quickly challenged the veto. Party officials said they would move to quickly pass the changes again, and intact, as early as this week to field Erdogan at a by-election. That will possibly not be the end of the battle. If Parliament approves the laws again, President Sezer could appeal to the constitutional court, a secularist stronghold, or call a public referendum. Both procedures would take months and spark a fresh round of debate and tension. The advocates of the constitutional amendment argue that it was strange to have the leader of a party democratically elected to rule a country not allowed to take office – and especially because he had been sent to jail for publicly reciting a poem. Others think President Sezer had acted entirely constitutionally by refusing to approve amendments which, everyone accepts, appeared to be tailored to the political ambitions of one man. One thing is certain, however. The standoff over the constitutional amendments reflects serious differences between the military and the president, on the one hand, and Erdogan and his party on the other, over strategic matters such as Cyprus. The veto is, in fact, an echo of a deep distrust by the secularist establishment in Erdogan who, according to them, is much too eager to move on Cyprus in return for a date for EU talks. On Cyprus, Erdogan happens to be on a line most hardliners may not subscribe to at this point. In Ankara’s «more important office buildings,» Erdogan is suspected for intending to give up Cyprus for EU accession talks which, he calculates, would prune the military’s role in politics and secure his own survivability. Looks like a conspiracy theory. Erdogan may or may not have such intentions. But the fact is he is suspected to have them. President Sezer is a cautious man. He could not have launched the battle over the amendments without calculating his and AK’s next step. The AK, on the other hand, has very quickly replied to the first assault – and in a most anticipated manner. Whichever way it proceeds, the battle will create in-house tensions in Ankara and put off an early peace deal in Cyprus. The battle, in fact, is an echo of a greater, silent war in the Turkish capital.

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