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Turkey: Coalition Partners Cross Swords Over EU Reforms, But Is It All About Human Rights?

Fears of a delay in November legislative polls emerged this week as fresh rebellion simmered in Turkey's fragile government. The latest crisis was triggered by a dispute between Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition partners over recent legal changes needed to qualify for entry in the European Union. Yet many in Turkey suspect politicians are far less concerned about human rights reforms than they are with political survival.

Prague, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The coalition cabinet of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is once again teetering on the verge of collapse as two its of its partners publicly squabble over reforms needed to qualify for entry in the European Union.

Because of an earlier crisis prompted by Ecevit's faltering health, Turkey's parliament in July voted to call for early legislative polls 18 months ahead of schedule. The mandate of the current parliament should have expired in April 2004, along with that of the ruling coalition.

Elections are now scheduled for 3 November, and opinion polls suggest none of the current coalition parties is likely to be represented in the next cabinet.

Results of a Deutsche Bank-sponsored opinion poll released on 4 September show that Ecevit's partners, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the center-right Motherland Party (ANAP), would garner 6.1 percent and 3.7 percent of votes, respectively, far below the 10 percent threshold needed to be represented in parliament. The same survey indicates that support for Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP) has reached a record low of 1.1 percent. Once the largest parliamentary group, the DSP has lost 70 deputies and nearly 10 cabinet ministers over the past two months. With only 58 seats left, Ecevit's party is now the sixth-largest group in the legislature and is on the verge of extinction.

The latest spat erupted after MHP leader and Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli on 9 September petitioned the Constitutional Court over a package of human rights reforms meant to accelerate Ankara's European Union membership bid.

Among legal changes voted on by the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 3 August are provisions scrapping the death penalty in peacetime and bestowing greater cultural rights over the country's 12 million-strong Kurdish minority.

Before the vote, Bahceli had said he would not challenge the reforms. But the MHP, which the latest crisis has left with the largest number of seats in parliament, now insists it opposes any such changes, lest they threaten national security.

On Monday, the far-right leader said he would also ask Turkey's highest court to annul another of the so-called "harmonization laws" that allows non-Muslim minority religious groups to buy and sell real estate.

Addressing reporters shortly before submitting his petition to the Constitutional Court, Bahceli was scornful of the European Union. "Parliament hastily adopted the European Union harmonization laws in the hope that [Turkey] would receive a timetable for membership talks and that a date [for the start of the talks] would be set up this year," Bahceli said.

The EU next month will review progress made by all 13 candidate countries before deciding on which ones to invite in its first enlargement wave in December. On 5 September, the EU told Turkey it would wait to see how reforms are being implemented before setting a date for accession talks.

The 15-member bloc also wants Ankara to use its influence on northern Cyprus's Turkish administration to help reach a peaceful solution to the division of the Mediterranean island before it joins the EU. Finally, Brussels wants Turkey to reduce the influence of its powerful army generals on domestic politics before engaging in formal accession talks.

The European Commission's tepid reaction to last month's parliamentary vote has triggered a new flare-up of frustration in a country where 70 percent of the population favors entry into the bloc.

Disillusionment with Europe is likely to profit Bahceli, who recruits a large part of his support from among the 30 percent of Turkey's so-called "Euroskeptic" voters.

Debate over EU-related reforms is likely to increase as the election campaign officially starts on 16 September, but not necessarily because of concern for human rights.

On 10 September, ANAP leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, who oversees relations with Brussels in the government, criticized his far-right coalition partner for challenging EU-related legal reforms and threatened to withdraw from the ruling coalition. "We, the Motherland Party, cannot remain a partner in a government that stands in the way on Turkey's road toward the European Union. We cannot take this responsibility," Yilmaz said.

Later that same day, Yilmaz demanded that an interim government be formed "that would both take Turkey to the elections and carry out efforts to harmonize [its legislation] with the EU."

Yet, Yilmaz has given confusing signals on how he intends to achieve his stated European ambitions.

Shortly after threatening to withdraw from the cabinet, the ANAP leader reportedly urged Ecevit to step down during a private meeting in the prime minister's office. Hours later, he called upon nationalist ministers to quit the government.

Addressing journalists yesterday as he was leaving for Brussels, Yilmaz said his party would decide "in the coming days" whether to leave the government. A decision had initially been expected earlier that day.

Many in Turkey suspect the ANAP leader is, in fact, fighting for his political survival.

In an interview with Turkey's NTV private television channel on Tuesday, MHP Deputy Chairman Bulent Yahnici accused Yilmaz of "gambling with the future of the Turkish people." That same day, Mehmet Ali Sahin, a deputy chairman of the moderate Justice and Progress (AK) Islamic Party, which has been consistently leading opinion polls since its creation last year, said that, in his view, Yilmaz is "seeking ways to escape from elections."

While calling for a cabinet reshuffle, the ANAP leader is publicly standing by the early election date. But Ecevit yesterday implicitly accused his deputy of misleading his constituents by playing political games. "When Mr. Yilmaz met with me yesterday, he said it was necessary to give up [the idea of] early elections. [However,] this was not made public," Ecevit said.

Yilmaz bluntly dismissed the charge, claiming that Ecevit had "misunderstood" him. Be that as it may, one of Yilmaz's deputies, Bulent Akarcali, candidly admitted last month that most mainstream parties were secretly hoping that elections would be called off. But he also said none of their leaders wanted to assume responsibility for openly advocating a poll delay.

Should Yilmaz withdraw from the coalition, parliament would have to be recalled from summer recess to discuss the fate of the cabinet, unless Ecevit decides to step down on his own. But on 10 September, the prime minister rejected such a scenario once again. "All my colleagues [in the government] believe that it would not be right for us to withdraw from the Council of Ministers at this stage because Turkey is going through a very sensitive period. Early elections will be held. Our nation will go to the polls in about 1 1/2 months and, given these circumstances, we cannot assume the responsibility of causing a change of government," Ecevit said.

The Turkish leader also dismissed fears that Bahceli's petition to the Constitutional Court and the dispute between his coalition partners will negatively affect relations between Ankara and Brussels. Ecevit also made it clear he believes the EU reforms are just a pretext used by the two prime ministers and party leaders for electoral purposes. "I do not believe our relations with the EU will suffer from that. There may be other factors that may hamper our relations and create difficulties. That one coalition party decided to go to the Constitutional Court to have certain constitutional amendments revoked should not cause a crisis or an upheaval. Unfortunately, it seems that our two coalition partners have drawn their swords. The conditions created by the [upcoming] elections have brought to an end the dialogue that we had been pursuing so carefully for the past 3 1/2 years. I was against holding elections before April 2004 because I knew this would happen," Ecevit said.

Though parties met yesterday's deadline to submit their lists of candidates, the question of whether the early poll will really take place continues to haunt Turkey's political establishment.

Parliamentarians barred from re-election -- commonly referred to as the "Disgruntled" -- are widely suspected of hoping for a postponement scenario that would save them from political oblivion. They may be looking for the support of those mainstream political parties that are unlikely to get enough votes to enter parliament.

Former prime minister Tansu Ciller last month said she had been approached to replace Ecevit and form a new coalition cabinet that would postpone the elections. Although Ciller did not specify who had originated the plan, analysts believe the invitation most likely came from Yilmaz's ANAP.

Ciller, who on 10 July said she was ready to succeed Ecevit in the event of a U.S. war on Iraq, now claims she does not favor postponing elections.

Should Washington decide to take military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Ankara would almost certainly be required to assist U.S. forces. A war could also involve Turkish troops that have been stationed in Iraq's mainly Kurdish north since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Turkey looks at the prospect of turmoil along its southern border with alarm, but analysts believe it is in no position to influence the U.S. decision because of its dependency on International Monetary Fund loans.

The Turkish Constitution reads that, in case of war, parliament may decide to postpone elections for at least one year with only a simple majority of votes.

Ecevit argues that now that elections are scheduled for 3 November, any delay could be harmful to the country. So far, he can rely on President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and army generals who oppose any change in the election timetable, lest Turkey be plunged into political chaos and efforts to stem a nearly two-year-old economic recession be jeopardized.

Nevertheless, Ecevit twice this week had to admit that the situation in Turkey is "confused."

As columnist Mete Belovacikli wrote yesterday in the Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News," "For the first time, the probability that elections will be postponed is high."