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The following article by political commentator Murat Yetkin appeared in the daily Radikal on 16 September 2010. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

Paying the price for the CHP's error

Murat Yetkin

I need to begin by making the following pronouncement which will strike certain readers as being nonsense: The 42 percent “no” vote in the 12 September 2010 referendum was, for the “no” camp and especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters who constituted the majority within it, a miracle rather than a rout.

Why? Because if the country were not ruled by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development (AK) Party, the majority of left-wing voters within and outside the CHP who went to the polls and cast “no” votes would – with the possible exception of those two articles concerning the judiciary – have been capable of voting “yes” to these changes. Indeed, some voters to the left of the CHP may well have participated in the Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP’s) boycott or campaigned for the spoiling of ballot papers.

However, apart from the sentiment and concern which they feel towards rule by Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Party, there could be no second reason which would compel CHP supporters and voters further to the left to say “no” to, for instance, the possibility of those responsible for 12 September facing prosecution, or the broadening, however inadequate, of trade union rights or the decreasing of the military’s room for manoeuvre in judicial affairs as against civilians.

Essentially, a glance at the replies to question, “Why did you say ‘no’?” in Adil Gür’s survey – even if this has now been somewhat overshadowed by Tarhan Erdem’s work - published yesterday in Hürriyet is all that is needed to make sense of this.

Very few replies have to do with the substance of the package. A significant majority said “no” to the package because they thought that this was in opposition to rule by Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Party, even when it came to matters concerning the judiciary.

Further proof is provided by comments made by Deniz Baykal, when he was in charge, and then Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, that the CHP would approve the package with the exception of those two articles concerning the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. If that was so, why did the CHP not turn up for the vote and approve all but those two articles during parliamentary debate? Then the whole affair could probably have been settled without holding a referendum; those two articles may well have been abandoned, and even if a referendum had been held, this would have remained an affair, not of political polarisation, but rather of low-tension technical debate. In any case, this is not where the CHP committed a strategic error. Indeed, given that electoral support for Erdoğan exceeded the AKP’s base, the basic error was made earlier on.

The rejection of Köksal Toptan’s proposal

The CHP’s strategic error was committed under the leadership, not of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but of Deniz Baykal.

This error was to reply in the negative to a call made to the four parties on 4 September 2008 by Grand National Assembly Speaker President, Köksal Toptan.

Let us recall Toptan’s proposal for a Compromise Commission which accorded with the traditions of the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

On this commission, the parties would not be represented in terms of their respective shares of the vote. In other words, the AK Party would have no quantitative superiority. The AK Party, CHP, Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and (as it was named at the time) Democratic Society Party (DTP) would each provide two members.

Any article that was vetoed by any party in the course of debate in the commission would not be submitted to the General Council. In this manner, the amendment package to emerge would obtain the full consent of the Assembly. This method had previously been applied successfully. Baykal, as CHP leader, did not even respond to this proposal. Baykal, who previously in the period 2002-2004 had contributed towards EU reforms in a spirit of accord with the AK Party and had agreed in 2003 to constitutional change which would remove the obstacle to his rival Tayyip Erdoğan’s standing for election to parliament, made no contribution towards the amicable achievement of constitutional change in the Assembly.

The reason for this was that the Constitutional Court had thrown out the Court of Cassation Republic Public Prosecutor’s demand for the AK Party’s closure, but had found it “guilty of opposing secularism”. According to Baykal, the CHP could not amend the constitution with a party that had committed offences against secularism.

Baykal may have thought that Erdoğan was chancing his arm and would give up the ghost on that one. But, he saw that Erdoğan was not bluffing.

Erdoğan stuck to his guns on those changes that were dear to his heart, even at the risk of a referendum. Had Baykal consented to Toptan’s formula, quite a few articles, including prosecution of those responsible for 12 September, would have long since been done and dusted without tension and polarisation.

Now Kılıçdaroğlu is paying the price. Given that this is the only weapon left in his arsenal, he has no choice but to push “opposition to Erdoğan” for all it is worth. In this, he has come up against the phenomenon of electoral support for Erdoğan in excess of the AKP’s base. This is compounded by the torpor which for years has afflicted the CHP machine and problems of discord with the new leader.

But this is also a tactical error, or even a necessary error. The basic false step was to reject Toptan’s compromise. The error committed while in a huddle appears to have lost the CHP the war on the front.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton