Catch 66 for Erdoğan

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Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan said on January 30 that if the Parliamentary Reconciliation Commission could not complete its works for a new Constitution for Turkey by the end of March, then the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) would bring its own draft to the parliamentary vote and try to take it to a referendum ‘if it gathers enough power.’

That is not only a clear and ambitious target but also a very critical condition on how to realize it.

Gathering enough power means to be able to reach to 330 parliamentary seats. That is three-fifth of Turkey’s 550 seat Parliament and a minimum to take an constitutional change to a referendum and the AK Parti got 326 seats, failing only 4 short of it. Actually there is another threshold for getting a constitutional change approved by the parliament if you get two-5thirds majority, which is 367.

The second one, which is much more guaranteed way to have a new constitution needs cooperation with another party in the Parliament. Erdoğan actually tried that with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) opposition on a move to take March 2014 local elections earlier to October 2013, but failed since some of deputies from both parties did not abide by the will of their leaders, and President Abdullah Gül did not approve a referendum for that purpose; the AK Parti-MHP joint operation could exceed 330, but not 367.

A way to reach the 330 threshold for Erdoğan is to transfer some deputies from other parties; a common political tool in Turkey’s political history. In the past parties used to attract deputies (usually unhappy ones who lost their hopes to get reelected) from other parties in order to achieve their tactical purposes by promising them candidacies in guaranteed positions in the next elections or some other advantages. It was not something seen since AK Parti took power in 2002; afterwards it has been condemned as unethical.

But Erdoğan really needs a new constitution especially for two strategic reasons. One is a new administrative system giving additional powers to president; another sign that he wants to get elected as president in August 2014 two-phase presidential election. The second is the Kurdish problem.

There is an ongoing dialogue process going on between the government and Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to find a political solution to the problem in which the Kurdish problem focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the Parliament is involved too. If that issue finds its track in a positive way, it will help Erdoğan to forge the constitution he favors. So, Kurdish issue could be a key on Erdoğan’s road to Presidency.

But the constitutional work, now with Erdoğan’s deadline by the end of March, has a catch 22; let us call it catch 66 for our purposes: It is the Article 66 of the current constitution which defines a Turk and Turkish citizenship. The BDP does not want the citizenship to be defined on ‘Turkishness.’ On the other hand other parties, including a part, especially from Western and Central Anatolian provinces of the AK Parti say the word ‘Turk’ does not have an ethnic meaning but a political-cultural one. It is complicated, but it is such a problem that it already started to shake the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) causing the resignation of a Kurdish origin deputy after a row with another CHP member over ethnic equality and citizenship.

Erdoğan has this ‘Catch 66’ and in order to overcome it, he might try to change the rules, even if he needs to play around the parliamentary arithmetic.

[This article was published in the Hurriyet Daily News on Feb. 1, 2013.][]

(Murat Yetkin is the current editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News and a columnist for Radikal, a Turkish publication. He is a political commentator on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs and has previously worked for BBC World Service and AFP. He can be found on Twitter: @MuratYetkin2.)

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