Showdown in Turkey over Erdogan Veto

ISTANBUL(Reuters)–Turkey’s new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government looked set for a showdown with the secular establishment after President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed laws to allow its leader to become prime minister.

Sezer–a staunch secularist–rejected constitutional amendmen’s to lift the parliamentary ban on Tayyip Erdogan–the popular former mayor of Istanbul barred from standing for office after he received a jail sentence in 1999 for Islamist sedition.

But the AKP–viewed with deep suspicion by Turkey’s powerful military for its Islamist roots–vowed on Friday to use its majority in parliament to push the constitutional amendmen’s back through the assembly and override Sezer’s veto.

Parliament overwhelmingly backed the amendmen’s last week during efforts to meet criteria to join the European Union.

Sezer rejected the amendmen’s as being unconstitutional and said they were aimed at profiting one single person.

The likely battle between the ruling party and the head of state could deal a blow to political stability and democratic reform in Turkey–an EU candidate where markets are already on edge over a possible US-led attack against neighboring Iraq.

The political tension is unlikely–however–to have any impact on policy towards a war. NATO-member Turkey is expected to provide air bases and other logistical support if needed.

Since the AKP came to power last month–Erdogan has toured European capitals and the United States to impress on Western allies his commitment to EU membership. His right-hand man–Abdullah Gul–was made prime minister but Gul will step down as soon as Erdogan is allowed–under law–to take over the job.

Erdogan has been treated by foreign governmen’s as Turkey’s de facto leader and the main opposition party–the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP)–has supported moves to end political bans as part of human rights reforms.

The amendmen’s vetoed by Sezer would have let Erdogan stand in a by-election early next year–giving him a seat in parliament and the right to become prime minister. The AKP is expected to move quickly to pass the changes again as early as next week as it hopes to field Erdogan at a by-election in February or March in the province of Siirt. Who Will Back Down?

"We’ll pass the articles unchanged and send them back to the president again,” AKP deputy group head Salih Kapusuz was quoted as saying by the daily Radikal on Friday. Opposition CHP officials said they would back the changes again in parliament.

Analysts said the tension was an unwelcome distraction.

"It seems that just when things are going well they shoot themselves in the foot. It could well be a further excuse for profit-taking,” said Philip Poole–emerging markets economist at ING in London. Despite initial falls in the lira and debt–Turkish markets recovered in the afternoon after sharp falls earlier in the week due to fears of looming war in Iraq.

Poole noted that Sezer was at the heart of the political crisis in February 2001 which triggered the collapse of a previous IMF programme–the devaluation of the lira and Turkey’s deepest recession since 1945.

"I think the president is going to have to be the one to back down,” Poole said.

Turkey has enjoyed an uncommon period of political and market optimism since the AKP formed a single-party government.

Sami Kohen–columnist at Milliyet newspaper–said the fact the opposition supported the laws undermined Sezer’s argument that they were fashioned to suit Erdogan.

The EU expressed concern before the election over Erdogan’s exclusion. Officials in Brussels–aware of the sensitivity of the issue–declined to make any official comment but played down the impact of the spat. "This is not a major political crisis in Turkey and we would not draw conclusions on whether the move is in contradiction with the Copenhagen criteria (on human rights and democracy)," said one EU diplomat.

Sezer can apply to the Constitutional Court to overturn the amendmen’s if parliament passes them a second time unchanged or he could call a referendum. Further tension could stoke friction between the fiercely secular army and the AKP.

The AKP was formed by moderates from a now-banned Islamist party. One of AKP’s Islamist predecessors–the Welfare Party–was pushed out of office in 1997 by pressure from the military. During his time as a Constitutional Court judge–Sezer supported banning Welfare.

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