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The Turkish Parliament's Double-Fisted Knockout

Press reports, especially in North America, suggested that a deal between Ankara and Washington was just a question of money, using the metaphor of the bazaar to explain Turkish negotiating behavior. In the end, this description was shown to be ill-conceived and inaccurate. More was at stake than just the amount of money. Turkish leaders consistently said so, but no one in Washington seemed to hear them. The American administration also appeared to assume that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara could make its parliamentary deputies fall into line as easily as the Republican Party in the US can whip its congressmen and senators into supporting administration policy.

For weeks, the Turkish and American administrations negotiated back and forth over the content of the assistance package, which was variously reported at either $16 billion or $26 billion. This discrepancy was due to the fact that $1 billion of the outright grant became earmarked as a guarantee for another $10 billion loan that was formally outside the assistance package. Towards the end of the negotiations, some press reports suggested that Turkey had upped its requirements to $32 billion. This misstatement reflected only Ankara's desire for an immediate infusion of cash on the war's very outbreak.

Not unreasonably, Turkish leaders contended that the Ankara stock market and the Turkish lira would be hit immediately on the commencement of war, before the assistance package as a whole could be approved by the US Congress and implemented. This dispute was linked to the question, never fully resolved between the two sides, whether the overall package would be subject to conditions of the loan regime established by the International Monetary Fund in its continuing attempts to compel reform of the Turkish economy.

Also, Congressional approval would be required for the assistance package, and Washington insisted that that was not possible overnight and would indeed take six to eight weeks. In response, the Turkish government made it clear that it would accept as a guarantee nothing less than a letter signed by President George W Bush. This is not only because oral American promises of assistance in the run-up to the 1991 war proved to be worthless. It was also because oral American promises to then-prime minister Bulent Ecevit 14 months ago, concerning the extension of a free trade agreement with Turkey, turned out to be similarly not followed up: just like oral American promises to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to open American markets further to textile imports from Pakistan, as well as oral American promises to Russia's President Vladimir Putin for concrete measures in his favor since September 11 have yielded these leaders no tangible benefits.

As the weeks of negotiation followed one after the other, an interesting attitudinal reversal appeared to occur between Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and de facto AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the beginning it was Gul who was the more concerned with diplomatic initiatives having as their explicit goal to make the US war against Iraq something other than inevitable, and it was Erdogan who was publicly more intent on reaching agreement with the US on an economic package. This was probably because Erdogan felt a need to prove his credentials as a reputable alliance partner, while Gul was more strongly influenced by his connections with the AKP's parliamentary caucus, which was always divided, and remains so, over the question of war with Iraq.

As time passed, though, Gul was more and more socialized into his government role and responsibilities, while the prospect of Erdogan's entering parliament via the scheduled by-election in Siirt made him feel more secure and in need of proving less. Indeed, in the iconic photograph following the announcement of the "no to the US" vote in Ankara, it is Gul who, head in hands, appears vexed and Erdogan who has the philosophical air.

There are two significant details in all this that have escaped general attention. The first is that the government motion was in fact neither rejected nor adopted. That is because an absolute majority of deputies did not vote either for or against it. It will be recalled that immediately after the 264-251 vote in favor, the resolution was declared adopted.

However, the leader of the opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal, drew the attention of the speaker of the assembly to Article 96 of Turkish constitution, which reads in relevant part that "the Turkish Grand National Assembly ... shall take decisions by an absolute majority of those present". In light of this provision, and taking account of the 19 abstentions, the speaker Bulent Arinc declared that in fact an absolute majority of those present had not voted in favor and that the motion was therefore not adopted.

Because the motion was not rejected, the government may in theory resubmit it at any time. In practice, however, it will not do so in the near future. This is not because Arinc opined that to submit the same motion again without revisions would be "politically incorrect". Rather, it is because to do so and to see the motion again fail to pass would represent the government's loss of a vote of confidence. In a meeting 24 hours after failing to win approval, the AKP leadership was unable to reach agreement on resubmission of the motion. This spelled the effective decision for no quick resubmission.

American pressure then led the AKP to clarify that it did not exclude seeking another vote, and would in fact seek one. However, leading party members have stated to the press that this will not happen until at least two to three weeks have passed, not least because of the need for further consultations within the party itself, including wide discussion among its elected representatives. The AKP leadership simply cannot control the votes of its parliamentary members over this issue. That is why there was what in British practice is called a "free vote" in the first place. It now seems probable that there will be no resubmission of such a motion before Erdogan is elected a member of parliament in the by-election in Siirt and is able to form a new government with himself as prime minister.

The second result of the Turkish vote that has passed almost unnoticed is its effect on the war planned in northern Iraq and on the future of Iraq as a whole. The motion that was not adopted had two major aspects. The approval of the US economic assistance package was only one of them. The other was authorization for Turkey's army to enter northern Iraq. The Turkish constitution requires a parliamentary vote to send the country's armed forces outside its own borders. The same vote that rejected the American aid package failed to authorize Turkey's military intervention in northern Iraq.

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URL:  http://www.robertcutler.org/blog/2003/03/the_turkish_parliaments_double.html
First published by Asia Times OnLine, 5 March 2003.

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