Why, oh why, could anyone possibly think that this is a good idea?
Part of the government in Britain, where I appear to be invariably based at the moment, seems obsessed with dispensing with its prime minister after less than a year in the job. “We’re not popular, we’ll probably lose the next election, it’s not working out for us,” they mutter behind closed doors, before adding: “Off with his head and bring in a new one.” Or something to that effect.
The instinct in Turkey is precisely the opposite. When things go wrong, the prevailing mood is one of either stagnation or regression. Stagnation is the case with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which recently re-elected its directionless leader, unopposed, in an appalling example of democracy (see my outdated entry on the CHP for some back story). Regression appears to be what is happening to the Democrat Party (DP), which is trying to bring back its former leader and last prime minister, Tansu Çiller.
Mrs Çiller assumed the vacant post of prime minister in 1993, after Süleyman Demirel moved up to the presidency. She wasn’t particularly high-ranking – a mere state minister, certainly not senior in the cabinet – and she contested her party’s leadership against such heavyweights as İsmet Sezgin and Köksal Toptan. Her victory was credited largely to Turkey’s media, including the fledgling private television channels, which made much of the idea of a first woman prime minister.
If you asked her what her greatest achievement in office was, she would probably tell you it was that Turkey entered a Customs Union with the European Union under her watch. Or that the military’s funding was stepped up to combat the mounting PKK threat. She wouldn’t be one to talk of the banking crisis of the early 1990s, her alleged corrupt practices (including tenders that favoured her wealthy businessman husband), or the fact that she never won a election.
Mrs Çiller was a staggeringly ineffective leader. Under her, the party won a successively smaller share of the vote, finally failing to cross the electoral threshold in 2002. Her first election, in 1995, saw her lose to Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP). It was a shock to Turkey’s secular establishment for the overtly religious RP to do so well; what shocked them more was Mrs Çiller joining them in coalition. During the campaign, she had declared Mr Erbkaban “a smuggler of heroin” and herself “the safeguard of secularism”, but after six months and a hefty libel fee the two leaders were in a “power rotating” scheme whereby Mr Erbakan would be prime minister first, and Mrs Çiller would follow in a year-and-a-half.
She stood silent as her senior partner spurned the west and made highly publicised visits to Iran and Libya. She was genuinely surprised, upon Mr Erbakan’s resignation, not to be asked to form the next government. She was not a good leader, and now her old rump party wants her back.
To bring back a former, supposedly succesful leader is a delusional byword for political recovery in Turkey. Party leaders are effectively sanctified in the country – most party conventions, for instance, will feature large portraits of both Atatürk and the present leader – and they are a rallying point for genuine enthusiasm and unwavering loyalty. During a recent parliamentary debate on smoking bans, one Nationalist Action Party (MHP) MP spoke passionately about the charismatic style with which his leader, Devlet Bahçeli, could hold and smoke a cigarette. He was probably not even planted.
This near-blind degree of loyalty makes it somewhat easier to understand why Turkish parties tend not to blame their leaders for electoral failure. But it is still delusional: parties don’t to recognise it even when the public have had enough of them. In the 1999 elections, having failed to cross the ten percent threshold to win seats in parliament, Mr Baykal resigned. It was widely hailed as an act of political maturity, but he was back in just six months. Mr Bahçeli, Mrs Çiller and Motherland Party leader Mesut Yılmaz all made similar pledges when their parties failed to cross the threshold in 2002; with this latest offer to Mrs Çiller, all have now returned to politics.
Turks have a long tradition of sanctifying their leaders. Any tourist to Turkey will tell you Kemal Atatürk is an obvious example, but it applies to more recent leaders too: the late Bülent Ecevit ousted CHP leader and War of Independence veteran Ismet İnönü in 1973. İnönü had been leader for thirty-five years, and Ecevit was widely credited with ending what was effectively a theocracy. But that same cult of personality came to apply to Ecevit, and it would be twenty-nine years before he was toppled himself.
Few outside the DP will celebrate Mrs Çiller’s return. It will do little for the party’s electability, as its traditional centre-right base has long been subsumed by the ruling AK Party. But it does have wider implications for Turkish politics: a year ago, I wrote that AK’s electoral victory, while welcome, urgently needed to be balanced by an effective opposition. With stagnation in the CHP and regression in the DP, it does not appear to be happening. And that is not good for Turkey.