“Hustings” is a British term used to describe those political activities and speeches that are made before an election – the ones meant to bring in the votes. It isn’t a term used very often outside of the UK, but its definition applies very well to what’s happening in Turkey at the moment.
It all began with something Mehmet Ağar said last week. During a visit to the southeast, the True Path Party (DYP) leader said that PKK members should be doing politics on the plains rather than roaming the mountains with guns. When asked by Sabah whether this was a call for an amnesty, Mr Ağar said “if necessary, yes”.
Mr Ağar’s suggestion is interesting and worthy of a national debate at the very least. It did not go unnoticed that his words were cautiously supported by the government. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül pointed out that Mr Ağar was a former interior minister and had experience in such affairs, and said “his words should be carefully read”.
But those words provoked a fierce backlash from nationalist circles. The new army chief Yaşar Büyükanıt strongly condemned his words, while the news website 8sütun screamed: “Ağar wants to forgive the terrorists!” The response from the political arena was quite the same. Anavatan leader Erkan Mumcu said it was “an attempt to form a government at the next election that will act as a patron over the Kurdish state in Iraq”. Even Recai Kutan, leader of the religious Felicity Party (SP), said Mr Ağar had suggested negotiations with terrorists. Mr Kutan was also careful to dismiss rumours of a post-election coalition with the DYP.
Mehmet Ağar’s words came a matter of days after the date for the next general election was finally set: November 4th, 2007. That may well be a year away, but opposition parties know perfectly well that they have some serious catching up to do if they want to re-enter parliament, let alone government. Four years on from its landslide victory, the governing AKP is slightly weakened, but still commands by far the largest bulk of support nationwide.
A number of parties have used the recent resurgence in Turkish nationalism to boost their popularity, trampling on ground traditionaly occupied by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Being nationalist is not a particularly difficult thing to do. “The EU is out to destroy us,” you can say, with dashes of “Cyprus is slipping away from under our very noses” and “the government wants to legalise the insulting of Turkishness”. It’s easy stuff really. The thinking is you can’t go wrong with belting a few nationalist sentiments here and there, and all the opposition parties have therefore tried it. It is why Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition CHP, finally got around yesterday to criticising Mehmet Ağar. After all, doesn’t the man want to forgive terrorists?
But publicly worshiping Turkishness will only get you so far in the eyes of the electorate, and Mehmet Ağar’s recent actions suggest he is aware of that. By going to the predominantly Kurdish southeast and talking openly about negotiating with PKK members, he has joined the select few who have publicly advocated more politics and less military in the region. If he sticks to his position without submitting to the initial fierce backlash, it will win him support among Kurds desperate for a lasting solution, and perhaps some forward-thinking Turks too.
With 382 days to go, the hustings have already begun.