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Haven’t you missed the boat?

A31122746Today was really just a formality. Almost a quarter century after Turgut Özal tore his loyalties away from Süleyman Demirel, the prime minister unseated by Turkey’s 1980 coup, and formed a party of his own, a reconciliation is now official.

Neither man was there to witness the reunion – Özal died in 1993, while the elderly Mr Demirel is in retirement – but a huge photograph of the two in thoughtful conversation looked down on delegates from both parties gathered to seal the deal. Today those delegates voted to abolish Özal’s Motherland (Anavatan) party and transfer all its assets to the Democrat Party (DP), successor to an outfit established by Mr Demirel.

Party leader Hüsamettin Cindoruk hailed it as a momentous event, the long-awaited reunion of the Turkish centre-right. The former claim might be true, but the latter is doubtful.

There was little love lost between Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel. Özal was a member of Mr Demirel’s Justice Party (AP) in the 1970s, and was catapulted into the transitional government established after the military coup of 12 September 1980. He was handed responsibility for reviving Turkey’s shattered economy, a role that gave him broad recognition in a country suddenly bereft of civilian politicians. Özal benefited from this new-found profile, and from Mr Demirel’s ban from politics, to establish Motherland and soundly win the first post-coup election in 1983. He repeated the success in 1987. Many Demirelites still regard his defection as treason.

When his ban was lifted in 1987, Mr Demirel did not join his former deputy but took the helm of the True Path Party (DYP) and established himself in opposition. There was little policy difference to separate the two centre-right parties, so the divide became one over personalities. Far from serving together in government, they became occupied with slandering each other, and would often refuse to support the other’s policy simply because of who proposed it. It was a bitter separation that defined Turkish politics in the 1990s and helped turn conservative Turkish voters to more overtly religious parties. Anavatan never won another election after Mr Demirel’s return to politics; neither did the DYP after Mr Demirel became president. Both parties failed to cross the 10 percent electoral threshold in 2002 and became rump outsiders.

It is significant, of course, that these two parties have finally come together. But it has happened after so many missed opportunities: 1987, after Mr Demirel’s return; 1993, after Özal’s death; 2002, when both parties were curtly dismissed by voters; and particularly 2007, when a resurgent Motherland under Erkan Mumcu could have helped elect Turkey’s next president and thus dictated the terms of the merger. Mr Mumcu chose to boycott the presidential vote. His subsequent opinion polls were so low he didn’t even bother to contest the next general election.

This new emboldened Democrat Party is far from unifying the centre-right. For one, it is spectacularly unpopular: SONAR opinion poll in today’s Cumhuriyet suggests less than two percent of Turks would vote for it. Perhaps more importantly, there are other parties that claim the centre-right crown. The governing AK party’s founder members include many former DYP and Motherland heavyweights. One of them, Abdullatif Sener, has since separated to form a non-descript party of his own, the Turkey Party. The centre-right is as crowded as ever before.

Speaking this afternoon, Mr Cindoruk made the populist move of slamming the AK party’s Kurdish policy. But interestingly, and in contrast to the opposition parties in parliament, he also called for the government to revive its plans for a new constitution, one that has not been drafted by the army. The question is whether he will keep to that line, and whether he anyone will hear him.

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