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Optimism in Turkish coalition talks

Given that Turkey has declared war on ISIS and the PKK, coalition talks between its two largest parties couldn’t possibly be going well – could they?

Given that Turkey has declared war on ISIS and the PKK, coalition talks between its two largest parties couldn’t possibly be going well – could they?

Against all the odds – and despite all the commentary surrounding air strikes, a Syrian “safe zone” and NATO gatherings – the coalition talks between Turkey’s two largest parties appear to progressing rather well.

The negotiations between the Justice and Development (AK) Party, the religious-conservative outfit that governed for 13 years until it lost its majority last month, and the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) have revealed plenty of common ground.

The coalition talks have revealed plenty of common ground

The one-time rivals agree on a wide range of issues from judicial reform to altering the electoral system. They aren’t too far apart even on the Kurdish peace process, despite President Erdoğan declaring it “could not continue” just on Tuesday.
This mood of optimism will strike most external observers as bizarre, particularly given that Turkey has just made international headlines after deciding to join the battle against ISIS. Given a parallel rise in clashes with the PKK, surely the country is on a war footing? Many speculate this is part of an Erdoğan ‘grand plan’ that will see an increase in nationalist rhetoric ahead of a snap election that could restore AK’s parliamentary majority.

Principles vs. detail

But both AK and CHP officials have been briefing the press – publicly and privately – that the coalition talks are going well, with broad agreement on principles and differences on the detail.

chp asgari ucret
The CHP’s pledge for an increased minimum wage could make the coalition deal

Take judicial reform. The CHP election campaign argued the judiciary had lost its independence – a charge rejected by AK. But Deniz Zeyrek writes in Tuesday’s Hürriyet that AK does agree Turkey’s judiciary has been “worn out” and is no longer trustworthy.

Convergences on reforming the judiciary and the electoral system

They agree on the principle of reform, even though they differ on the details. The AK Party wants the justice minister to retain a say over the appointment of judges, for example, whereas the CHP believes the judiciary must be politically independent.

Lower threshold

Broad convergences also exist over reforming the electoral system. An AK/CHP coalition would lower the 10% electoral threshold (AK proposes 7%, the CHP wants 5% or 3%) and pass the CHP’s much-vaunted rules political conduct into law.

The AK Party wants to introduce a “mobile voting” system that would allow people to vote somewhere other than their designated ballot box, but the CHP is understood to oppose this.

Habertürk’s Düzgün Karadaş says the AK Party is also taking a constructive attitude to the CHP’s headline welfare pledges: namely, two additional pension payments per year and a drastic increase in the minimum wage. AK officials believe these are “populist policies” but is willing to discuss phasing them in incrementally.

Even on the Kurdish peace process there is reason to be optimistic. The AK Party negotiating team says it wants to continue peace talks with the PKK, despite the recent clashes in the southeast and President Erdoğan appearing to call time on a deal on Tuesday.

The CHP wants more parliamentary scrutiny but is not opposed to the spirit of the much-trumpeted Kurdish peace accord made in February this year
The CHP wants more parliamentary scrutiny but not opposed to the spirit of February’s Kurdish peace accord

The CHP is not opposed to this but wants to ensure the peace process is more accountable to parliament – by setting up an all-party commission, for example.

Done and dusted?

So, if the talks are going so well and everyone is being courteous to one another, is it not just a matter of time before Turkey’s grand coalition is announced?

No, for three very large reasons.

The first is foreign policy. The CHP has long criticised AK on its approach to the Middle East and senior figures are said to be supportive (“relieved” is one word they use) that Turkey is now actively and directly fighting ISIS.

The parties do agree on present Turkish policy towards the EU and Cyprus. But the CHP thinks Turkey’s poor relations with Egypt and Israel need to be drastically repaired. To this end it believes the CHP should supply the next foreign minister – but that will be a difficult pill for AK leader Ahmet Davutoğlu, who spent decades crafting his party’s foreign policy, to swallow.

Tough constitution deal

The second obstacle to a coalition deal is Turkey’s military-era constitution, which the parties want to replace but can’t agree how. The AK Party is interested in using the coalition’s large parliamentary majority to pass this without a referendum, Deniz Zeybek suggests. The CHP says this could happen provided the parties in parliament agree.

Does the president want a deal?
Does the president want a deal?

But the CHP has ideas for the constitution that the AK Party will find difficult to absorb. For example, it wants a document based on principles of freedom and equal citizenship. It also wants to restrict the powers of the presidency and enshrine the parliamentary system.

The man in the high castle

The third obstacle is the occupant of the presidency himself. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not the leader of the AK Party but his influence upon it is questioned by no-one. As president, he has the final say on Turkey’s next government and can veto ministerial appointments.

Risk of destabilising AK under Davutoğlu

He can also destabilise Mr Davutoğlu’s leadership if he opposes a deal with the CHP – which could easily happen if that deal includes a commitment to pursue corruption probes into former AK ministers and Mr Erdoğan’s own son. Any coalition deal must save Mr Erdoğan face and satisfy the CHP that justice is being served.

So when?

The first date to watch for a deal is the beginning of week, Monday 3 August. If the parties can build a broad picture by then, they will present their progress to their leaders. Given the sides spent six-and-a-half hours talking on Tuesday alone, reaching that stage is certainly possible. Messrs Davutoğlu and Kılıçdaroğlu will then meet to try and thrash out any remaining disagreements.

They both have suspicious party members and an unpredictable president to contend with. It won’t be easy.