April 16, 2007 Special Dispatch No. 1544

Tensions in Turkey in Advance of Presidential Elections (II):

April 16, 2007
Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 1544

A national debate is currently raging in Turkey's political and legal circles regarding the minimum number of members required to be present in parliament for the first round of the presidential election. According to the Turkish constitution, the president is elected by the parliament in three rounds of voting, and at least 367 MPs [i.e. two thirds of the 550 members of the house] must be present for the first round. Otherwise, the parliamentary election is annulled and general parliamentary elections are held.

Supporters of Turkey's largest opposition party – the Republican People's Party (CHP) - have suggested that, unless a consensus can be reached among all parties regarding the presidential candidate, the CHP should resign en masse and thereby ensure that the 367 requirement is not met during the first round of the presidential election. The CHP has indeed been declaring that, if less than two thirds of the house are present during the first round, it will take the matter to the Constitutional Court - the highest court in the country – and demand the annulment of the vote and early general elections.

The AKP, on the other hand, has been stating that if the CHP boycotts the election in order to prevent the election from taking place, the AKP, which has a majority in the house, will automatically proceed to the second and third rounds, which require only a regular majority of 276 members.

On April 5, 2007 the Committee of University Presidents held an extraordinary meeting chaired by the president of the Higher Education Council (YOK), Professor Erdogan Tezic. After the meeting, the committee issued a strong statement calling for the election of an impartial president through national consensus. In response, the Islamist media close to the AKP government launched an attack on Professor Tezic, just as it has been attacking all constitutional institutions, such as the staunchly secular outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, as well as military personalities and the organizers of the April 14, 2007 rally against Erdogan's presidency.

The following are excerpts from Turkish media reports on the upcoming presidential election:

University Presidents Against PM Erdogan's Candidacy for President

The following are excerpts from the statement issued by the Committee of University Presidents, as reported by the mainstream secular Turkish daily Milliyet:[1] "[…] The Committee of University Presidents [including representatives of] of 53 state universities and 25 private universities, unanimously signed the statement which was read out by Higher Education Council (YOK) President Erdogan Tezic, a professor of constitutional law. The statement emphasized that the presidential candidates must be without a criminal record and [free of] accusations that could cast doubt on their suitability.[2] It read: 'The constitution requires the candidates to accept - and identify with - the fundamental and immutable principles of the republic, most notably [the principles of] secularism, modernism and science […]'

"Professor Tezic stated that it was necessary for the president to be impartial, since he represents the republic and the unity of the Turkish nation, saying, 'it is the responsibility and duty of the president to preserve the balance and harmony between the various constitutional institutions, and this duty undoubtedly requires impartiality. An impartial president guarantees [the stability] of our political regime.' The statement pointed out that, unlike the oath taken by MPs, the oath take by the president emphasizes his impartiality.

"The statement [also] said that the 2002 elections had failed to produce fair results, and had created a 'weakness in representation,' with 45% of the valid votes not finding any representation in the parliament.[3] It is therefore imperative that the presidential candidate be [elected] by national consensus. If a consensus cannot be reached... the solution [suggested by the] constitution is to go to the people and have an early parliamentary election. In order to prevent tensions, we all have a duty to agree on a secular, modern candidate who believes in scientific thought, in democracy and in the rule of law.

"Tezic, who received a standing ovation... also said that at least two thirds of all the MPs... must be present for the first and second rounds of the presidential election, saying 'if the parliament held [the first round] with less than 367 members present, this would be unconstitutional.'"

Sabah Columnist: "Do Not Underestimate the YOK Statement"

Columnist Yilmaz Ozdil of the centrist, secular Turkish daily Sabah wrote:[4] "Tomorrow is the anniversary of the establishment of the modern republic's legal system, 83 years ago… when the [religious Islamic] qadis were replaced by [modern] judges… Two days ago, [the representatives of] every single one of our universities... without exception, signed their names to the YOK statement.

"Among the critical warnings [included] in the statement, there was one that said, 'When the parliament speaker opens the presidential election session, 367 MPs in addition to the speaker must be present… otherwise it is contrary to the constitution.'

"You [Islamists] may object to this, you can call it baseless, you can ignore it, and you can choose to ask the 'ulema' [about it] […], yet the fact of the matter is that, if there are less that 367 [members] present, the CHP will go straight to the High Constitutional Court – as they have been [threatening to do] for a long time.

"When a case goes to court, the court asks for an expert opinion. YOK's statement is that expert opinion.

"Read once again the list of university presidents, who are all in total agreement, and remember that the president of YOK is a professor of constitutional law. [Therefore,] it would be a mistake to underestimate this statement."

Milliyet Columnist: The Elections Controversy Will Be Settled by the Court

Columnist Mehmet Ali Birand of Milliyet and of the Turkish Daily News wrote:[5] "The YOK statement has increased tensions even more. YOK's support of the view that the presidential elections cannot be held unless 367 MPs are present means that the ties between the AKP and YOK have been severed completely. YOK has never before issued such a harsh statement.

"Then there is the upcoming April 14 demonstration, which will cause much turmoil. Hundreds of thousands of people [including university professors in their academic gowns] will march in Ankara.[6] Tensions are running high; the struggle between the secular circles and the AKP is intensifying. […] There is widespread resistance against Erdogan.

"If the prime minister submits his candidacy for the presidency, it is obvious how things will develop. The parliament [session] will be opened, votes will be cast, and Erdogan will be elected.

"Then, the [CHP] will take the matter to the High Constitutional Court. A period of uncertainty will follow, until the high court makes its decision.

"YOK is not just an NGO or a handful of professors, [but a constitutional body]. If all 78 university presidents […] come together and issue a statement, it is a significant development. […] It is their natural [right] to state their opinions on the approaching presidential elections. This is usual practice in democracies. The professors have done nothing wrong by declaring their opinions; on the contrary – they have contributed to democracy."

Parliamentary Speaker Arinc Dismisses the '367 Controversy' as a 'Grave Mistake'

Zaman, the daily affiliated with the Islamist Fethullah Gulen Community, reported:[7] "In a March 8, 2007 discussion about the presidential election on Haberturk TV, Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc of the AKP said that it was a grave mistake to argue that 367 lawmakers needed to be present in parliament in order to vote in the next president. Sabih Kanadoglu, former president of the Supreme Court of Appeals [Yargitay] had asserted earlier [in the program] that, according to the constitution, at least 367 deputies had to be present for the vote. […] Arinc [replied] that, according to the constitution, every election [held] in parliament had different requirements in terms of the minimum number of MPs that need to be present. […] He demanded to know why nobody until today had ever challenged the number of MPs required to be present in any of the parliamentary votes, although the AKP had changed more than 40 articles of the constitution during its four years in power. 'The reason is,' he said, 'that the requirement for one-third [of the MPs to be present] during a parliamentary session had [always] been met. Until now, all sessions were held with at least 184 deputies.'[…]" Based on this, Arinc argued that even the presence of only one third (i.e., 184) of the MPs would be enough for the first round of the presidential vote.

CHP MP Haluk Koc said in response: "Any attempt to impose a president on the country without a consensus is tantamount to a civilian coup d'etat. […] Article 102 of the constitution is very clear. The minimum requirement is for 367 [MPs]. It is up to the speaker [to decide] whether to insist on that number or not. The CHP will do what the law demands, and the Constitutional Court will have the last say."

Koc also expressed his hope that none of the non-AKP members of parliament would take it upon themselves to play a role in Erdogan's accession to the presidency.[8]

Chief Justice Tulay Tugcu: "The Court Would Decide Within Three Days"

In an interview with the secular, center-left Turkish daily Radikal, Chief Justice Tulay Tugcu of the High Constitutional Court said:[9] "If there are less than 367 MPs present for the first round of the presidential election, and the matter is brought before [the court,] [the court] would have to render its decision within three days – before the second round of voting."

[1] Milliyet, (Turkey) April 6, 2007.

[2] This probably refers to Erdogan's past conviction and prison term, and to accusations of corruption made against him, for which he was not tried due to parliamentary immunity.

[3] The election system in Turkey has been criticized – including by the EU - for not allowing full democratic representation. The very high threshold of 10% leaves most political parties outside parliament. In the 2002 general elections AKP got only 34% of the votes, yet, due to the failure of numerous other parties to obtain 10% of the vote, it came to power, holding over 60% of the seats in parliament.

[4] Sabah, (Turkey) April 7, 2007.

[5] Turkish Daily News and Milliyet, (Turkey) April 7, 2007

[6] According to Milliyet (Turkey) and Hurriyet (Turkery) of April 10, 2007, Financial Times (London) has designated the April 14 demonstration in Ankara as the global "event of the week."

[7] Zaman, (Turkey) April, 10, 2007.

[8] It is feared in secular circles that the AKP will attempt to incorporate MPs from another center-right party (ANAP) in order to reach the necessary number of 367 MPs. ANAP has 20 representatives in parliament, some of whom are former AKP members who left the party.

[9] Radikal, (Turkey) April 10, 2007.

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