Black Chador: Kara çarşaf
Pious Sister: Dindar bacı
From The Economist print edition
The Turkish prime minister’s biggest asset is his opposition
FOR two decades, the leader of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has cast himself as the sole politician who can defend Ataturk’s secular republic against creeping Islam. So the sight of Deniz Baykal recruiting a woman in a full black chador at a CHP gathering and saying, “We must show respect for people’s [choice of] dress,” has rocked the country’s secular establishment. “We will never get used to this,” quavered Necla Arat, a CHP deputy.
Mr Baykal has consistently opposed moves to let girls who wear the Islamic-style headscarf go to public universities. It was he who successfully asked the Constitutional Court to throw out a law passed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to relax the headscarf ban. He also said Abdullah Gul was unfit to be president because his wife covers her head, and egged on the generals when they threatened a coup to stop Mr Gul. So why the change of heart?
Most believe that Mr Baykal’s new tolerance is linked to Turkey’s local elections next March. Since he took charge of the CHP in 1992, Mr Baykal, who is now 70, has not won a single election. His ideas are old, his officials are out of touch.
The lack of a credible secular opposition is widely seen as the biggest failing in Turkey’s democracy. Even some generals are said to want Mr Baykal out. The maze of party rules that he has devised has made Mr Baykal almost impossible to unseat, but discontent is brewing. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a CHP deputy who has exposed corruption inside the AKP, is a rising star. If in March the CHP fails to improve on the 21% it took in the 2007 general election (against the AKP’s 47%), Mr Baykal’s days may yet be over.
This prospect seems to have galvanised him into embracing his pious sisters. But Mr Baykal’s last-minute manoeuvres are unlikely to sway voters. Their big worry now is not secularism but the economy. After much wobbling, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has at last agreed to renew a standby agreement with the IMF that expired in May. The final touches will exclude the sort of pre-electoral spending spree that an increasingly truculent Mr Erdogan had hoped for. His erratic performance of recent months is beginning to take its toll. Yet so long as Mr Baykal remains his chief opponent, Mr Erdogan will have little to fear at home.