Friday, February 12, 2010

Foreign affairs with Gürsel Tekin

Turkey’s current administration has been struggling with many of the new domestic and foreign policy initiatives that it has made. The progress of these issues is being closely examined in many Western capitals, including Washington, D.C., through various think tanks and policy debates.
While many policy makers and the region’s experts are busy focusing on Turkey’s renewed diplomatic efforts of recent years, the country’s main opposition party has been absent from these discussions. So the questions, at some point, come down to whether Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, simply does not have an alternative vision and policies in answer to the administration’s.
In many people’s eyes, therefore, the CHP has had some explaining to do for some time. And through Hakan Polat, a friend of mine from Mülkiye and working with the CHP’s Istanbul party organization, and Cengiz Hasgul, an active figure in the Istanbul CHP party organization, I secured an interview with Gürsel Tekin, the CHP’s Istanbul chief to discuss, primarily, the party’s foreign-policy outlook.
Tekin’s nationwide recognition is due to his work during the last local elections for municipalities. During the campaigning period, Tekin bravely stepped forward to close the gap between the CHP’s elitist party organization and the conservative people of Istanbul.
For the first time since the early ’90s, Tekin brought some excitement from a left party to Istanbul, as did Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP’s candidate for mayor of the city. Since what is now known as the “burqa opening,” Tekin has continued to stay very popular in Istanbul and therefore within the CHP.
Tekin was ready to answer my questions, which were going to be heavily on foreign affairs, though I still wanted to ask him whether the “burqa opening” was just a temporary excitement or if a sequel to the move would follow. Without hesitation, Tekin claimed that in the coming months, the CHP, as a democratic left party, will work to bring more freedom, not less, to Turkey’s people. During our off-the-record conversation, Tekin also excited me with more freedom-focused statements and gave signals that he will continue to change some of the usual CHP approaches.
Tekin did not have all the right answers for me, though. For example, answering my first question – why the opposition party seems not to have much of a foreign-policy vision, he argued that it is not correct to say the CHP does not have skillful foreign-policy experts. He added that the CHP has more than 20 foreign-policy experts who have better skill sets than those of the AKP, though when I pressed to get some of these names, Tekin said he couldn’t give them to me due to political sensitivities. Seeing the expression on my face, he added, “However, if there is such an impression that the CHP seems insufficient in foreign affairs, we will surely work to repair that.”
When I insisted how terrible the picture is when one looks for an opposition voice in Washington many times, Tekin told me that the CHP is seriously thinking about opening another office in Washington, like the one in Brussels. I will follow up on this promise.
Answering my questions, Tekin insisted that the CHP has been more supportive of full membership in the European Union from the beginning, and that it still is, contrary to the general belief. However, according to Tekin, there are some national-security red lines that the CHP is extremely sensitive about, and when the current administration tries to cross those red lines, tension arises.
At the same time, the process of some of those red-line debates has also been when the West has come to view the CHP as an anti-Western party. For example, when the CHP firmly stayed in the opposition, refusing to let U.S. troops cross through Turkey into Iraq on March 1, 2003, it was one of those red-line moments for the CHP.
According to Tekin, the highest support for EU membership is among CHP supporters, not those of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. By pointing out high anti-Western and anti-American sentiments among Turkey’s public when referencing the polls, Tekin reiterated the point that some of the AKP’s intentional statements and chauvinistic approaches drive this “anti” sentiment, and the trend continues upwards in recent years.
I also asked some specific foreign-policy questions to Tekin instead of letting him beat the current administration in abstract foreign-policy areas. I asked what he thinks about the Iranian nuclear impasse and Turkey’s approach to the matter. Tekin said there are two big crises in the region where Turkey is situated: Iran, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. After summarizing the current predicament over the Iranian issue, Tekin argued that diplomacy is the only solution for the problem, recalling what has happened to Iraq since the war started there in 2003.
Tekin not only shares the AKP’s Iran policy, he also embraces Turkey’s improving relations with Syria and Armenia, arguing that these are good neighborhood policies that the CHP has been defending for years. If Turkey does not get along with its immediate neighbors, which can easily do more trade and secure borders with the country, then, Tekin said, Turkey cannot explain these problematic relations to the world.
So the AKP’s Iran policy, along with its zero problems with neighbors policy and many other foreign openings, as Tekin articulated, overlap with the CHP’s vision.
NEXT: Gürsel Tekin: “The CHP does not have the intention to impair any relations with allies.”

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