Political fighting may stall reforms

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Feuding among Turkey“s politicians threatens to stymie planned reforms and exacerbate the country”s internal conflict.

In an atmosphere punctuated by bombs planted by Kurdish extremists, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last week that regardless of whether the constitutional court or the parliament blocks the reforms, general elections will be held as scheduled on July 22.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has called for a national referendum on whether the Turkish president should be elected by popular vote or continue to be chosen by the parliament. It is not certain whether such a referendum would be held separately or with the parliamentary election.

The hectic political activity is accompanied by an increasingly acerbic debate between the secular forces and those favoring a more Islamic tone in Turkey“s democracy and by the army”s frustration with its inability to attack bases of the extremist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Iraq.

Mr. Erdogan“s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), described by the opposition as having an Islamist agenda, feels that a direct vote for the president would help elect its candidate and thus strengthen its dominant role in the country. The candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, was defeated by the parliament last month.

All major players — the president, the constitutional court and the parliament — have the means to block or defeat legislation by different maneuvers, creating political confusion at a time when Turkey clamors for more effective action against Kurdish terrorists.

Under strong pressure from the United States and European Union, Mr. Erdogan appears to have postponed any thrust into Iraq. He has said his government will concentrate on fighting the separatist PKK at home.

West European analysts say that striking at Kurdish bases in Iraq would create “nothing but disaster” for Turkey, annoying its Western allies and provoking the Arabs, who resent any encroachment on their territory.

It also could doom Turkish hopes of joining the European Union, where its bid is already opposed by several European leaders, including newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Efforts to revive Turkey“s stalled membership negotiations were further marred by warnings that Ankara was thinking of withdrawing its substantial military support from future EU peacekeeping missions.

Some Turkish units have been pulled out from Bosnia, Kosovo and Congo. Turkish diplomats have complained that although the European Union wants Turkish military assets, it does not reveal its plans to them because Turkey is merely a candidate and not a full EU member.

Turkish analysts say Mr. Erdogan“s immediate strategy is concerned with the country”s mood before the approaching elections. Publicly delaying action against the Kurdish rebels, they say, would undermine Mr. Erdogan“s nationalist credentials and damage his party.

At the same, Western diplomats in Turkey feel that if the crisis is further inflamed, it could spill outside Turkey“s border in a notoriously volatile region, including Iran and Iraq.

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