Thursday, September 23, 2010

US & Turkish Opposition Parties - Just Say NO

This article was published in Today's Zaman on September 23, 2010

Turkey and the US have one big thing in common when it comes to politics: there is no YES on the lips of its opposition parties.

In the US two years ago Obama ran a fantastic, grass-roots, new media-driven campaign. But the essence of that campaign was an emphatic NO to George Bush’s policies rather than a big legislative plan. This worked exceedingly well because, well, by 2008 practically everyone disliked Bush. His “popularity,” if you could call it that, was under 30 percent. Attempting in the beginning to run a positive campaign, Obama eventually joined the negative forays against poor George and was elected. He’s kept most of his promises and pushed through a massive health care bill, consumer protection, financial reforms, and economic bail-outs, however.

During these last two years the Republicans, on the other hand, voted uniformly NO for every piece of legislation Obama proposed, aligning with the belligerent Tea Party movement defined as anti-OBAMA. But what, exactly, are the Republicans for? It’s difficult to say these days. They have been the party of NO for the last two years. While Obama’s popularity has fallen, the Republican’s popularity ratings are even worse. Trying to take advantage of a continually stagnant economy, the Republicans are for replacing the Democratic majorities in Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections but are, as usual, staying away from specifics. Opposition? Yes. An alternative, NO.

The situation in Turkey is achingly similar to the states. In fact I feel quite at home living here in Istanbul compared to my permanent home in Florida. The Turkish cuisine is healthier and the politics are pretty much the same. But, with the referendum finally over, it’s amusing to watch CHP (Republican People’s Party) and MHP (Nationalist Movement Party ) argue over who delivered the most NO votes. Both have launched accusations about who worked harder in opposition to the changes to the Constitution that Parliament recently approved, who put on more rallies and who visited more cities. Interesting in-fighting, but what, exactly, are CHP and MHP for? What are their platforms for Turkey? Are there alternative programs, ideologies, proposals to counter what the Parliament approved and what the referendum was about? What is their direction for political, economic and social change in Turkey or is everything just fine the way it is?

Since they were opposed to the referendum, what are their proposals to increase protection for women, children and seniors with disabilities? Should children not have the right to communicate with their parents? What should public servants be able to bargain for if not for improved financial benefits? Should citizens not be able to solve conflicts with state institutions? Should there be more travel bans rather than less? Should people not be granted privacy of their personal data? The goals of these measures seem clear and are hardly controversial in Western countries. During all those rallies for voting NO, I missed the reason that these parts of the referendum should not be supported.

The AKP has been in power for eight years. Perhaps it might occur to the” opposition” parties to become “alternative” parties with positive agendas to provide a real choice for Turkish citizens. It’s reminiscent of the behavior of opposition parties that do not really want to take power one day.

I sat back from afar and watched with dismay the year long debates about Obama’s moderate, insurance-based health care proposals. Tens of millions of US dollars were spent on a massive, disinformation campaign against them. The proposed laws were attacked as “socialism” and warnings were propagated that “death panels” would decide which elderly people would be denied healthcare if they were too sick. Not one Republican in Congress voted for the proposals, as if there were no need for improvement in one of the world’s most expensive and disproportionate health care systems in which 40 million Americans are unprotected.

A number of the provisions in the Turkish referendum related to increased democracy via the rights of individuals and the ability of elected officials to have more influence on the courts. In the US, Congress has to approve all Federal judges proposed by the administration in power (and all appointments of military generals, by the way). There is no such thing as an “independent” court system or, for that matter, independent presidency or congress. A system of “checks and balances” insures that no one branch of government gets too powerful and violates the rights of individuals. CHP and MHP were very much opposed to violating the “ independence” of the courts and prosecutors but in Western democracies the courts are rarely that independent.

I assume that the opposition of these opposition parties may be something else all together, like wanting the Constitutional Courts to overrule what the majority of Parliament favors, such as pass constitutional amendments, or lift the headscarf ban. Fine, I understand that. But what, exactly, is proposed by CHP and MHP to provide more balance to the court system, or are no changes needed?

I agree with Lale Kemal’s recent assertion for the “need for the emergence of a progressive party due to the absence of such a mentality within existing opposition parties” for a new constitution. There is certainly room for a new party that takes a positive approach, that favors new programs moving Turkey forward, that supports a progressive coalition and is not stuck in the same old NO syndrome. However, it’s less likely in the US, which has been locked into a two party system for two centuries. Whereas it may still be possible for Turkey given the weaknesses of its opposition parties. That may be the only difference between Turkish and US politics.