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Crucial need to retain the country’s dynamism 22 novembre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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Financial Times (UK) Thursday, November 22, 2012, p. 1
Special Report: Investing in Turkey

Interview Abdullah Gul, President

Heavy weight strikes conciliatory tone, says Daniel Dombey

President Abdullah Gul, one of the heavyweights of Turkish politics, does not hold back on how far he considers the country has come since his party began its stint in office 10 long years ago.

But, speaking to the Financial Times in an hour-long interview in the presidential palace last week, he does not gloss over what he says is needed to hold on to that record – structural economic reform, a consensual political approach and, above all, further effort in Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

On topic after topic, Mr Gul’s remarks contrast with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his old comrade-in-arms, who, as prime minister, is the centre of power in Turkey today. Mr Gul’s role is largely ceremonial, but he has the ability to veto legislation, approve appointments and set the agenda in formal addresses.

But nothing is for ever. Mr Gul has already served as prime minister once – a decade ago, when he was keeping the seat warm for Mr Erdogan – and the job is set to become vacant in 2015, by which time Mr Erdogan says he will step down.

In a move reminiscent of the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev switch in Russia, the prime minister is widely thought to be aiming to succeed to Mr Gul’s post when direct presidential elections are held for the first time in Turkey’s history in 2014.

Mr Erdogan is already pushing changes that would make the presidency more powerful ahead of that date, although it is far from sure he will get the executive style presidency he wants.

Although Mr Gul says it is too early to discuss who will be the next prime minister, his comments, laden with English words such as « grassroots » and « checks and balances », contain glimpses of what could be an alternative agenda to the country’s approach today.

« If you look at the picture of Turkey 10 years ago when I established a government as prime minister, and a picture of today, broadly speaking you would see the Turkey of 10 years ago as a negative place . . . very spent, living in a very uncertain environment. »

Today, Mr Gul maintains, his country has conquered its once-chronic high inflation, produced rates of growth that are the envy of Europe, and is a dynamic player on the world stage.

« Now what has brought about this change in the last 10 years? » Mr Gul asks. « The key for this has been political and economic reforms, » which have taken their inspiration and motivation from Turkey’s EU bid, he says. « A lot has been done, but there is a lot more to do. »

Big problems remain. The President is asked about one diplomat’s recent observation that, while a year ago Turkey was seen as a rising economy with a growing world role, today it is perceived as a country that jails journalists – at least 61 by the count of the Committee to Protect Journalists – and has problems with its neighbour Syria.

Mr Gul does not contest this – he has expressed his concerns about freedom of expression in the past.

He adds that the political instability caused by the fighting in Syria, and the unrest in the broader region have had other consequences as well. Those circumstances have led the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, an organisation classified by Turkey, the EU and the US as terrorist, « to think that they have perhaps found a historical opportunity ». The fighting between the PKK and Turkish government forces has been bloodier this year than at any point for over a decade; and hundreds of Kurdish prisoners have only just ended a hunger strike.

« This is one of the most important issues in Turkey, » says Mr Gul of the Kurdish question, adding the reforms introduced over the past 10 years leave no justification for violence.

He also insists on a consensus-based approach to Turkish politics, particularly with respect to replacing the country’s military-era constitution.

But he returns to the importance of the economy and the EU. He compares Turkey’s expectations of average annual growth of 5 per cent with the projected 1-2 per cent for other European economies. He adds, nonetheless: « We still need to do some work on our economy; we still need structural changes to ensure this continued growth. »

Mr Gul describes the country’s current account deficit as « one of our most important soft spots », emphasising the importance of reducing it by boosting both Turkish industrial production and the country’s anaemic savings rate. He praises the efforts of current economy ministers; Ali Babacan, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, is often seen as a protege.

But his words sometimes sound like a prospectus for government at a time when Mr Erdogan’s plans to leave his post have increased political uncertainty.

At the end of the interview, the president recalls his long history with Mr Erdogan, with whom he set up both the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party, as well as the current government.

But, asked if Turkey needs a stronger opposition in the face of such a powerful prime minister, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment in saying yes.

Download full report (Format Pdf)

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