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Imam-hatip issue postponed until 2005

OpinionsBy Mehmet Ali Birand

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to ease the concerns of one segment of society. Markets breathed a sigh of relief. Listening to Erdogan's speech to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) parliamentary group on Tuesday, we saw all the indications of a tactical retreat and that the government would reassess the matter of the Higher Education Board (YOK) law at a more opportune time.

Erdogan made a wise U-turn.

To those who opposed the bill, especially President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the Office of the Chief of General Staff, he said: "This debate is not about the system. It is about how institutions work. We came to power with the support of the people. You have to accept the will of the majority."

The content and tone of the speech were aggressive. He indicated that the YOK bill had been postponed for now, while more the important matter of laws dealing with the European Union would be tackled.

However, his principal message was clear: "The rules that govern YOK and the imam-hatips will change."

Erdogan did not want to cause tension at this point. He did the right thing.

Now we all have to relax and think.

Erdogan is most probably aware that his insistence on the YOK/imam-hatip bill was a strategic mistake. Those who heightened the tension by saying, "We made promises; our voters our waiting for action," are already being mentioned.

Erdogan must have realized that no matter how large a majority he has, he needs to reach a consensus if he wants to tackle certain issues.

It appears that these debates will be reassessed in the first half of 2005; however, the need to tackle the issue differently that time around is obvious.

We will debate a proposal that will reduce the number of imam-hatip schools while turning them into genuine vocational schools. The proposal will also improve the religious classes given at high schools and will restructure the role of YOK.

We will also have to reappraise our stance. Instead of arguing, "They are trying to topple the system," at every opportunity, we need to find ways to satisfy the entire nation.

There is no other way.

Turkey can be saved by the commission report
The final decision of the EU Commission will be made by the heads of state and government of 25 member countries, but there is a person and a report that he will sign which will influence this decision.

No matter how much lobbying Turkey does, no matter how many calls U.S. President George W. Bush makes, nothing will be as influential as EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen and the report prepared by the commission.

Verheugen, who was described as a "public servant of the commission" during the Democratic Left Party (DSP) administration by former Foreign Minister Gurel, whom we criticize harshly from time to time, is now the only person in the EU who courageously defends what he believes in.

We always interpret Verheugen's statements as we want them to be. When there is something we don't like, we criticize him. We always ignore the truth in his statements.

However, for Verheugen, Turkey getting a date to start membership negotiations has become a personal mission and a matter of honor.

He believes he contributed personally to the development of democracy in Turkey and wants to finalize the process on Dec. 12.

For rational Turks, Verheugen is now a very important supporter and a person whose statements and warnings carry significant weight.

Commission report will affect everything
Let's now assess the commission report.

The report, which will be published in October, will significantly influence the decision on Dec. 12.

What we need to understand is that commission reports are never fully supportive or critical. The report is always gray in order to provide politicians room to maneuver. It will be the same this time around.

However, the important thing in the report is the proportions stated in the contents.

If Turkey's compliance with the Copenhagen criteria is said to be high in the report, member countries will have less incentive to oppose Turkey's membership. That's why Turkey needs to do whatever it can to satisfy the criteria.

Verheugen in a statement made last week reminded everyone how important this issue was.

"We never asked any one of the candidate countries to fully conform to the Copenhagen criteria. We promised Turkey it would receive the same treatment accorded to other candidate countries, and that's why we can't ask it to fully satisfy the Copenhagen criteria."

Despite this statement, because the decision on Turkey will not depend on technical figures but rather on political considerations, nothing is certain yet.

The best thing that can happen is the inclusion of an overall assessment attached to the end of the report.

In the past, EU Commission President Romano Prodi used to say the report should only list the facts, while Verheugen has always argued for the inclusion of an assessment.

What I mean by an assessment is for the commission to say: "Turkey has made some, none or significant progress in satisfying the Copenhagen criteria," and to end it by proposing: "Negotiations can -- or cannot -- start."

Under current conditions, only the commission will have the political courage to propose the start of membership negotiations.

If the commission supports Turkey's membership, those countries in favor of Turkey's membership can easily support the commission decision, while those against it will be forced to moderate their stance.

All this shows that Verheugen will begin to have greater weight as we get closer to Dec. 12.


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