Monday, 11 August 2014

No, They Will Never Learn

Pathetic, simply pathetic. While Tayyip Erdoğan was giving a Master Class in politics on his way to victory in Turkey’s presidential race his opposition was AWOL (absent without leave.) Opposition voters had a golden opportunity to derail Erdoğan’s presidential plans, but their inability (unwillingness?) to capitalise on this opportunity means that the future of Turkey is completely out of their hands.

            Even with all his manipulation, public financing and suppression of the media Erdogan got in with just under 52% of the vote. One can only wonder what the outcome would have been if even half of the 13 million voters (out of 53 million eligible voters) who failed to vote had gone to the polls. Even the former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to vote. Some couldn’t be bothered to get off their sun beds in Bodrum or leave the cocktail party circuit in Bebek to vote. Others, like a young columnist in the Daily Telegraph of London, justified their failure to vote on the grounds that the election was not ‘true’ democracy and that they didn’t want to participate in a sham election. Unbelievable! While they preserved their precious democratic scruples Erdoğan was busy tightening his iron grip over Turkey. They have only themselves to blame for the outcome.

            Of course he’s ruthless! Of course he plays hard ball and appeals to baser instincts of his followers! Of course he manipulates wherever he can! What did they expect? Politics in Turkey is a ‘full-contact’ sport. It is not a parlour game limited to polite discussions in beautiful homes along the Bosphorus.It’s about time they woke up to the realities of modern Turkey.

            If the opposition ever wants to beat Erdoğan it has to learn a few hard lessons.

1.      Come up with a message that means something to the mass of the people. What is your positive vision for Turkey's future? Simply focusing on Erdoğan’s obvious faults has failed over and over again. I have never heard any opposition candidate say something positive, give any hint on how he would improve services to the people. AKP candidates are masters at this, always focusing on services they provide for the people. Do something For the people rather than lecture To them about the failures of Tayyip Erdoğan. Essentially the so-called main opposition CHP has to ask itself a very serious question.  Why has it won so few elections since the introduction of multi-party politics in Turkey after World War II? What exactly does it stand for? Could it be that the mass of Turkish voters rejects everything it stands for? Instead of blaming the voters maybe it’s time to blame the message.

2.      Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, died in 1938. Let him rest in peace. Any political party that wants to be successful today has to do more than repeat ad nauseam pithy little phrases from his speeches. Atatürk set the general direction of Turkey, but it may come as a shock to most opposition politicians that the man himself is no longer that relevant to the vast majority of Turks. Maybe he should be. But that’s beside the point. He isn’t. And no one understands this better than Tayyip Erdoğan. Say what you will about the man, he understands his people. The opposition is lost in a time warp and hasn’t got a clue.

3.      Admit that AKP has a vastly superior political organisation. Learn from it. Copy it, if necessary. It’s much more than giving away free refrigerators or coal or any other gift. Effective politics is hard work. Without a strong grass-roots organisation in every town in Turkey and without a massive get-out-the-vote effort you will never win. You will always be seen as a creature of the so-called ‘elite’ – far removed from ordinary people who care much more about jobs than about vague threats that Tayyip Erdoğan poses for Atatürk’s legacy.

4.      Perhaps the CHP and MHP should merge, formalise the arrangement they had during the presidential election. CHP likes to pretend it is a social-democratic party. But the reality is that it is just as nationalistic as MHP. Of course such a move would alienate some CHP’s more effete members, but so what? They don’t bother to vote anyway. The genuine political left – the real social democratic movement -- in Turkey is minuscule and doesn’t count for much. So why shouldn’t the nationalists join forces?

      Will the CHP make any effort to change? More important, will it even recognize that its policies must change to meet the needs of today’s Turkey? Very, very doubtful. The early signs are that the party will be consumed by yet another sterile leadership battle rather than focus on  the obvious need for basic reform of the party. Erdoğan could not buy a better opposition party. He must be laughing all the way to the presidential palace.

Where does Turkey go now? Will Erdoğan be able to get his wish and replace the present parliamentary system with a strong executive presidency? Maybe, maybe not. While he won the presidency he didn’t get as many votes as his sycophants were hoping. It may be difficult for the Erdoğan-less AKP to get a large enough majority in the next general election to change the constitution.

What will the current president Abdullah Gül do? Will he fight for a senior position in the new AKP or will he retire gently into the night? It is no secret that the Erdoğan people would love to push him not-so-gently into the night. For one thing he has stated several times that he prefers the parliamentary system to the strong, executive presidency. He also presents a less strident, more amenable face to Turkey’s Western partners.

How will Turkey deal with the looming constitutional crisis when Erdoğan starts to act like an executive president instead of a figure head? Even with a puppet prime minister Erdoğan may have problems keeping the AKP together.

Turkey faces serious internal and external challenges in the next several months. Those people who piously abstained from voting in this election have to decide whether they are going to help the country through these crises or whether they will remain in the stadium seats as mere spectators.
Tercih onlarin. The choice is theirs.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Will They Never Learn?

In normal circumstances someone who has sharply divided his country with inflammatory rhetoric, driven foreign policy from the much vaunted ‘zero problems’ to the current ‘zero friends’, scorned the fundamental democratic principles of separation of powers and judicial independence, crippled the media and weakened the economy should have no chance of being elected president. But these are not normal circumstances in Turkey. And Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has a very good chance of becoming Turkey’s first president chosen by direct popular ballot.

How is this possible, you might well ask? Liberals in Turkey and abroad scratch their heads in wonder about how someone with this dismal record can retain the trust of so many Turkish voters. By all rights, according to them, he would be consigned to a small footnote in history by now instead of retaining the trust of about 50% of Turkish voters.

There are at least three reasons for this seeming contradiction.

The first is that corruption scandals like the ones that rocked Erdoğan’s government and the abuse of power are nothing new to Turkish voters. Governments long before Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) were no virgins in these issues. Voters only have to look back to the 1980s and 1990s to remember similar, if not worse, examples of corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of democratic institutions. Being a ‘friend of the party’ counted much more than planning regulations in winning valuable construction projects. Cronyism was rampant throughout the economy. Judicial independence was a nice thought, but that was as far as it went.

No one should kid themselves that the pre-Erdoğan media was free in the European or American sense. Many journalists were censured or jailed for daring to criticise the military, comment favourably on the Kurds, or obliquely hint that Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, had human foibles. No serious attempt was made to solve the assassination of a prominent investigative journalist who was thorn in the side of the so-called ‘Deep State.’

The less said about economic mis-management in the 1990s the better. Serial financial crises severely damaged the average citizen. People at the top of the pyramid were delighted with the money they earned from sky-high interest rates and were in no hurry to fix the ridiculous inflation that was making life very difficult for the remaining 99%. Everyone knew that the music had to stop sometime, but hoped they could make their millions before that happened. And collapse it did in 2001 when the country’s financial system was almost wiped out.

And then there are the Kurds, who now seem to hold the trump card in the upcoming presidential elections. The 1990s saw some of the worst violence between the Kurdish guerilla group (PKK) and the Turkish security forces. Successive operations by the regular army and ‘special’ forces failed to stamp out the violence that claimed more than 30,000 lives. In many cases these military operations only increased the Kurds’ burning sense of resentment. Erdoğan, to his great credit, was the first Turkish prime minister to try to solve the Kurdish politically instead of militarily. This may be nothing more than a cynical move on his part to get Kurdish support for his presidential bid, but the fact remains that south-eastern Turkey remains relatively calm.

The second major reason for Erdoğan’s continued support is that under the AKP living standards for millions of ordinary Turks have improved. Health care is better organized, public services are sharply improved, and elderly citizens are given cash supplements to their meagre pensions. A friend did an informal survey of villagers in his area and found a very simple reason for their continued support of AKP. People are better off financially and feel more secure with a single party government. Abstract issues like freedom of the press, abuse of government powers, environmental protection count for very little against cash in hand.

The third reason for Erdoğan’s likely victory is that elements of the main opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP) have learned nothing from their previous electoral failures. The party leadership has finally come to its senses and joined with other opposition parties in nominating a joint candidate acceptable to a wide range of the population. The candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, is a soft spoken, respected scholar who previously was the head of the Organization of Islamic Countries. More important, he vows to protect and enhance the country’s democratic institutions. The vast majority of the Turkish population is socially conservative, and Ihsanoğlu is exactly the type of candidate required to attract that vote.

And yet the hard-core Kemalists, rigid followers of Atatürk, refuse to support him. To them, Ihsanoğlu is not hard-core enough. Such a stance only reveals how little they know their own country. A frustrated anti-Erdoğan friend could only put his head in his hands and moan at the idiocy of this view.

 “Atatürk has been dead for almost 76 years. Let him rest in peace. He set the direction and the country has moved on. We need to recognize reality in Turkey. We need to accept that it was our own failures that set the stage for AKP’s electoral success. We need to learn how to appeal to the material needs of the bulk of people, to respect their right to be devout Moslems, and to reinforce real democracy. Only then will we be in a position to seriously challenge Tayyip Erdoğan.”

Alas, this remains a distant dream. Even with the backing of all the opposition parties Ihsanoğlu has only a slim chance to win. Without the full support of all those opposed to Tayyip Erdoğan the opposition will remain in the political wilderness for many years to come.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Military Intervention Is Not The Answer In Iraq

The rapid success of the jihadist sweep into northern Iraq is equalled only by the speed and volume of calls by some in the United States to ‘Do Something, Anything’, to stop this particular domino from falling. Neocons, ignoring the foolishness of invading Iraq in the first place in 2003, blame Obama for prematurely withdrawing American troops. Others say the solution is to use American military might to stop the spread of murderous thugs masquerading as devout Sunni Moslems into Baghdad itself.

            The calls for outside intervention ignore one critical problem. The creation and initial success of these extremist groups is an Arab-wide problem that outside intervention can slow, but cannot stop. The removal of autocratic leaders across the region has exposed the fragility of any underlying social contract that was never really given a chance to develop since the Arab countries were carved out of the desert 100 years ago by bureaucrats in London, Paris and Rome. 

It’s not so much a question of failed states, because many of these countries never really developed into states per se in the common sense of the word. Too many of them were run by loose affiliations of families, tribes, sects whose only object was to protect their own interests. Well-meaning democrats interested in social cohesion are a little thin on the ground in the Middle East.

RamiKhouri, the astute columnist for the Daily Star in Beirut, gets to the root of the problem in two recent columns.

“The open warfare and shaken statehood that characterize Syria, Iraq and Libya are the painful commemoration of the Arabs’ own 100 Years War for stable, legitimate statehood.

“Syria, Libya and Iraq are only the most dramatic examples of countries suffering from serious sectarian and other forms of warfare that could easily lead to the fracturing of those states into smaller ethnic units. Similar but less intense tensions define most Arab states. With the exception of Tunisia, the citizens of every Arab country have always been denied any say in defining the structure, values or policies of their state.

“It is no surprise, therefore, that Syria, Iraq and Libya should be at once so violent, fractious and brittle. The capture of cities and territory across northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) symbolizes a common aspect of the fragmented nature of many Arab countries: the ruling party or family that runs the government is at war with well-armed non-state actors that reflect widespread citizen discontent with the power and policies of the central state. The brittle Arab state is not simply melting away, as happened in Somalia over the last two decades; rather, the state in many cases has become just one armed protagonist in a battle against several other armed protagonists among its own citizens. . .

“Drone attacks and troops from the United States or Iran or any other foreign source will not have any significant impact on the multiple forces that drive the fighting and fragmentation in many Arab countries, and would probably only aggravate the violence.

“The popular uprisings that erupted three-and-a-half years ago have exposed the lack of foundations for coherent statehood in several Arab countries, and in some cases led to a vacuum that has been filled by various fighting forces in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

In another column Khouri notes that the “underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.”

The expansion of the ISIS is not a sign of the future, according to Khouri. “These extremists have no base of support in the region . . . In more normal conditions, they have never had any serious support in Arab countries.”

So, what is the answer to these fractured societies attracted, at least in the short term, to the call of the extremists? Alas, there is no short-term solution. American politicians seem to like problems that can be solved with a single stroke – military action or massive economic aid, much of which winds up in Swiss bank accounts. But a solution to the problems in the Middle East requires decades, not days.

The only lasting antidote to the problems we are witnessing in Syria and Iraq, and in less intense forms in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, requires many years to take shape. That antidote is more democratic and inclusive government coupled with growing economies. . . when citizens suffer both police state-style governments with stagnant economies that mostly favour a small number of families close to the ruling regimes, we end up with situations like the ones in Syria and Iraq,” Khouri writes.

ISIS is frightening, to be sure, but not because it portends our future; it is frightening because it reminds us of the criminal incompetence of ruling Arab regimes during the past half-century, and as such it clarifies what must be done to bring Arab societies back to some semblance of normal life. This will be a long and hard struggle, but we have no other options.”

Western statesmen would be well advised to pay close attention to these points before doing anything, like ill-considered military strikes, to make the problems worse.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Frightening Memories Of A Turkish Coal Mine

The recent mine tragedy in Turkey brought back vivid memories of my own nightmarish trip down a Turkish coal mine many years ago.  I was teaching English in a high school in Zonguldak, a major coal mining centre on the Black Sea coast, and noticed that one of the 40 students in my class would invariably sleep soundly during my lessons.

            One day I approached this boy of about 16 and said I realized my classes were not all that exciting and that he probably had limited use for the English classes required by the state curriculum. Nonetheless, I added, could he please avoid snoring quite so loudly? The other kids chuckled at my naïve and snide witticism.

            He was deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely. “It’s just that I work after school, my teacher, and don’t have much time to sleep.”

            I assumed he worked in a store or restaurant in the town. Not at all. He explained that he had to work down in one of the deep coal mines in the evening shift. His father had been killed in a mining accident and he was now the sole provider for his family. His shift finished only a few hours before school began. It was a minor miracle that he showed up to school at all. This explained why he always seemed to have a slightly dirty face and neck. It was very hard to scrub away all the accumulated coal dust every morning.

            Now it was my turn to be deeply embarrassed. To make up for my earlier gaffe I said I would like to join him one evening to see just what he had to go through. He was shocked and pleased that someone would actually like to experience what so many men in the town had to do every day. He said he would try to arrange it with the foreman and that I should show up at the mine entrance around 9 pm.

            I knew absolutely nothing about mining and blithely agreed to be there. How bad could it be, I asked myself? Bad -- very, very bad I found out later. The other teachers I spoke with said I was completely nuts. They edged away and gave me a look usually reserved for soldiers going out on a mission where the chances of survival were slim to none.

            The foreman at the mine entrance was sceptical about letting me in the mine, and finally agreed only after I promised to stay close to him. I looked around at the other men who had gaunt, resigned expressions on their faces as they helped me suit up and fasten the light to my helmet. The first 50 – 100 meters of our journey under the mountain were easy. The tunnel was tall and we could walk standing up. Then the tunnel began to shrink, and shrink, and shrink. Finally we were on our hands and knees crawling along with our heads bumping up against the ceiling of rock. By this time I was sweating buckets.
Haunting face of a Zonguldak coal miner
            We kept crawling for what seemed like hours, but in reality must have been only about 20 minutes. Then we came to an intersection with another tunnel where we were met by a billowing cloud of coal dust. I peered around the corner and could just make out about six men shovelling coal onto a small conveyor belt that ran outside the mine. I couldn't tell how they got the coal off the face of the mine. I could only hope that they had a mechanical digger and didn't have to resort to pick axes.

             While all this was going on rocks and pebbles kept falling on our heads. I was convinced this was the end and someone was going to have to tell my mother that her youngest child was buried under several hundred meters of a Turkish mountain. The men around me took all this in stride. One even said it was more or less normal. If this is what passes for normal what, I asked myself, would he consider abnormal?

            The foreman sensed that I had seen enough at this point and signalled that I could lie on the conveyor belt and head back outside. I took another look at the scene around me with head lamps shining dimly through the dust and men sweating in the heat as they loaded coal, and I gratefully took my place behind mounds of coal for the ride to fresh air.

            Once outside I took a look at my reflection in a lighted window and didn’t recognize myself. Covered from head to toe in coal dust with red-rimmed eyes I looked like something the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch would have created. To this day I refuse to go anywhere near a cave or other hole in the ground.

            After that experience I told my student he no longer had to come to class. His A grade was guaranteed. He should use the time to get some sleep.

            I lost touch with him after returning to America. Later I read of a mining disaster near Zonguldak that claimed the lives of 263 miners. I could only pray he was not among them.

            All these images came rushing back as I read about the latest mine disaster that looks to claim a record number of lives. I am in no position to comment on the safety precautions or lack thereof in this particular mine, but Prime Minister Erdoğan’s remarks were notable for their incredible insensitivity. He was immediately defensive and claimed that these types of accidents happened all over the world. Unfortunately for him the particular example he used in Great Britain occurred in the 19th century, which is perhaps where he is most comfortable. 
Erdogan adviser kicking protester

And one of his young advisers disgraced himself by kicking, yes, kicking another protester who was held down by two soldiers at the mine site. Undoubtedly Erdoğan will defend this fool’s reaction by saying he was ‘provoked’ or that the protester in question was a ‘terrorist militant’ who was trying to turn the mine disaster into a political statement. And indeed this is exactly what senior ruling party officials and their friends in the media tried to do. It would be comical if it weren't indicative of the lengths they will go to deny reality. 
One wonders if repeated images of the advisor’s neat black shoe slamming into the downed protester will finally wipe some of the Teflon off Erdoğan and the narrow group of arrogant sycophants around him. And will people start to question whether the country's miserable worker safety record is symptomatic of the fragile foundations of the recent economic growth? It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this latest mining tragedy has Erdogan's political plans.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Rewards Of Leaving The Beaten Path

One of the pleasant surprises of visiting the Greek island of Andros in May this year was seeing the number of foreign tourists taking advantage of the island’s unique system of ancient foot paths that wind around the steep hills and down into the deep, heavily forested ravines cut by rushing streams.

           I came across one happy group of about 15 British hikers with what looked like an average age of 55+ resting briefly on an ancient bridge before setting off up a steep cliff walk and then down again to a small seaside town where they were promised a good lunch. I didn't have the heart to tell them that lunch was a good two hours away. At least they had a coach arranged to bring them back.
            In previous years I usually had these trails to myself as I struggled to follow poorly marked paths that should be there, only to have to them disappear and then re-appear on the other side of thick thorn bushes. It took a fair amount of perseverance and bush-whacking to make your way along the trails. But the perseverance was always rewarded with glorious views, fields full of brightly coloured wild flowers, beautifully constructed stone bridges, stone walls and stone paths, and poignant reminders of former settlements and water mills.

            Now, thanks largely to a group of volunteers organized into a non-profit project called Andros Routes, many of these trails are being cleared, adequately signposted and maintained. The group recently published an excellent guide called Hiking On Andros that not only describes several of the trails but also discusses the rich and unique ecology of the island.

            The guide notes that Andros, in the Cycladic group of islands in the North Aegean, has had human settlement since the 4th millennium B.C. Although there has been considerable depopulation since World War II there are still more than 80 inhabited settlements today. Many of the older residents of the islands can recall when the extensive network of trails was the only link between these settlements. You can still find people who remember taking these trails from remote villages to school in one of the main towns.

            Andros has also been well known since antiquity for its water supplies, Histories of the region are filled stories of seafarers, including Odysseus, stopping at the island to replenish their water barrels. The scenery is incredibly varied with high, steep hills, fertile valleys, small forests and numerous beaches – many of them inaccessible by car.

            Although the island now has a fairly extensive network of paved and semi-paved roads, the best way by far to see and appreciate the ecological diversity and the wide variety of rural architecture is to put on a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, long trousers, a hat and take to the trails.

            And there is no better way to explore these paths than with one of the leaders of Andros Routes, Olga Karayiannis. Olga has walked over most of the trails on the islands and has a deep appreciation of the history and biodiversity of Andros. I have had the exhausting pleasure of joining a small group of friends on two walks with Olga who has shown us places unknown even to the locals.
View from the beginning of the trail
           Last weekend she led a small group from the remote mountain village of Vourkoti to the lovely beach at Ahla on the east side of the island. We could see the beach from the village and foolishly assumed the walk couldn’t be that difficult. Wrong! Ten kilometres and four tiring, but fascinating, hours later I staggered from a beautiful grove of plane trees along a river bed onto the beach where, mercifully, one of our friends had arranged a boat to take us back to town.
Grove of plane trees near the beach

            The path was steep, mostly unmarked except for small red dots on some rocks, and was fairly difficult in parts. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, unlike anything one normally associates with a Greek island. We passed countless rare plants that Olga identified for us. There were well built terraces and old stone buildings. Ultimately we descended to the bottom of the ravine and came on a large, well-built stone bridge that passed over a stream lined with large flat rocks. No one seemed to know exactly how old the bridge was. It is in the middle of the forest and seems to come from nowhere going to nowhere. The only possible explanation was that it was associated with very old mining activity nearby.
The well hidden ancient bridge
         From there we struggled up to the monastery of Agios Nikolaos where we refilled our water bottles and rested for a few minutes before setting off for the beach that didn't seem to be getting any closer.

            As we came closer to the elusive beach Olga led us into a small farm house where a friend of hers had prepared some delicious unsalted goat’s cheese and traditional lemon sweets to give us energy for the last 20 minutes of the walk.
The goal of the beach at Ahla

            Many of the islands I have visited on both the Ionian and Aegean sides of Greece have their own charm. Travellers willing to go beyond the crowded beaches with head-splitting techno noise will be well rewarded with a new appreciation for the history, the ecology and diversity of this unique part of the world.

            Hikers interested in more information for treks on Andros can go the website or send an email to The group can also be reached by calling +30-697-733-4334.