Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Maybe This Time The Opposition Has Learned Something

People in Turkey are beginning to think the previously unthinkable. President Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that have dominated every election since 2002 may actually fall far short of their goals in the national elections scheduled for June. At this early stage it appears very difficult for AKP to get enough deputies to give Erdoğan his long-sought powerful, unchecked presidency. There is even a chance that for the first time in its history AKP will fail to get enough deputies to establish a government by itself. And, perhaps most important, for the first time I can remember  the Kurds seem to hold the trump card for this election.

            AKP, despite its almost total control of the broadcast media, is suddenly on the defensive. Party leaders have to explain away a sharply deteriorating economy. Erdoğan even has to concede the possibility of a coalition by saying such an outcome would be a ‘nightmare, the end of Turkey.’  Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was forced to copy the opposition’s opening to Turkey’s dwindling number of minorities by making sweeping promises to the Roma community. He even went so far as to say that AKP candidates include members (unnamed at this point) of the Alevi community, a branch of Islam considered heretical by the majority Sunni AKP.

            What has changed since the humiliating debacle of the presidential elections last summer when Erdoğan’s opponents couldn’t be bothered to get off their sunbeds in the holiday resorts to vote? Voter participation in that election fell to about 74%, the lowest level in 12 years. The apathy and incompetence of the opposition allowed Erdoğan to win just enough votes on the first ballot to win. What gives Erdoğan’s growing number of opponents the nervous, the very cautious hope that just maybe this time is different?
Is his appeal fading fast?
            In addition to the fatigue factor involved in listening to Erdoğan’s inflated bombast for so many years, the economy on which he based much of his political success is sliding rapidly downhill. The Turkish lira has lost almost 16% this year, and now trades close to a record low. GDP growth has stalled, inflation is up, unemployment has climbed to about 11%, and foreign direct investment has slowed down dramatically. Some voters are beginning to make the connection between the AKP’s policies and the economic decline. The AKP swept into power on the back of an economic collapse, and some people are openly repeating an old Turkish saying, ‘They will go as they came.’

            Then there are the political mistakes that the usually sure-footed AKP has made. In hindsight, the first mistake may have been Erdoğan’s decision to run for president. This decision could wind up isolating him in his new, huge presidential palace. The Turkish presidency is largely a ceremonial position with limited political power. The president is supposed to be above partisan politics and refrain from active involvement in government affairs. Erdoğan of course paid no attention to these constitutional constraints, and was deeply involved in all facets of party and government work. In order to justify these constitutionally questionable activities he was counting on the AKP winning enough deputies to change the constitution and implement a system with a politically powerful, unchecked presidency. This possibility opened cracks within the usually solid AKP. Several leading member of the party oppose his interference and the strong presidential system. They have made no secret of their opposition. The party also stuck with a rule limiting MPs to three terms in parliament. This meant that many experienced AKP deputies are being replaced on the candidate lists with novices unknown by voters.

Another challenge facing AKP is a revitalized opposition. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has emerged from its usual torpor to run a vigorous campaign with some decent positive ideas rather than relying simply on the ‘anti-Erdogan’ vote. But the biggest surprise is the emergence of the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) led by the young, charismatic Selahattin Demirtaş.
The king maker this time?
            In order to cross the barrier of winning 10% of total votes he has to extend the party’s vote beyond its traditional regional, Kurdish base. There are some signs that he is doing this. For one thing, he has a good chance of getting the votes of Turkey’s small, but vocal, liberal/intellectual constituency. This group used to vote AKP in protest against the military and authoritarian tendencies of earlier governments. Now that AKP has become even more authoritarian, this block of votes is looking for a new home. Another point is that the Kurds in general have won a great deal of sympathy for their struggle against the brutal, fundamentalist hordes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Even my stalwart CHP friends are talking of switching their votes to
HDP. “I am definitely voting for him (Demirtaş), and I am telling all my friends to vote for him or I will beat them around the head and shoulders,” exclaimed one Istanbul matron waving her arms in a threatening manner. Dinner party conversations in smart Istanbul homes are dominated by animated opinions about the Kurds. “You must vote them,” cry most. “I will never vote for terrorists,” others insist.

Others claim there is a risk HDP will do a deal with AKP if it gets into parliament. In return for getting greater cultural and perhaps political autonomy, the argument runs, the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. “Rubbish,” responds Demirtaş. Every chance he gets he repeats that HDP will never support AKP.

HDP would have an immense impact on Turkish politics if it can cross the 10% the barrier. For one thing, Erdoğan’s presidential hopes would disappear. More than that, HDP could conceivably get enough MPs to force a coalition government for the first time since 2002. This possibility alone is making AKP very nervous. In this case even AKP’s rock-solid voter base of about 40% may not be enough to let them form a single-party government. No wonder Erdoğan is throwing all constitutional constraints aside and campaigning hard for his political life.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Very High Stakes Turkish Election

The plots and sub-plots in the Turkish general election scheduled for June make this one of the most interesting and, undoubtedly, the most important election for years. The stakes are very high. The outcome will determine the course of this large, important country’s domestic and international policies that seem to have lost direction over the last few years.

The over-riding issue, as always, is President Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who has dominated Turkish policy for more than a decade. Erdoğan became Turkey’s first elected president last summer, and he desperately wants to transform that office into a strong executive presidency with limited parliamentary over-sight. The major road block to such a transformation is the existing constitution that puts the president above party politics and limits his role largely to ceremonial duties. Erdoğan, never one for constitutional niceties, has intervened heavily in government affairs and was active in selecting candidates for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Tayyip Erdogan, the man who would be king
 In order to change the constitution the AKP must increase its seats in parliament from 316 to 330. This has suddenly become difficult to achieve. For one thing, Erdoğan’s continued interference in the government has alienated many in his own party who are highly sensitive about anyone interfering in their parliamentary rights. This block of senior AKP officials, notably Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç, has made no secret of its opposition to the idea of a strong president with limited or no checks and balances. This feud between the old guard and the sycophantic Erdoğanistas could turn off many who used to vote for AKP. Few people doubt that AKP will wind up with the most deputies. But the real question is whether they will get enough to give Erdoğan his desired one-man rule. As one commentator put it perhaps the best outcome for stability is one where AKP continues to control parliament, but Erdoğan fails to get his one-man rule.

In addition to the intra-AKP issues, the most surprising development of this election season is the emergence of invigorated opposition parties. Even the venerable, sclerotic Republican People’s Party (CHP) has shown surprising innovation. Candidates in several of the party’s districts were chosen through a primary election system rather than simply being tapped by the party leaders. This led to the unexpected victory of several new faces over the tired re-treads that had dominated the CHP for years. The CHP list now includes an outspoken Turkish-Armenian woman as well as a representative of the Roma (gypsy) community. Any increase in CHP’s vote share would put a serious dent in Erdoğan’s plans.
CHP's Kemal Kilicdaroglu wants YOU!
However, the real key to this election is not the AKP or the CHP. It’s the Kurds who appear to hold the trump card. With their young, charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, the Kurdish party (HDP) is making a bold move beyond its traditional base to become a national party. It has positioned itself as the most inclusive party in Turkey in its effort to get over the barrier of 10% of the national vote required to enter parliament. It has selected as one of its candidates a German-born Yazidi woman. The Yazidis are mainly in northern Iraq and practice an ancient religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is vastly different. The Yazidis have been in the news recently because of their brutal treatment at the hands of ISIS. Anyone who would like to learn more about the remnants of these ancient religions should read Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East by Gerard Russell. Given the complicated mathematics of the Turkish election system, if Demirtaş can lead his party over the 10% barrier Erdoğan’s chances of getting enough parliamentary seats would just about disappear.
Demirtas seems to hold the trump card
Then there is also the intriguing question of former president Abdullah Gül. What exactly, if anything, is he up to? Since leaving office last summer and being dramatically snubbed by the AKP party he helped to found, Gül has played a very cautious game. He has made no secret of his dislike for the strong presidential system, and he has always portrayed himself as the ‘soft’ side of AKP in contrast to the shrill, divisive, bombast of Erdoğan. But he has been careful to avoid any public confrontation with his former colleague. There is quite a bit of speculation that he is very active behind the scenes, gathering support in the event Erdoğan fails in his attempt to change the constitution. If that happens, according to current speculation, he will return and try to take control of the AKP. In this event, Erdoğan would be well and truly isolated in his ridiculous new palace. Gül would make sure that Erdoğan sticks to his extremely limited constitutional role.
What is former president Gul up to?
It is very, very difficult to see Erdoğan gracefully, or any other way, accepting such a role. How can a man who has dominated every aspect of Turkish life for so long retire to the warm milk and slippers of a figure-head president? It simply does not compute. Turkey has been rocked by several violent incidents in recent weeks. Many people think this is a dangerous prelude as political passions get played out in the streets in the run-up to the most critical election in recent Turkish history.

However, despite all the noise and chaos of this election campaign, it is heartening to see that at least one country in this troubled region has a vibrant democratic streak that will not be suppressed. Even if Erdoğan gets his way with the constitution, it’s hard to see him stuffing this democratic genie back into the bottle.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Will Greece Remain On A 'Life-Support' System?

A great deal of ink and broadcast time has been spent over the last few months on the fate of Greece. Mind you, this is a discussion that self-obsessed Greeks have been having at least since Homer, but it seems to have gained traction recently. As a very smart, very well plugged-in Greek friend explained at dinner last night, “A lot of people in Greece love nothing better than the fact that Greece is on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. While the content of this news may escape them they consider such coverage proof that Greece is where it should be – at the centre of the universe.”

            My friend, who would describe himself as a ‘realist’ rather than a ‘cynic’, says the current stand-off between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone is ‘pure theatre – nothing more.’ Both sides, he says, are playing to domestic audiences. The Greek side uses its bizarre, confrontational negotiating style to please the home audience. Given the high approval ratings of this strategy seems to be working. The optics of the  ‘little guy’ standing up to the power of the ‘big bullies’ effectively obscures the reality that the country is broke and can barely meet its pension obligations. The heavyweights of the European Union, for their part, need to show their own domestic audiences that they are not giving in to the ‘profligate and corrupt’ Greeks. They are well aware of the rising chorus of resistance to further financial assistance. “Hans will not give one penny more to those shiftless bums. If Portugal and Ireland worked their way out of the recession why can’t Greece?” So goes the rhetoric.

            The reality is a bit more complex. My friend anticipates a messy continuation of the current situation. “The creditors and the Eurozone are well aware that there is no way the current Greek government, or indeed any foreseeable Greek government, will make the necessary structural reforms to generate growth and help the country stand on its own feet. Rigid, antiquated ideology combined with deeply entrenched vested interests make such reforms virtually impossible. It’s not just Syriza, the former New Democracy government was never serious about implementing reforms. It is far more likely that the creditors will keep Greece on a life-support system by drip feeding it just enough cash to keep it within the Euro zone. Then they can forget about Greece and move on to more pressing issues. No one wants to risk a complete break- up of the Euro over a possible Greek exit from the single currency.”

            The only flaw in this argument is that the so-called ‘Hard Left’ faction in Syriza doesn’t want to play this game. They would like to drop the constraints of the Euro and return to the national currency, the drachma. The language they use while spinning around in their own little galaxy is full of such stirring phrases as ‘national sovereignty, dignity, national honour, and freedom from oppression.’ When reminded that even fellow ‘austerity’ sufferers like Portugal, the Baltic states and Ireland, urge Greece to follow through on reforms this faction in Greece says this is merely proof that Europe is not ‘ready’ for a real left-wing government. You have to remember that Greece is about the only country left where political terms like ‘Left’  and ‘Right’ are actually used in serious conversation. Most other countries have moved on to more current challenges rather than re-fight old, stale political doctrine.

            Behind the ringing calls for ‘national sovereignty’ with a return to the drachma lies a far more mundane reality. Returning to the drachma means essentially a return to the rotten old system that broke Greece in the first place. The government could simply print as much money as it wanted, regardless of its value, and reward its friends with jobs, higher state hand-outs, even more restrictive labour practices, and protective barriers for favoured industries – those that are left in Greece that is. The economic hardships faced by ordinary people would be glossed over as ‘sacrifices necessary for the common good.’ In other words, ‘Stop whinging about the lack of food on the shelves and glory in the return of Greek pride.’

            Remaining in the Euro, with all its financial constraints and empty Greek treasury, makes this type of political spending more difficult. But not impossible. “Remember all those €70 billion in non-performing loans held by Greek banks.  Do you think it is a straightforward process determining whose loans will be forgiven and whose repayment will be demanded,” my friend asked rhetorically. “I dare say there will be some interesting discussions between the banks and the government on this issue.”

            He may be right in his ‘life support’ analysis, but there is always the risk that an accident between inexperienced Greek negotiators and tired, frustrated Eurozone finance officials could push the country into the cold, hard world outside the Euro.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Has The Post-Erdoğan Era Begun In Turkey?

Are the wheels starting to come off the Turkish wagon? The political stability and economic growth that have characterized Turkey since 2002 are beginning to fray at the edges just before critical general elections in June that could determine the country’s political direction for years to come.

            These elections will go a long way to determining whether President Tayyip Erdoğan will achieve his goal of complete control or be hampered by the current constitutional restraints on the president’s power. He runs the risk of being politically and legally isolated in his extravagant new palace unless the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins enough seats to unilaterally change the constitution the way he wants. Not content with the current largely ceremonial role of president, Erdoğan desperately wants a new constitution to enshrine his vision of a powerful, unchecked, unfettered presidency.

Is Prime Minister Davutoglu's Patience Running Out?
            A toxic combination of international and domestic problems is making this task more difficult than it was just a few years ago. On top of this a growing sense of ‘Erdoğan fatigue’ seems to have gripped even some members of his own party. Maybe they’re getting tired of 12 years of bombast. How much longer is Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu going to put up with Erdoğan’s constant – and unconstitutional – interference? Furthermore, many rank-and-file AKP members have shown little enthusiasm for a change in Turkey’s governing structure.

            In order to unilaterally change the constitution the AKP must increase its members of parliament from the current 316 to 330. This is not an easy task in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.

            The AKP can no longer count on strong economic growth to support its election campaign. For several years the party would loudly trumpet the impressive growth figures and strong currency as confirmation of its ‘brilliant’ policies. Now it is reduced to finding excuses for below-forecast growth, a rapidly depreciating currency, declining exports, and stubbornly high unemployment.

The currency has depreciated more than 10% so far this year, unemployment has risen to 10% and is much higher in the volatile south eastern region, exports are declining, and president is hammering the Central Bank to lower interest rates. The cacophony and mixed signals over Turkey’s economic policies are making investors very nervous. The prime minister and his top economic aides were in New York last week in an apparently futile mission to calm these nerves.

This is very difficult to achieve when the president insists that the theoretically independent Central Bank lower interest rates in hopes of stimulating the economy and reviving the critical construction industry that has created so many millionaires during Erdoğan’s reign. Ali Babacan, the minister in charge of the economy for the last 12 years, understands finance and economics very well. He has done a masterful job keeping the country on the rails so far, but it remains to be seen just how long his rational policies will survive the onslaught of Erdoğan and his comical presidential ‘advisors’.

On top of the economic problems there are the Kurds. No one knows precisely how many Kurds live in Turkey, but common assumptions are about 15% of the total population, or roughly 12 million people. Kurdish guerrillas, the PKK, have been fighting a low-intensity war against the Turkish state for years. In an effort to end the violence and integrate the Kurdish population more completely into Turkish society the government has begun long, drawn-out ‘peace process’. While many applaud this effort, cynics accuse the government of simply trying to buy off the Kurds to gain votes in the upcoming election.

Regardless of the ultimate reason, the Kurds may well hold the key to the June election. Bear with me for a little background on the convoluted Turkish election system. In order to enter parliament a political party must gain at least 10% of the total votes cast. In the past the Kurdish political party did very well in the Kurdish districts of the south east, but failed to cross the 10% national barrier. In the event that a party fails to get the required 10% on the national level all that party’s votes are given to the runner-up in the districts in question. In the vast majority of cases this runner-up was the AKP candidate.

In order to circumvent this rule Kurdish candidates previously would enter the elections as independents who only had to win their districts to enter parliament. This time, however, the young, charismatic leader of the Kurdish Freedom and Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, has decided to risk everything by entering these elections as a party, subject to the 10% threshold. If he wins the Kurds will gain a powerful voice in parliament. If he loses the AKP will pick up several additional members of parliament – perhaps enough to take them over the 330 needed to change the constitution.

Is Kurdish Leader Selahattin Demirtas The Country's New Hope?
The real question is whether Demirtaş can broaden the party’s appeal to the non-Kurdish segments of the population. He has been helped positive images of Kurds in Iraq and Syria defying the barbarians of ISIS. He may also get some help from what is left of the disaffected, alienated liberal bloc as well as from those who dislike Erdoğan so much they will vote for the Kurdish party. “My deepest apologies to my grandfather who is turning over in his grave, but I will vote for the Kurds this time. Just to block Erdoğan,” said a typical ‘tactical’ voter.

Turkey is in for a very bumpy ride until the June elections. Then we shall see if Erdoğan gets his heartfelt wish for an imperial presidency, or whether is left roaming around his enormous new palace looking vainly for something to fill his days.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Who Are The Real Revolutionaries?

Buried beneath the mountain of verbiage and breathless news reports about the Greek debt negotiations lies a little-noticed role reversal. While the new Greek government Syriza adopts the dramatic plumage, media savvy and rhetoric of ‘revolutionaries’ they are, in fact, staunchly defending the Greek status quo – the very status quo that brought Greece to its knees. The usually media-shy, grey and drab Eurocrats in Brussels would shiver at the comparison, but they have become the real revolutionaries who want to change Greece and bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

            The Greek state, with its bountiful patronage and rigid control, has dominated the Greek economy and protected politically loyal interests for generations. Every party in power has used the state coffers to reward voters with jobs in government or in state-owned enterprises regardless of aptitude or knowledge of the job at hand. The combination of hapless, inefficient state economic enterprises and bloated bureaucracy whose main goal was to strangle at birth any innovation that might reduce its numbers has slowly but surely deprived the Greek economy of the vitality and oxygen needed for real growth. Who in his right mind was going to spend the energy required to fight through the swamp of bureaucracy and closed professions to start something new that just might offer a lower priced, better service or product to all consumers? Far better to stuff your idiot cousin into well-protected state job.

Is he the revolutionary ...
            This is what Syriza wants to defend at all costs. It is, after all, the source of the party’s political power. And this condition is exactly what the bureaucrats in Brussels want to change. Syriza loves to play on the image of the hard-hearted Germans insisting that impoverished Greeks tighten their already tightened belts a few more notches. Greeks respond ‘What belt? I sold that long ago.’ 

Even brilliant economists like Paul Krugman weigh in against the follies of relying on austerity to bring a country out of depression. It is not every day that I take issue with a Nobel Prize-winning economist, but Krugman may be only half right in this case. I agree completely that austerity by itself accomplishes nothing but misery. How can any country, or company, for that matter prosper on a diet of nothing more than the economic equivalent of kale and tofu?

It is the flip side of the austerity coin that has been obscured in all the concern for the long-suffering Greek people. So far, Syriza and its vocal supporters have said very little about the vital structural reforms required to get Greece off the welfare rolls. What about opening up the economy to newcomers and, God forbid, foreigners? What about amending the bureaucracy to encourage instead of discouraging enterprise? We know that Syriza is firmly against selling or even leasing state assets to raise funds that could be used in much-needed social welfare programs. But why, precisely? Do the party leaders really believe that the state can run things like the railroad, ports or power corporations more efficiently than private owners? The real tragedy is that without these long-overdue structural reforms the pain of reduced spending over the last few years will be wasted. Greece will remain mired in a welfare trap, unable to claw itself out of debt and unable to grow.

Or is he the real revolutionary?
The revolutionaries in Brussels want to change the story line. They are well aware of the desperate state of many Greeks, but they would like to help Greece grow out of the welfare trap rather than remain on the EU’s life-support system. An obvious deal is on the table. Greece’s debt conditions are eased in return for real movement on the economic reforms. Will Syriza pick up this deal? Or will it continue to play the role of the defiant revolutionary defending the barricades with cries of ‘national sovereignty over all else’? One wonders if Greece’s rulers have ever explained that the price of joining the EU and then the Euro was a loss of total sovereignty. The club has rules that one is supposed to obey. One didn’t hear much about a ‘loss of sovereignty’ when EU funds were flowing in to improve the country’s antiquated physical infrastructure. But now when the club secretary reminds members that the club is joint enterprise with certain obligations we hear cries of anguish from many Greek politicians.

If there is no agreement in Brussels in the next couple of days Syriza could possibly elect to hold a referendum on the Euro. It could ask the Greek people to decide if they want to stay in the Euro even with the ‘odious’ conditions imposed by heartless Germans -  or do they want to return to the ‘proud and sovereign’ drachma regardless of the economic pain that might cause. Such a step could give Syriza political cover regardless of the outcome. In any case, we won’t have long to wait for the end of this melodrama.