Monday, 18 May 2015

Erdoğan Needs To Be Very Careful At This Point

A possible sign that Turkey’s notoriously inaccurate election polls may for once be on the right track is the increasingly shrill and often bizarre behaviour of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the run-up to June’s general election.

Since storming to power in 2002 the AKP has swept every election with overwhelming majorities and maintained its strong grip on single-party government. Now, due a host of factors including a weak economy, fatigue with President Tayyip Erdoğan, corruption and disunity within AKP that tight grip is being challenged. One of the main threats is coming from the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) with its charismatic, pop-star-like leader Selahattin Demirtaş. If Demirtaş can lead his party over the absurd 10% barrier to enter parliament it can pose a serious threat to AKP’s ability to rule by itself without a coalition.

The panicked response of AKP to this threat indicates that the polls showing HDP close to the 10% goal might just be accurate. Elections in Turkey have always been raucous affairs with accusations of wholesale vote rigging, threats of violence, massive demonstrations, and lots and lots of loud noise. But this one is going even further.

AKP minions, led by Erdoğan who is supposed to be above such things as president, are busy labelling the Kurdish party as:

·                     Terrorists
·                     Atheists
·                     And my favourite, ‘Zoroastrians’. For those of you whose knowledge of Zoroastrians is as limited as mine I recommend a wonderful book about remnants of ancient Middle Eastern religions called Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell. He writes that the Zoroastrian faith dominated Persia until the Islamic conquest in the 7th century. There are only a very few Zoroastrians remaining in modern Iran, but, even so, Erdoğan now counts them as an existential threat to Turkey in the form of a Kurdish political party.

Assaults on the HDP are growing beyond verbal absurdities. So far there have more than 50 attacks on HDP election offices across the country. Yesterday there were serious bomb attacks on two HDP offices in the cities of Adana and Mersin. Two senior AKP officials condemned the attacks, and no one has claimed responsibility. And no suspects have been found.
Scene after bomb at HDP office in Mersin
A sign of AKP desperation is the fact that Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister and official head of the party, has been almost completely side-lined. He is perceived as a weak campaigner, and Erdoğan has gladly leapt into the breach with his almost daily fire-and-brimstone speeches about the catastrophe that awaits Turkey if the AKP fails to win enough deputies to form a single-party government.

In another indication of AKP nervousness, some party stalwarts are demanding the few remaining opposition media outlets be shut down and their assets confiscated.

            Then there is the very strange incident of rumours about a possible Turkish military incursion into Syria, an incursion that could cause the elections to be postponed thereby staving off potential embarrassment for the AKP. These rumours were quickly followed by the surprise decision of the Chief of Staff of the Turkish army to take a 15-day medical leave. It is well known that the army is firmly opposed to any such Syrian adventure, and the absence of the Chief of Staff makes any move into Syria very difficult. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day with this one, but it will be quite a while before anything resembling the truth emerges.

            Even more serious are the mounting concerns about voter fraud. With the judiciary and the theoretically independent election commission firmly under government control many people are concerned that the results will mysteriously turn out to be in AKP’s favour, regardless of the actual vote. A friend in London recalled that in the last election there were more votes cast in several districts than the total number of registered voters in those districts. There are also leaked reports of massive government efforts to ‘control’ the results. Opposition parties say they will send thousands of monitors to the polling sites, but it is not clear how effective they will be.
Iran faced widespread protests after the flawed 2009 election
            This is where Erdoğan has to be very careful. It is one thing if HDP legitimately fails to surpass the 10% barrier. It is quite another if the party suspects that electoral fraud kept them out of parliament. Erdoğan should remember the 2009 eruption of the Green Revolution in Iran following the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Similar accusations in Turkey would go viral in a matter of moments leaving the so-called Kurdish ‘peace process’ in tatters. 

Erdoğan may or may not like the results of this election, But one hopes he realizes that nothing would improve Turkey’s democratic standing in this troubled region more than letting the results, whatever they may be, unfold without interference.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

"If You're Going To Shoot Me, Shoot Me! Just Get On With It!"

ATHENS -- Fatigue, exhaustion and frustration seem to have descended on Greece like a cloud, dampening the natural exuberance and underlying optimism of many people. They are simply worn out by speculation on the outcome of endless negotiations that achieve nothing, the daily struggle with total uncertainty about their economic future, and the barrage of contradictory proclamations from an inexperienced government. “We are on the verge of an agreement with the creditors! There is no agreement! We might agree to privatise some state assets. We will NEVER sell or lease a single state asset!” And so it goes. Meanwhile hapless citizens are caught in the middle of a frightening maze.

“If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me! Just get on with it,” cried one anguished citizen. “I’m tired of this mess. We’ve been dealing with it since 2008 and there is no end in sight. I just want it over with, one way or the other.” One housewife said she hardly leaves the house these days. “I sit home on my sofa all day watching TV hoping to see some developments. Nothing.  All I’m doing  is wearing out sofa fabric.”

How many Greeks feel at the moment
More galling perhaps is the loss of self-esteem. “We used to be proud to be Greek. We were considered the home of democracy, the worthy heirs of the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and the great playwrights. Now Greece is considered just another unruly little country stuck onto the bottom of the Balkans. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’re Greek these days,” says one Brussels-based Greek.

In the current, rapidly deteriorating economic situation cash is king. No one knows if the banks and all their ATM machines are suddenly going to close. Tourists are advised to bring lots of cash. Many businesses are forced to pay cash for raw materials because suppliers limit credit to only the largest of companies. The central government has stripped municipalities of their spare cash in a desperate attempt to meet pension payments and pay creditors.

The Syriza government swept into power in January with the promise that it would stand up for the ‘little man’, roll back the hated austerity program, and force the country’s creditors to renegotiate a much more favourable package of repayments. This simply hasn’t happened. A lethal combination of inexperience, arrogance and party disunity led the new government to badly overplay its already weak hand.

For four months the Greek people have been living on promises of a better tomorrow. But that tomorrow keeps receding further and further into the distance. Faced with an intractable Eurozone making demands that a fractured, internally chaotic Syriza simply cannot deliver the government faces some unpalatable choices that could rip the party into its constituent parts.

            Some more bizarre members of the ruling party want to dump the whole negotiating process. They openly call for leaving the Eurozone in favour of the old currency, the drachma. They ignore the horrific costs of such a move for the average citizen they claim to represent. Among other things, this move would certainly reduce food supplies in the country. Greece imports about 75% of everything it eats and drinks. How are the stores going to pay for these goods with a sharply devalued drachma? How is the present generation of Greeks going to react to shortages it has never seen?

One ruling party MP, Costas Lapavitsas, blithely, almost cheerfully, admits – from the safety of his academic sinecure in London – that going back to the drachma would, of course, entail a return to rationing of most of life’s basic items – a condition Greece escaped decades ago. I'm not sure how most Greeks would react to standing in line with their ration cards waiting for their daily bread. He also says that Greece should re-align its foreign relations away from Europe, and by implication the United States, and cosy up to such economic power-houses as Venezuela, Iran and China. Never mind that Iran is working hard to re-join the Western world and that Venezuela is flat broke despite its vast oil reserves. Tough to see Greece doing much of deal with China after repeatedly refusing to let a Chinese company buy the portion of the Port of Piraeus it doesn’t already own. Maybe he meant Greece to copy that other Asian powerhouse -- North Korea.

While most of the world has moved on from this Stalinist economic view, it does represent a strong faction within the government, and demonstrates clearly why any agreement with the Eurozone could split the party wide open. This partly explains the hesitant, confusing approach of the Greek government toward any deal with its creditors to keep Greece in the Euro. The Syriza government itself may not have a clear, unified approach. Who speaks for the government?  Ministers are constantly contradicting each other. The government is caught in a bind. Sign a deal, break up the party. Reject a deal, lose Greece. That’s a tough choice for a party filled with people trying to run a country on the basis of revolutionary rhetoric more suited to university agitation than actually running a real country.

Does Tsipras even want a deal with the creditors?
Unable, or unwilling, to make that choice the party may resort to a referendum to solve the dilemma. Let the people choose whether to stay in the Euro or return to the drachma. Fine in theory. Difficult in reality. How exactly will the question be worded? Will the banks have to be closed during the period of the referendum to stop massive withdrawals? Will capital controls have to be imposed? Will people clean out the supermarket shelves and start hoarding just in case the country goes back to the drachma? The only thing that is clear at this point is that the resilience and endurance of the Greek people are stretched to their limits.

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.