Friday, 28 April 2017

The Challenge Before French Voters -- Pull Up The Drawbridge Or Move Forward

BORDEAUX -- Very few elections offer voters a crystal-clear choice of policies. The presidential election in France next month is one of those rare occurrences. The two candidates in the final round offer polar-opposites of policies for surmounting the multiple challenges facing France as well as Europe. The choice couldn’t be more stark.

            In the first round of the presidential election voters swept away the sterile, failed policies of the traditional Left and Right parties who had ruled France for more than 60 years. The minute policy differences of these two groups were hotly debated among the chattering classes of Paris for decades while the rest of the country was left to stagnate in an economic morass.

            The first round on April 23 highlighted the new division in France. Instead of the old Left/Right construct France now has a sharp division between those favouring the so-called liberal world order with all its international institutions, global economic aspirations, human rights and freedoms that Europe has become used to. This camp thinks France is in a much stronger position to face global competition as an active member of the European Union than as an isolated, independent country caught between the huge forces of the United States, Russia and China. Opposing this are those who reject completely the liberal world order and who want to pull France out of institutions like NATO, the European Union, and the Euro. Their answer to France’s economic and social problems follows Trump’s recipe: pull up the drawbridge, cower behind high tariff walls, and – most of all – kick out all the immigrants.
           
            Why does all this matter? Why should anyone outside France worry about this election? Simple. France is a big country at the heart of Europe. A European Union without France is inconceivable. A revitalized French economy would be a huge shot in the arm for Europe as a whole. A re-confirmation of the values of human rights and equality in a country as central as France would send a clear message that Europe still firmly rejects the authoritarian, isolationist, and nativist policies of the extreme right.
Centrist Candidate Emmanuel Macron

             The centrist candidate, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, came out of nowhere to form a country-wide movement that propelled him to first place in the first round of the presidential elections. He is a former minister in the government of President Francois Holland, but left last year to start his own independent run with a new formation called En Marche! – Forward. He symbolizes the side of France that accepts the global challenges of the 21st Century and says France could clearly be on the winning side of those challenges. He is full of ideas for changing the stalled French economy, but these ideas involve changing the status quo in France – something that is very hard to accomplish in a country where traditions and fixed opinions are strong. In short, change is not something generally well received here.

            The extreme-right wing candidate, Marine Le Pen – otherwise known as Le Trump – says Rubbish to all that. She inherited the Front National leadership from her father who was one of the founders of the party. She has tried to change, without much success, the party’s racist, quasi-fascist, anti-Semitic image into pure, Trumpian social and economic nationalism. But sometimes the old image shines through as she whips up the crowd about restoring the Glory of France. The only ideas she proposes for accomplishing this ambitious goal are retreating rapidly from the global economy, leaving international institutions like NATO, giving up the Euro,  and throwing out all the immigrants. And along the way, she would cripple all international investment bankers – like Macron – whom she blames for France’s fall from power and glory.

Extreme Right Candidate Marine Le Pen
            In normal times Le Pen would never have a chance of winning the second round because the vast majority of votes from the losing parties would go to anyone opposing the National Front – seen by many as an affront to the sophisticated, socially responsible image of France. This would be a repeat of 2002 when Le Pen’s father made the final round, but was routed by conservative Jacques Chirac as even the leftist voters chose him over the National Front.

 But these are not normal times in a deeply divided country. If a large number of voters whose candidates lost in the first round decide to abstain rather than support a change advocate like Macron it is quite possible that Le Pen could sneak into the presidency.

            This danger comes from the fact that in the voters’ disgust with the status quo the extreme Left and the extreme Right accumulated almost 40% of the total vote in the first round. Despite their apparent contradictions very little separates the economic policies of both extremes. To them, issues like globalisation, international finance, or bankers in general are evils to be rejected at all costs. The extreme Left risks making the same mistake that the small splinter holier-than-thou parties in the United States made in 2016 when they took votes from Hillary Clinton and handed the presidency to Donald Trump. Many of France’s extreme left have said they prefer to maintain their intellectual purity by abstaining rather than voting for the hated globalisation they think Macron stands for. This electoral dilemma has driven the French café society into overdrive as everyone offers advice on what must be done. It remains to be seen just how much the French electorate pays attention to all this noise.


            French presidential election campaigns are mercifully short, and it will all be over on May 7. The French are also spared the tactics of Turkey’s ruler Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s a relief to be in a country where political opponents and critical journalists are not thrown in jail, newspapers represent every political point of view, there is equal time for the candidates, and – most important – there is no threat of rigging the results. Regardless of the outcome, we should all be grateful for free and fair elections. Experience in Turkey shows they can never be taken for granted.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Turkey's Already Difficult Path Just Got More Difficult

The only surprising thing about the outcome of yesterday’s Turkish referendum was just how close the result was. Given his total domination of the media, use of thuggish gangs to intimidate opposition rallies, jailing political opponents and journalists Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan should have won his power grab by 20 points or more. Reflecting the complete split and sharp divisions of Turkish society he won by less than 3 percentage points. And the opposition is claiming that at least 2.5 million invalid votes were cast in favour of the constitutional changes. Because Erdoğan and his cronies control every branch of government it is very doubtful that those claims will get anywhere.

The map shows the huge problem Erdoğan faces. All the big cities, the Aegean coast and Kurdish areas
voted against him.
            A leader genuinely interested in representing the entire country would pay close attention to this vote, especially the fact that all major cities voted against the constitutional changes. This was the first time ever that Istanbul, for example, had voted against Erdoğan. But introspection and course alteration to meet the demands of 50% of the population are not on Erdoğan’s agenda. He is now free to move Turkey even further from the ideals of Europe and closer to the dictators and petty despots of Central Asia he admires so much.

            He never liked the European Union with all its emphasis on thorny issues like human rights, freedom of speech, or independent judiciary. He loved to whip up the crowds by railing against any European leader who had the temerity to criticize him. He promised to replace the EU’s Copenhagen criteria with his co-called Ankara criteria, which most likely include stiff jail sentences for any of those pesky EU leaders who set foot in Turkey.

Erdoğan votes in the referendum
            One would like to think that the better-than-usual results achieved by the opposition would encourage them to capitalize on this showing by getting better organized and broadening their appeal to all segments of Turkish society.

On one level, Turkish voters continued their vain search for a strong leader a Man on a White Horse who can solve all their problems with the flick of his wrist. This part of the society refuses to accept that the complicated process of improving the country starts with themselves and includes truly independent institutions like the judiciary, the press, the Central Bank, and above all else a quality education system. But that’s hard work. Much easier to rely on the strong man. However, it was encouraging to see that almost 50% of the population rejected this simplistic notion and demonstrated – against all odds – that they valued a real representative democracy, with all its faults. Perhaps they can keep the flame of democracy alive in Turkey.

            His cynical tirades against Europe paid off for him as the referendum results showed most of the Turks who voted in Germany or the Netherlands voted in favour of the constitutional changes. In fact, without these votes Erdoğan may well have lost the referendum. Most of these Turks may have no intention of returning to Turkey, but they told a German journalist friend of mine that Erdoğan made them ‘feel proud to be Turkish.’ It’s a pity that they don’t realize they were just useful tools for Erdoğan and are much better off in Germany or the Netherlands – where they enjoy the full spectrum of rights and economic opportunities -- than they ever would be back in Turkey.

            In all his push to resemble his Central Asia idols, Erdoğan faces one enormous problem – a problem he can’t solve with a jail sentence. The economy now resembles Venezuela-without-the-oil, and is eroding like sand under his feet. The budget deficit is increasing rapidly, unemployment is climbing, inflation is back in double digits, and inward investment has dropped sharply. To add insult to injury, Iran is now the favored destination for many European companies. It is becoming increasingly difficult to fund Erdoğan’s massive public spending projects, projects that have enriched his family and several of his close associates over the last several years. Many people have spoken about this ‘charmed circle’, but a recent analysis by Rainer Hermann in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described it in great detail. But now, funding them has become a real problem. Money is disappearing from the Treasury. Erdoğan has had to resort to such desperate tactics as issuing government guarantees of profitability for the favored contractors or demanding the state banks lend to these projects when private banks refuse. He has also forced state companies into a so-called Wealth Fund which will enable him to re-direct the cash flow and borrowing capabilities of those companies into ever-increasing public works projects to keep the ‘charmed circle’ happy and rich – at the state’s expense.

            What comes next? Will massive statues of Tayyip Erdoğan begin to dot the landscape of Turkey?  Will his likeness be sculpted onto a cliff, like Mount Rushmore in America? Will he change his name to something like Türkbaşɩ, Chief Turk? Who knows? And more important, how will he react when faced with serious economic, international or military problems of his own making? He has already reduced the number of Turkey’s friends to such a level that they can hold their annual convention in a phone booth. Who will he call? Donald Trump? Vladimir Putin?


            For the immediate future the Turks can only wait nervously while Erdoğan determines just how to play his narrow win. Will he snuff out Turkish democracy completely or will he uncharacteristically reach out to the millions of Turks who actually like their democracy?

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Turkey Is Very Hard To Fit Into Anyone's Rigid Mold

Turkey was the subject of two separate talks in London last week. One conference in Whitehall with noted speakers from academia and diplomatic circles covered the usual ‘wither Turkey and the West’ question that has been plaguing Western statesmen for several hundred years. It was interesting to hear the same sort of concerns that must have resonated in the same halls more than 150 years ago when what was left of the Ottoman Empire was regarded as something necessary – but not quite what you would bring into the front parlor.

            “However disagreeable its rulers may be, we cannot afford to let Turkey and the straits fall into the hands of the Russians. We must continue our efforts to bring Turkey onside and not let the Russians grab everything.”
           
           Talks in last week’s conference weren’t much different. “We know that President Tayyip Erdoğan is difficult to deal with and not quite anyone’s idea of a real democrat. But we simply must carry on with some sort of dialogue. We don’t want to wake up one morning and find that the country has jettisoned the West in favour of Putin.

            True enough. But treating Turkey as a distant, dyspeptic relative who shows up uninvited for a long weekend in the Cotswolds obscures the powerful social, political and economic forces driving the country today. It is those forces, not the temporary rule of Tayyip Erdoğan, that will determine the future of Turkey. With all the headlines and outbursts surrounding Erdoğan it is sometimes easy to forget that the country is much, much more complex than the bombast of its leader.

The reality of modern Turkey belies the simplistic, one-dimensional characterization that Erdoğan and many outside observers love. Terms like ally, enemy, religious, secular, democrat, autocrat have absolutely no meaning by themselves. Turkey can, at the same time, be one or all of these things. Trends like rising education levels, the growing middle class, deepening interaction with the global economy, sharp social and political divisions make it impossible to slot Turkey into a rigid mold. Anyone who thinks he begins to understand modern Turkey would be well advised to stop and think again.

            It was the internationally-acclaimed author Elif Şafak who took us beneath the dry diplomatic concerns about Turkey and offered a clear-eyed, sympathetic view of that reality. The talk at one of London’s leading bookstores ostensibly was to discuss her most recent novel, Three Daughters of Eve. The book discusses the lives of three Moslem women – one pious, one hostile to Islam, and one unsure where she stands on religion -- studying at Oxford.

Elif  Şafak
             Şafak also shared her concerns and frustrations that the vibrant intellectual and social life that once dominated big cities like Istanbul and Ankara is becoming stifled under the rigid vision of Erdoğan. Conversations at dinner parties and other gatherings are stilted because people feel extremely nervous about expressing their real thoughts. “Let someone hear you say the wrong thing, and you could wind up in prison” seems to be ruling fear. No one is allowed to have ‘doubts’ any more. To be seen or heard ‘doubting’ Erdoğan’s version of reality is to invite close scrutiny by your neighbors or the authorities. Forget about humor. Jokes or cartoons about Erdoğan are just a one-way ticket to a jail cell.

            She also bemoaned the tendency of Turkey’s current rulers to present the country in simplistic nationalistic, religious and social terms. The Turkey she described, and one I experienced in more than two decades in the country, is not the un-differentiated, homogeneous mass that Erdoğan and his acolytes would have people believe. Turkey is in fact a rich, heterogeneous mixture of people and religion. Yes, most of the people are Moslem, but there are several shades and varieties of Islam within the country. Even the subject of nationality is not straightforward. The question of who, exactly, is a Turk becomes even more complex when you consider the question of the millions of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

            While people are proud to call themselves citizens of the Turkish Republic they are equally quick to point out their unique family histories. Some are indeed direct descendants of the Turks who swarmed out of the Altai mountains more than 1,000 years ago. Some of these families proudly claim direct links to the non-Ottoman tribes that controlled different parts of Anatolia. Others claim their heritage from the far-flung regions of the Ottoman Empire: the Balkans, Crete, Yemen, Egypt, mainland Greece. Many of the villages along the Aegean coast that were vacated during the population exchange with Greece in the 1920s were re-populated with Turks driven out of their homes in the Balkans.
 
Modern Turks trace their roots from all over the Ottoman Empire
            Erdoğan also ignores the complex reality of the modern Turkish economy and how much it is intertwined with the global economy. Under his mis-management the economy may be sliding fast, but it remains closely tied to the wider world in critical areas like finance and trade – including trade in those very basic raw and intermediate materials that keep Turkish factories working.


            Given Erdoğan’s overwhelming control of almost all political discourse in Turkey today it is revealing that estimates about the outcome of the referendum giving him total control are as close as they are. But perhaps the very complexities he ignores in his quest for this control could result in his unexpected defeat. Even he is learning that ‘one-size-fits-all’ does not really apply to Turkey.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Who Is Erdoğan Trying To Kid?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s desperation is showing. Faced with the prospect of possibly losing the all-important referendum next month he has incited diplomatic spats with Holland and Germany – each of them home to millions of expatriate Turks.

The proximate cause of his anger – real or feigned – is the refusal of those countries to be drawn into Turkish domestic political fights. Those two countries took the entirely reasonable position that letting Turkish ministers host election rallies in Holland or Germany would amount an unwelcome intrusion of violent Turkish politics into their own more normal political system.

He is in a position to lecture anyone on freedom??
Why, they asked, should they condone Erdoğan’s  undemocratic, repressive version of politics by letting his ministers practice those traits in Germany or Holland? Not an unreasonable question. Furthermore, the Dutch have a critical election this week. Why did Erdoğan even think they would allow any outside intrusion at this point – let alone the rabble rousers from Turkey?

But focusing only on Erdoğan’s obvious insensitivity and hypocrisy is to miss the point. He simply doesn’t care about European criticism of his moves. In fact, he loves it because it feeds the popular domestic narrative of those nasty Europeans with their so-called emphasis on human rights trying to keep Turkey down in the second division. It is important to realize that his complaints about Holland and Germany are nothing but a smokescreen enabling him to push the always-reliable button of Turkish nationalism.

The only thing that matters to him at this point is getting enough votes in the referendum on proposed changes to the Turkish constitution giving him unchecked powers. There are some cautious comments in the Turkish press that this might not be as easy as he had hoped. There is some serious resistance to the idea of ending Turkey’s parliamentary system of government in favor of what amounts to one-man rule. It’s one thing to vote for AKP, it’s quite another to give one man – Tayyip Erdoğan – absolute power. Therefore Erdoğan has to do everything he can to whip up the Turkish booboisie – to steal a term from H.L.Mencken – into such a nationalist fervor that they rush to support their leader.

To that end he has manufactured inflammatory actions like calling Germany and Holland modern day versions of the Nazis, insisted on having his ministers travel to those countries and then get photographed as they are refused entry, yelping about double standards on human rights and freedom of speech, etc., etc. It takes a great deal of energy to do all this with a straight face, especially when so many journalists and opposition politicians are languishing behind bars in Turkey. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that he just doesn’t care about this very, very bad joke or the reality of the situation – assuming he knows it. Very few of his supporters have access to, or ability to understand any of the critical foreign comment. All they hear is his side of the story – blazoned across his in-house newspapers or broadcast loudly on supine TV stations.

Dutch riot police outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam
Turkish televisions are now filled with dramatic shots of protests outside the Dutch consulate in Istanbul -- located on the city’s main shopping street – or scuffles in Holland outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. To outsiders, Erdoğan and his puppet ministers look comical and ridiculous as they struggle to climb onto the high road in this intensifying debate about standards of freedom in each country. They should be embarrassed by their pretensions, but they have long since lost the ability to be embarrassed by anything in Turkish politics. If the massive corruption scandals a few years and brutal repression against protesters didn’t cause any embarrassment, then it’s naïve to think that something like a loud argument with a foreign country would cause any embarrassment. Quite the contrary. Remember the old Turkish saying, A Turk Has No Friends But A Turk.


Turkey has sealed off the Dutch embassy for 'security' reasons
Will this tactic be enough to swing the election his way? Difficult to say. Turkish polls are notoriously inaccurate, but various commentators report some unease in the Erdoğan camp about the outcome of the referendum. This unease apparently extends not just to the usual political opposition but also could include some members of the ruling Justice and Development Party itself who like the parliamentary system. Unlike the general elections, this is a straight Yes or No vote where the winner has to get at least 50% of the votes cast. Given the possibility of vote fiddling, many people in the No camp believe they have to get well over 50% to get the outcome they want.


The only certain thing is more sharp election maneuvring by the Erdoğan camp between now and the referendum on April 16. Will  this be a sign of desperation, or just politics as usual? Very difficult to say.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A New American Bumper Sticker: 'Pence In 2017'

Most of our trips back to the United States involve long discussions with friends and family about activities of one’s children and grandchildren, what one does – or does not do – during retirement, travel plans and the amazing places – Siberia, New Zealand mountains, Antarctica, etc. – where they have been. “If we don’t do this now, when in God’s name will we do it?” seems to be a common refrain among the 70-year-olds. This time was different. It didn’t take 30 seconds for the conversation to turn to the one topic riveting America – the incredible spectacle of Donald Trump in the White House.

Granted, our travels were through the Bluest of Blue areas of New York and New England. But every conversation quickly became a series of “Have you heard the latest?” tales of stupefying behaviour by Trump and his close circle. Even perfect strangers get into the act. As our bus rattled down 5th Avenue in New York past the Trump Towers the elderly couple sitting behind us started muttering about the ‘embarrassment’ in the White House. “Can you believe that clown,” they exclaimed in loud tones to no one in particular. “Whatever happened to the dignity of the Office of the President?”
 
Does he have a clue what he is doing?
One old friend who has been active in fund raising for senior Republicans at the national and state level could only shake his head in dismay. “Wanting a change from the Big Government trend of Democratic administrations is one thing. But the sheer incompetence and nonsense coming out of the White House are quite another. These guys have no idea what they are doing.” He took another healthy slug of wine before reiterating the familiar litany of juvenile behaviour – daily Tweets replacing policy making, indefensible claims of illegal voters or Obama wiretapping, fixation with inauguration crowds, the travel ban fiasco, and many others. “His school yard antics are destroying whatever legislative agenda he may have had,” he said.

Another said there were two possible approaches. “Look,” he said, “the guy is the president of the United States. And we have to help him succeed for all our sakes. Just hold our noses and try to help.”

But, he hastened to add, no one in the Trump circle seems open to such help. “The better option,” he admitted, “is to have Trump realize he is in way over his head and leave office as soon as possible for a return to television and real estate. To this end, I have prepared a lot of Pence in ’17 bumper stickers.”

Politics aside, what struck us the most about the entire Northeast region was the sheer vitality, the obvious prosperity, the focus on the future. Tradition is what you had for breakfast.

New York and Boston have had their ups-and-downs, and I have lived through some pretty depressing economic times in both cities. At one time, I remember that a taxi medallion cost more than a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The head of the Off Track Betting operation took out large billboards claiming investors had better odds at the race track than on the stock exchange. He wasn’t wrong. Now, signs of an economic boom – from construction activity, crowded museums and restaurants, bursting show rooms – are everywhere. Despite the general frustration and sheer embarrassment with Trump, the people we met were generally optimistic about the economy.

I grew up in northern New England and spent several years in and around cities like Boston and Providence at a time when traditional industries like textiles, shoe manufacturing, or small highly skilled machine shops were leaving for cheaper labour in southern states. We used to call it the Revenge of the Confederacy. All that remained were the massive, empty shells of factories and warehouses. To add insult to injury even the Navy pulled out of several locations.
 
An empty mill from 1960s New England
Now, I scarcely recognize places. Construction programs throughout the region underpin an economy already buoyed by high value-added elements like education, health care, finance, and high tech. A once run-down section of Cambridge has been turned into a global research center feeding on the talent from universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A short walk along any of the streets in Cambridge or Boston reveals the utter foolishness of Trump’s fear of immigration. We couldn’t count the number of languages we heard just ambling among the buildings and laboratories. He may not like it, but cutting down on immigration would be like cutting off the blood flow to America’s brain.

Despite the hustle-and-bustle of big cities, visitors can still find charming traditional New England towns desperately trying to slow down the remorseless clock of progress by rebelling against certain aspects of modern life. For example, cell phone reception in these towns is spotty at best because locals don’t like the intrusion of cell towers. In Woodstock, Vermont, visitors from the U.K. will feel right at home in a wonderful B&B run by a British couple who offer a breakfast designed for homesick guests – complete with Marmite, the ‘full Monty’, or a bacon ‘butty’.  
 
U.K. visitors will feel right at home in Woodstock, Vt.

Another unforgettable ‘charm’ of New England is rapid variation in weather. Mark Twain had it right when he said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England wait a few minutes.” Within the space of 24 hours the temperature dropped from a relatively balmy +15˚C to -15˚C – which was actually much colder with a roaring northerly wind. Nice to be reminded that nature pays absolutely no attention to ephemeral things like politics.