Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Does Erdoğan Want Yet Another Election In Turkey?

Not too long ago Turkey was regarded as an island of stability, a reliable barrier between the unstable Middle East and Europe, a respectable model of ‘moderate’ Islam, a promising democracy in a region where democracy is in short supply.

            Now, all of those clichés look completely outdated as the country lurches from one crisis to another. Far from having a moderating influence on the region Turkey seems to be sliding ever further into the unrest that plagues its neighbours. 

            “(President Tayyip) Erdoğan always wanted Turkey to be more a part of the Middle East. Well, he certainly has achieved that – only not quite in the way he imagined,” quipped one mordant businessman.

            Deadly bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul attributed to ISIS show just how much the Syrian chaos has spread to Turkey and is drawing the country reluctantly into that fight. Renewed military confrontations with the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK have virtually shut down several provinces in the south east with almost daily clashes resulting in mounting civilian and military casualties.
Deadly Istanbul blast killed several German tourists
            Some of these crises, like the deepening polarization and fractures in Turkish society, are home grown. They reflect the overbearing, authoritarian nature of President Tayyip Erdoğan who cannot tolerate dissent in any form – especially when such dissent blocks his road to an imperial presidency.  

The latest incident came with the arrest of several academics who signed a petition protesting the government’s actions in the strife-torn Kurdish region of the country. They were charged with ‘supporting terrorism’. Erdoğan could have brushed off this criticism as ‘naïve’ in its failure to criticize the brutality of the PKK, and be done with it. Instead, he overreacts with insults and legal action that may impress his devout followers but only yet again demonstrates his rigid intolerance to any other opinion.

            Foreign policy problems with countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Russia have highlighted the country’s almost total isolation and forced the Turkish government into embarrassing U-turns. Once scorned as the source of unrest in the region, Israel is now embraced. The European Union, once mocked for interfering in Turkish affairs with constant calls for more democracy, is now back in favour. The government has always had a love/hate relationship with the United States. But the needle is now pointing more toward the ‘love’ side as Turkey has nowhere else to turn since Russia, infuriated by the shooting down of one its fighter planes, slapped stiff economic sanctions on Turkey.  

            Perhaps the biggest puzzle in this mounting list of problems is the deadly struggle with its own Kurdish population. After the highly touted ‘peace process’ with the PKK broke down last summer the savage fighting renewed with devastating consequences for anyone caught in the middle. Whole regions of the south east are now under martial law and the government has imposed curfews on several towns.

            But why all this trouble now? What caused this so-called process and dialogue with the Kurds to break down? One reason may be Turkey’s fear of Kurdish gains in Iraq and Syria. Over strong Turkish objections America has supported Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria who have recaptured a great deal of territory from ISIS. The last thing Turkey wants is a viable, autonomous Kurdish region on its southern border. The Turks fear that such an autonomous region could link up with Kurds in Turkey and claim an even larger area at the expense of Turkey. This is Turkey’s Red Line, and may explain in part why they are trying to pre-empt such a move.

                        Turkey’s conspiracy theorists have a simpler reason – one linked to Erdoğan’s overweening presidential ambitions, ambitions that require a new constitution. According to this theory the Kurdish political party HDP is responsible for the ruling party’s failure to get enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and allow Erdoğan to become a powerful president unfettered by the checks and balances that define mature democracies. In the June election the HDP easily passed the 10% barrier for parliamentary representation and won 80 MPs. This drove AKP below an absolute majority for the first time since 2002.

            This did not please Erdoğan. He made sure that no coalition government could be formed, thereby forcing a second election. The conspiracy theory is that the real troubles with the PKK began after the June election and escalated to the point where voters would desert the HDP and return to the ruling party for the sake of stability. To some degree this worked, but the HDP still won enough votes and MPs in the November elections to deny AKP the ability to change the constitution by itself.

            The question now is what Erdoğan will do if this parliament fails to give him the constitution he so desperately wants. Will he force yet a third election hoping that the increased action against the PKK weakens the HDP enough so that it doesn’t even qualify for parliament?  In that eventuality the ruling AKP party would pick up all the MPs that HDP had previously won. And then Erdoğan should finally have enough MPs to force through the constitutional changes he wants.

            In normal times one would laugh off such speculation as being completely absurd.  But these are far from normal times in Turkey, and such conspiracy theories are no longer considered totally absurd.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Finally Some Good News For Greece?

After more than eight years of being confined to the European Union’s intensive care ward with systemic, near-death, and highly contagious economic and political maladies is Greece finally ready to hobble out of bed? Although the team of EU fiscal doctors, aided by consultants from the International Monetary Fund, is not completely convinced there has been a noticeable positive shift in the tone of comments from friends and family.

We spent several months in Greece last year, and the mood was unremittingly gloomy all the time. Almost every conversation began and ended with a litany of the country’s problems: the idiocy of the government, the evil of the creditors, the collapse of the financial system, and on, and on, and on. The newly elected Syriza government, together with its tragi-comic finance minister Yiannis Varoufakis, was trying desperately to implement its version of the almost universally unsuccessful leftist economic and administrative ideology. All it succeeded in doing was to demonstrate its own incompetence and find new and unique ways to infuriate the people who were trying to keep Greece afloat. At one point, people on various islands were seriously investigating ways to secede from mainland Greece and create their own little versions of paradise.

While the underlying economic reality may not have changed very much, the election of a young, very smart, and dynamic leader as head of the main opposition New Democracy party has injected a whiff of change, the possibility of something better. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the scion of one of Greece’s leading political families, but people should be careful of thinking of him merely as new wine in an old bottle. In addition to showing himself to be politically astute, he brings an impressive educational and professional resume to the job.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis -- the new leader of New Democracy
He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and has graduate degrees from Stanford and the Harvard Business School. In addition to idiomatic English, he speaks French and German. He spent time in London working for the McKinsey consulting company. He also served as Minister of Administrative Reform in the government of Antonis Samaras from 2013 – 2015.  I met Mitsotakis several years ago when he was managing director of the venture capital arm of the National Bank of Greece. We worked on a cross-border investment project involving Greece and Turkey, and I found him smart, pragmatic, and focused on solving problems rather than advancing any particular theoretical approach.

Greece’s European partners will breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of dealing with someone in Athens who literally, and figuratively, speaks their language. They would be making a serious mistake, however, to think that Mitsotakis will roll over and accept anything that comes out of Brussels. What they may well find is that instead of facing the profoundly unserious bombast of Syriza, they will be facing deeply analytical, thorough, and logical counterproposals to defend and advance Greece’s position. If Mitsotakis ever gets elected prime minister his counterparts in Brussels better be prepared to send the A Team to meetings with Greece.

Many of the people I spoke with on the island of Andros and in Athens greeted his victory in the race to lead New Democracy as a sign of very, very cautious hope.

“We hope, we wish,” said one shop owner. But with an expressive shrug of her shoulders she added, “But we really don’t trust any government anymore.” She, like thousands of other small businesses, is caught in the uncomfortable position of facing mounting taxes long before there is a hint of the economic recovery that could provide the money to pay the taxes.

A financial analyst in Thessaloniki said that Mitsotakis’ election has “re-energized the middle class. He is the flip-side of Syriza.” Others say Mitsotakis represents an important change in perception.

“Look, nothing fundamental has suddenly changed in Greece. Unemployment is still about 20%, the banks are fragile, and it looks like the capital controls will have to stay in place for the rest of 2016. But, in our politics, perception is very important. And right now, Kyriakos is benefitting from the perception that he may be the one to lead us out of this quagmire. The same dynamics of anger at the existing government and hope for change that brought Syriza to power in the first place could now benefit Kyriakos.”

Mitsotakis is certain to face the charge that he is nothing more than the latest manifestation of the dynastic politics that have plagued Greece for generations by focusing on punishing perceived enemies and rewarding clients rather than solving national problems. Another senior executive laughed and said ‘clients’ are nothing new in Greek affairs.

“Go back and re-read the Iliad. Homer gave the gods plenty of ‘clients’. Hera and Athena, for example, worked hard for the Achaeans while Aphrodite supported the Trojans. Kyriakos will undoubtedly face pressure from some so-called ‘clients’ but I think he is clever enough build bridges rather than simply settle old political scores.”

Under his very new leadership New Democracy has already received a bounce in the polls that puts them a few points ahead of Syriza.  It remains to be seen if Mitsotakis can ride this momentum to victory in a general election, but at this point not very many people would bet against that possibility.