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?