Saturday, 17 November 2012

Has Ataturk Been Relegated?

Is Atatürk, the once revered founder and very soul of the modern Turkish Republic, being relegated to the status of Uncle Buck, the slightly disreputable distant relative who tends to show up inconveniently at holidays? This may be a bit of an overstatement, but Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is slowly but steadily eroding the iconic reputation of the man who lifted Turkey out of the chaos of a crumbling, discredited empire, and dragged it into the modern world.
Ataturk: The Father of Modern Turkey
 His name used to be considered synonymous with that of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, the very name Atatürk was bestowed on him by a grateful parliament, thus changing him from simply Mustafa Kemal to the everlasting Father Turk. Every school child had to memorize his famous speeches – especially the one directed to the youth of Turkey. Huge posters of Atatürk adorned many buildings and his picture was in almost every office. Several of his memorable sayings would be emblazoned in neon lights across streets and central squares in every Anatolian town. Every town had its Atatürk Boulevard and/or Atatürk Square. Anyone who dared take his name in vain was quickly and viciously sued by zealous state prosecutors. At the beginning of a new parliament each member had to come forward and swear an oath to continue the principles of Atatürk and his revolution.

Now, under AKP’s steady air-brushing of history, he is in danger of becoming ‘Atatürk who?’. The policy came to a head last month at what was supposed to be a celebration of the founding of the Republic on Oct. 29. AKP officials decreed that supporters of Atatürk could not have a demonstration in front of the old parliament building in Ankara. Thousands defied that ban and were soaked with water cannons from the police for their efforts. Police removed the barricades only after the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gül, intervened.
Police confront pro-Ataturk supporters at Republic Day celebration
 November 10, the day that Atatürk, died in 1938 is another day heavy with symbolism. Traditionally all traffic stops and sirens start to wail at around 10 am when he died in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. This year the prime minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, conveniently arranged to be out of the country on a ‘crucial’ visit to the Sultanate of Brunei on November 10. Critics were wondering if Erdoğan was perhaps getting tips on recreating a ‘sultanate’ in Turkey – under his leadership, of course.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
May 19, the day that Atatürk landed in the Black Sea port of Samsun in 1919 to start the campaign against the Greek invasion, used to be a major celebration where stadiums were filled with marching school children. No more. Various excuses were offered last May as to why this once mandatory celebration has been all but forgotten.

Recently AKP officials have also suggested that the standard parliamentary oath to remain faithful to Atatürk’s revolution should be dropped. No one knows what, if anything, would replace the oath.

And now a ceremonial procession in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir marking the 75th anniversary of Atatürk’s arrival there has been cancelled for ‘security’ reasons. One person commented that if the Turkish army couldn’t defend itself who could?

The trend is obvious, and supporters of Atatürk’s reforms are now derided merely as Kemalists. Those not familiar with Turkey today wonder just why the ruling party is going to such lengths to downgrade a man largely perceived as the saviour of Turkey. The basic reason seems simple enough. It’s payback time. Erdoğan and his more zealous sycophants have never hidden their anger at some of Atatürk’s more memorable reforms, many of which were designed to limit the role of religion and make sure Turkey became and remained a western-oriented secular republic. The AKP deeply resents not only that orientation but also the military, economic and bureaucratic elite that grew up around it. This elite rigidly enforced its interpretation of Atatürk’s reforms and created the hagiography that surrounds the man.

AKP spokesmen would have us believe all this reduction of Atatürk’s place in Turkish society is being done in the name of increasing ‘democracy’, giving voice to a large segment of the population that felt denigrated for decades. It would be nice if Erdoğan had used this opportunity to bring real democracy to Turkey. But unfortunately, the AKP version of democracy seems merely to replace one rigid dogma with another, to assume that winning an election gives the right to ignore any other opinion. Once it was the word according to Atatürk. Now it is the word, the new reality, according to Tayyip Erdoğan. No criticism shall be tolerated. Democracy that anyone outside of Erdoğan’s narrow circle of advisers would recognize as such must wait for another day.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Thank God That's Over

Well, all that sound and fury and money for more than a year and we wind up more or less where we were before the election. Barack Obama is still president. The Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate. And the Republicans retain control of the House. What, if anything, did we learn?
Democrats celebrate victory
First, as I wrote a couple of months ago, the country has changed. The election was about much more than just the economy. And, as many commentators mentioned the morning after the election, if the Republicans don’t grasp this simple point they will continue to be a minority party. It is no longer enough to appeal to angry middle-aged white men. That is a declining demographic that is going to get even smaller if, as expected, the economy picks up in the next couple of years.

Republicans should accept that Mitt Romney only began to tighten the race when he realized this trend and moved decisively to the center away from the rejectionist positions of hard right wing Republicans from the Tea Party. The Republicans need to wake up and realize that the Tea Party has cost them dearly at the polls. The GOP had a good shot at two Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana and lost both of them because of its candidates represented the fantasy world of the Tea Party.

Tea Party theater
As long as the Republican party is controlled by people who believe in the mythical world of ‘small’ government  – except when it comes to their subsidies – and Leave It To Beaver social mores it can continue to be obstructionist in Congress, but its days as an important national political movement are over. Romney is a good man and was not a bad candidate, but he was saddled with a narrow, rigid agenda that ultimately cost him the race. Perhaps even someone like Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine, who predicted a ‘decisive’ Romney victory the day before the election will have to do a little re-calculation if he wants to be taken seriously.

Second, elections are becoming ridiculously expensive. The presidential and congressional elections this year cost about $6 billion, or $18 for every person in the United States. Compare that to Britain where the 2010 election cost the equivalent of $0.80 per head. Huge Republican Obama-hating donors like Sheldon Adelson ($53 million), Harold Simmons ($24 million) or Bob Perry ($22 million) must wonder how they could waste so much money. You have to wonder how theoretically shrewd investors like that could be happy with a total wipe out. We have not heard how other major ultra-conservative donors like the Koch brothers, who, among other things, sent a letter to their 45,000 employees urging them to vote for Romney, reacted to their defeat.
Sheldon 'How-Did-I-Blow-$53 million' Adelson
When put in perspective of other American spending patterns perhaps the election spending isn’t all that unreasonable. Gillian Tett, in The Financial Times, notes that Americans will spend $7 billion on potato chips this year and dropped $8 billion on Halloween festivities. The United States also spends $6 billion/month in Afghanistan.

Third, the prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, has to do some fast back-peddling. Relations between Obama and Netanyahu were frosty to start with, and only got worse as the Israeli prime minister interfered in American elections and worked so hard to defeat Obama. His efforts failed on two counts. Obama won, and he got almost 70% of the Jewish vote. Now that he has nothing to lose Obama could come down on Netanyahu like a ton of bricks and demand real action on the illegal West Bank settlements and a serious push for Palestinian statehood. Look for him to show the new U.S. attitude by at least abstaining the next time a controversial United Nations vote on Israel comes up.

Fourth, will the Republicans realize that things like Obama’s health care plan are here to stay and that taxes on the super rich are going up? Will they work to make the government work better or will they follow the idiotic Grover Norquist (head of the ill-named lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform) position of rejecting any and all tax increases? The jury is out while they lick their wounds and try to figure out how they could have lost a ‘sure’ thing.

Fifth, we can safely ignore and tune out the outrageous and completely irrelevant talk show people like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and all others like the foolish Donald Trump who now proclaim the end of civilization as we know it. The next time people like Ed Whelan whine about 'a growing mass of citizens seemingly wedded to big government spending' we should ask him about huge defence contractors, farm subsidies or all those companies that pay no U.S. federal income tax. These people are certainly loud, but we should know by now that they have absolute no, repeat no, influence on national elections. So we can simply ignore them and let them play in their ever decreasing play pen with the other children.

Sixth, who will emerge from the Republican wreckage? Will they turn to Republican Hispanic poster-boy Marco Rubio, a GOP senator from Florida? Doubtful. The mayor of a large southern city told me last spring that Republicans are cool on Rubio because he could not even deliver Florida for Romney. He was right. Jeb Bush (who would have to overcome the ‘not-another-Bush’ attitude')? Paul Ryan? Or will a new face emerge with a message that resonates with a wider base? My guess is that the hard-right part of the Republican party will resist any compromise with a “Better Dead Than Red” attitude and would even consider splitting from a mainstream party.
Can Paul Ryan pump some reality into the GOP?
Such Republican hari-kari coupled with an improving economy will only strengthen the Democrats’ hand. The challenge will then be to see if the Democrats will act seriously to repair the country’s finances.