Friday, 21 June 2013

Where Does Turkey Go From Here?

Not very long ago the future of Turkey seemed assured. The country was widely praised for its seemingly strong economy and stable, ‘moderately Islamic’, politics. After a month of nation-wide protests, excessive police reaction, and continued vehemence from the prime minister the country’s future no longer seems so assured.  The social fabric has been badly split, cracks have appeared in the broad coalition of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) coalition,  the long-term well-known (by all except the prime minister) vulnerabilities of the economy have become even more apparent, and the vision of Turkey in the European Union is fading fast.

What happens now? Where does the country go from here? There are several issues, but four come to mind immediately.

1.      The Opposition: The opposition political parties have been handed a huge gift. But, as usual, they have no idea what to do with it. A simple statement along the lines that they offer ‘real’ democracy compared to the ‘so-called’ democracy of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, that they respect all the different, complex religious and ethnic factions in Turkey, that they will in fact listen to people would go a long way to making the opposition credible. Unfortunately, none of this seems to be happening.

2.      The AKP: Here the situation is more complex. The AKP is a very broad coalition of true believers in Tayyip Erdoğan, more pragmatic members from former conservative political parties, technocrats, and devout Moslems who resented the heavy-handed secular Kemalist bureaucracy of previous decades. Now a gap is opening between the person of Tayyip Erdoğan and the party as a whole. Erdogan enjoys wide support, but there is some question about how deep this support is.There are signs that the pragmatists are getting nervous that the prime minister’s incoherent rants and repression will cost the AKP dearly. 

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan In A Familiar Angry Speech

The party risks losing everything it has struggled to gain in the last 10 years. President Abdüllah Gül has expressed this very fear. In his statement “You are risking our gains of 10 years” it was unclear – perhaps on purpose – whether the ‘you’ in that sentence was directed at the protesters or the prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç is rumoured to have stormed out of a cabinet meeting after being criticized by Erdoğan for his criticism of the police over reaction. A loyal AKP business owner in central Turkey sent buses filled with his employees to the recent pro-Erdoğan rallies. But he expressed total disgust with the prime minister and was quoted as saying “We will never make him president. He is ruining us.” Even the AKP mayor of Istanbul is backtracking quickly. He now says the people will be consulted over everything from bus stops to park development.

President Abdullah Gul Plays His Hand Carefully
All major political players in the AKP and elsewhere are playing a long game with their eyes on the 2014 elections and developments about the presidency. Everything they say now is nuanced and influenced by their plans for those elections. Erdoğan desperately wants a constitutional change giving the president strong executive powers. It now looks doubtful that such changes will get through parliament. In that case if he still wants the presidency will he be satisfied with the largely ceremonial role? If there is a popular vote for president could he even be elected? A recent poll showed that President Gül is by far the most popular politician in the country. Erdoğan is seen as divisive. Gül is playing his cards very carefully and not saying just what he wants when his term is over – another term as president or perhaps moving to the more powerful position of prime minister.  For the time being he seems content to play the ‘Good Cop’ to Erdoğan’s ‘Bad Cop.’

3.      The Economy: This is Erdoğan’s real Achilles Heel. He continues to rant and rave about ‘foreign plots’ and the so-called ‘interest rate lobby’ working to undermine Turkey’s economy. But the real vulnerability is the very structure of the Turkish economy. It depends entirely on $200 billion per year of foreign investment – and most of this is short term so-called hot money. Since the Federal Reserve indicated a possible end to the quantitative easing program all markets, especially emerging markets, have been hard hit. The Istanbul Stock Exchange dropped more than 18% in the last month, yields on Turkish bonds have increased sharply, and the currency has dropped to an all-time low against the U.S. dollar. It is true that Turkey has been harder hit than most emerging markets, but that has nothing to do with his ridiculous conspiracy theories. These developments have led one anti-AKP economist to predict that ‘They will go as they came” – i.e. on the back of falling economy.

4.      Witch Hunt: The worst part of the prime minister’s furious, vengeful reaction to the protesters is the witch hunt against any who oppose him. University rectors were told to identify any faculty members who joined the protests or encouraged their students to do so. The Koç group, owners of the Divan Hotel, were threatened because protesters sought refuge in the hotel. Bank executives who supported the protests were lectured. State controlled companies withdrew their deposits. Other executives who failed to support Erdoğan suddenly found tax officials on their door step. Even the imam of a mosque was arrested when he failed to back up the prime minister’s outrageous lie that protesters entered the mosque with beer cans. Even after he learned the truth Erdoğan continued to repeat this lie.

It is not yet clear how Turkey will emerge from this turbulence. But what is clear is that the protests that began in small Gezi Park are having a profound, long lasting political, economic, and social impact. It remains to be seen whether Tayyip Erdoğan has the ability to learn anything, or whether he will merely become a footnote in Turkish history.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The New Turkey Vs. The Very Old Turkey

ISTANBUL – I passed through a peaceful Gezi Park late yesterday morning amid scenes more reminiscent of Woodstock than violent political struggle. People were crawling out their tents, getting something to eat at the food stands, and playing with young children. Less than 10 hours later the entire area was turned into a battle ground. Police brought in from all over Turkey moved in with tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons to disperse the crowds occupying the park.

Gezi Park Before The Police Onslaught
The violence quickly escalated and spread to nearby neighbourhoods. The streets by the restaurant where we were dining with friends filled with angry crowds as clouds of tear gas obliterated the night sky. Some protesters sought refuge in luxury hotels where several doctors were treating the injured. This did not stop the police who simply fired tear gas into the hotels.

 The cab driver who took us back to our hotel spent most of the trip leaning out the window shouting encouragement for the protestors and blowing his horn. Every time he saw a police barricade ahead he would do an immediate high speed U-turn speed and take off down some narrow, winding side street. When he wasn’t shouting out the window or cursing the police he would look at us  proudly, smile broadly, and  say he was “Number 1 Crazy Cab Driver.” He got no disagreement from us. We passed thousands of people lining the streets or standing on their balconies banging pots and pans in support of the protestors. When we eventually got back to the hotel the staff was calmly passing out gas masks as if they were just another amenity offered by a high quality hotel.

Police Move To Clear The Park
This night of unprovoked violence on the part of the police was the culmination of about three weeks of protests about the fate of a small park in the middle of Istanbul – a park that happens to be one of the last remaining green spaces in this concrete city. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had announced plans to rip up the park to recreate an Ottoman-era army barracks complete with offices and a shopping centre. What started as a small protest to protect the park quickly expanded into a much larger protests against what is seen as Erdoğan’s arbitrary, autocratic governing style that seeks to divide the country.

The prime minister was, as usual, furious that anyone would question his rule and challenge his version of  what is right for Turkey. He called the protestors ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’ who should go home immediately. The protestors responded with something new in Turkey – humour. They met the prime minister’s outbursts with laughter and began to make fun of him. They made the prime minister look like a fool. And if there is one thing that Tayyip Erdoğan cannot stand it is being laughed at

As the laughter continued his language got more incendiary. None of the protestors was paying any attention to him. To him, this was intolerable. Finally his patience ran out and he brought in thousands of police to ‘deal’ with the protestors. In order to reinforce his claim that the protesters were ‘marginal’ groups the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has organized a massive rally on the outskirts of Istanbul in an attempt to show the world that Turkey’s ‘silent majority’ completely supports the prime minister. These demonstrations have all the spontaneity of a Stalinist rally in Moscow’s Red Square. They merely give the prime minister a chance to hammer – and he does ‘hammer’ – home his basic ‘us-against-them’ message. No reconciliation, no calls for unity. Just more class division and wild accusations that the Taksim protesters want to de-rail Turkey’s progress.

He could not be more wrong. He has completely, perhaps wilfully, misread the protesters, and is fighting the last war. His chief enemies have always been the secular followers of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. He thinks anyone who opposes him wants to impose the rigid military-dominated Kemalist regime. Wrong, Tayyip bey.

First, most of these protesters were not even born during the worst of the military­-dominated governments of Turkey. Second, if he would merely listen, he would learn that they are against any form of authoritarianism, military or civilian. This is a brand new form a protest in Turkey. They want a new system that does not set one part of society against another or spark the clashes that ripped Turkey apart in the 1970s. The prime minister does not get this. He simply does not want to understand that the rapidly growing, more wealthy, more worldly, better educated middle class in Turkey wants a new type of governance in this country.

Erdoğan has the brute power to win this particular short-term battle. The police and his loyal supporters can enforce a type of peace. But he fails to realize he has lost the war.  The protesters are not going anywhere and their numbers will grow. They represent the New Turkey whereas Erdogan  represents the Very Old Turkey. The real question is whether anyone in the AKP realizes this and has the courage to challenge the prime minister before he increases the chaos in Turkey.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Final Nail In Turkey's EU Bid?

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s behaviour during the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square may very well have put the final nail into Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Once seen as a moderately religious catalyst of much needed democratic change in Turkey, his recent behaviour has demonstrated his deep-rooted intolerance, distrust of real democracy and narrow-minded hostility toward any dissent.

This revelation of his real character will only reinforce the questions that EU leaders already had about Turkey's membership bid. One indication of this looming confrontation came at a recent conference in Istanbul when the EU's latest commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Füle of the Czech Republic,  offered some mild criticism of the way the demonstrations in Taksim Park were handled. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan reacted with his usual outrage, accused the EU of double standards and blasted it for dragging its feet over Turkey’s membership.

The European Union and Turkey
At a certain point one has to ask ‘Why bother?’ It’s important to distinguish between the idea of Turkey per se joining the EU and Turkey under Prime Minister Erdoğan gaining admittance to the club. One can make a strong argument about a large, dynamic Moslem Eurasian country injecting some much needed dynamism into the European Union. Unfortunately, Erdoğan’s Turkey presents a much different picture.

We are talking about two completely different views of what is appropriate governance. It is very difficult to see Prime Minister Erdoğan accepting the EU’s view of the world, and it is equally impossible to see the EU accepting Erdoğan’s vision of proper governance. It’s almost as if each side wants the other to be the first to call the talks off.  Many EU members have been unenthusiastic about Turkish membership from the beginning, and Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has shown absolutely no sign that he appreciates or even understands values that the EU holds dear – real commitment to human rights, absolute freedom of expression, and, above all, the need for compromise.

Erdoğan’s idea of negotiation is to trot out his loyal terrier Egemen Bağış who is the minister in charge of negotiating with the EU. What, exactly, is being negotiated?  Every time the EU brings up a difficult point Bağıș reacts more like a kid in a 5th grade school yard than a serious counter party. His default reaction to any criticism is that the ‘Great Turkish Nation’ has been insulted and that the EU simply is anti-Moslem. He continues that the EU’s record is worse than Turkey’s, and that union is guilty of the by-now famous double standards. Turkey, according to Bağıș has done all that is required of it. He will then go on the offensive and say that it is the EU that needs Turkey, not the other way around. He outdid himself recently by suggesting that not only should Turkey join the EU, but that it should lead the union. In other words, rather than Turkey adopting European norms of governance Europe should become more like Turkey. This must have gone down well in Berlin, Paris and The Hague.

Turkey's EU Negotiator Egemen Bagis
With 27 members and a cumbersome decision-making process the EU has mastered the art of ‘muddle-through´ compromise. This may be very awkward, but very few members seriously want to return to the pre-EU days of virulent nationalism that led to centuries of bloody conflict. Tayyip Erdoğan, however, sees no need to compromise. It’s doubtful he even knows what the word means. His governing approach has been simply to scorn, discredit and roll over any opposing viewpoint.  In his world, his view is the only acceptable one. It is almost impossible to envision Tayyip Erdoğan sitting around a conference table until the small hours of the morning trying to reach a compromise suitable to all members.
His opinion of the media is more suitable to Russia or China than a member of the European Union. He has openly stated that he has a ‘problem’ with the media. Sometimes, not very often in today’s Turkey, various members of the media will stray from the party line and offer a view that is different from Erdoğan’s. How would he deal with something as irreverent as The Sun in Britain or Le Canard Enchainé in Paris?

He has also said he is opposed to the normal checks and balances found in most mature democracies. He sees no need to ‘check’ or ‘balance’ his powers. It’s very difficult to see how this approach would work in the EU where checks and balances are the operating norm.

Given this wide gulf in ideas of governance there is only one possible explanation for the continuation of this sterile exercise. It serves the cynical purposes of both the European Union and Turkey. The EU can pretend that it is seriously considering a large Moslem country as a potential member – without actually doing anything. Erdoğan can use the continued stalling to reinforce is nationalist/religious base at home. He gains valuable points by blasting to so-called double standards of the EU and intimating heavily that it is nothing more than a Moslem-hating Christian club. He can establish himself as the only true Turkish leader willing to stand up to the perfidious group of Turkey-haters. This goes down extremely well with the Turkish ‘street’ that has been taught from an early age that ‘A Turk Has No Friend But A Turk.’

This empty exercise has become a parody of negotiations and does a disservice to both parties. The European Union really could benefit from a Turkey that understands and practices real democratic governance. And Turkey, now essentially left with zero friends, could clearly benefit from closer political as well as economic ties to the EU. But the process has become mired in the swamp of mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. Maybe it is a time to take a break and let everyone re-assess the basic goal of the entire operation.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Risks In Turkey Are High

It remains to be seen whether Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has learned anything when he returns from his state visit to Morocco. Will he double down on his pugnacious, intolerant, angry remarks about the protestors in Taksim Square and pour more fuel on the flames? Or will he learn from the other two major players in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç who reduced tensions by admitting to over-reaction by the police? A great deal rides on the answer.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul Tries To Reduce Tension
If Erdoğan resumes his self-righteous, heavy handed denunciation of the protesters and once again threatens to ‘unleash’ against the demonstrators the hordes of fervent AKP supporters he says he is restraining with great difficulty he risks undoing the loudly trumpeted  gains of the last 10 years. He will undoubtedly stage a massive rally of his supporters when he returns to Turkey to show that the ‘real’ people are behind him and that the protesters in Taksim Park are no more than disorganized rabble. It won’t take much for such a ‘spontaneous’ show of support to degenerate into violence.

AKP came to power preaching tolerance for all the different life styles in Turkey. People sick and tired of incompetent, military-dominated governments voted in huge numbers for this change. Only now to their horror do they realize that Erdoğan’s version of tolerance is extremely narrow and does not include the secular, liberal life style practiced by a large percentage of the Turkish population. The secular part of Turkey now realizes that the prime minister’s hatred of the media – especially the social media, scorn for the balance of power critical in any functioning democracy, arrogant abuse of the very rules he created, and refusal to tolerate dissent in any form are not mere electoral ploys. They are now perceived as direct threats to Turkey’s hard-won democracy and freedoms.

If the police, who increasingly resemble the Turkish version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard protecting the regime, continue their violence they risk splitting society wide open. The resulting chaos would bring back horrid memories of the violent 1970s when thousands of Turks were killed in bitter clashes between different social and political factions. Such a development would focus attention once again on the army. So far, the army has stayed well out of the political jungle. But the big question now is whether the army is too emasculated, too cowed by the purges of the Erdoğan regime to intervene if the violence turns bloody.

Who Controls The Police?

The prime minister’s heated rhetoric also risks de-railing the Turkish economy. Erdoğan loves to talk about Turkey’s economic gains and repeats ad nauseam  how well Turkey is doing compared to the rest of Europe. Atilla Yeșilada pointed out amajor flaw in that argument in a recent piece in The Financial Times. Turkey is extremely vulnerable to changes inthe flows of foreign investment, and Yeșilada noted that Turkey requires foreign inflows of $200 billion each year to keep the economy going. Long-term direct foreign investment accounts for just a small fraction of that amount. Much of the rest is the so-called ‘hot’  money that can disappear with the touch of a computer key. These trigger happy investors have very little tolerance for violent social unrest. At the first sight of bloodied protestors they will hit the ‘send’ key, stopping Turkey’s economic resurgence in its tracks.

 Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic  behaviour also risks the electoral dominance of his own party. He continually brags about the 50% vote he received at the last election. True enough, but he should realize how quickly that could evaporate in the face of continued protests. The opposition might just unite. People who voted for AKP as the ‘least bad choice’ could quickly find another electoral choice. His own party is a collection of fiefdoms held together by electoral success and the prime minister’s fierce control. If the other AKP barons begin to regard Erdoğan as a liability, a risk to their continued success, it will be interesting to see exactly what they do.

The protests also bring his exaggerated foreign policy claims into question. Turkey once thought it could be an example for Arab democracy. Not much chance that happening any more. Even a real tyrant like Syrian President Basher Assad felt free to express 'shock, shock' at the police over-reaction in Istanbul. The prime minister desperately wants to be a major player on the world stage. He felt comfortable thumbing his nose at the European Union while he sought influence in the Middle East. That position looks precarious at now. Tough to pretend to be a regional leader when your own country is in flames.

The next move is Erdoğan’s. He could push the country into further chaos or he could start practicing some of the democracy he keeps talking about.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Will Protests Crack The Facade?

Are the violent protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square the beginning of the Turkish version of the so-called Arab Spring? Is this the beginning of the end for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan?

The answer to both questions is ‘probably not.’   But, if the government continues to rely on heavy-handed suppression of any and all dissent the protests could expand beyond the vocal minority that has always been opposed to Erdoğan and his socially conservative, Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP). But for the moment the prime minister should be able to rely on the same wide political base that brought him to power in the first place.

The risk for the prime minister and his party is that the Taksim demonstrations have exposed new vulnerabilities in the usual bombast and bluster he uses to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with him. Previously the volume of his fierce, rigid, uncompromising positions would stop opponents in their tracks. That tactic didn’t work this time. The demonstrators ignored his commands to cease and desist. They resisted. And that resistance encouraged many who didn’t like Erdoğan’s methods, but up to now had never dared openly express their opposition.

Will These Protests Spread?
The spark that set off these demonstrations was the plan to replace central Istanbul’s one remaining small bit of green space into yet another concrete shopping centre. Istanbul is already crowded with shopping centres, but the prime minister is convinced the city needs another one. No one has dared ask just why Istanbul needs another shopping centre. Up to now it was enough to say simply that the prime minister wanted it. During his long rule he has always preferred concrete over green spaces, and is never happier than when he sees concrete being poured into more roads, brutal tower blocks, or bridges.

Is This The New Symbol For Turkey's Ruling Party?
But this environment protest quickly expanded into a general outcry against his increasingly autocratic ‘My-Way-Or-The-Highway’ style of governance. The exact nature of the issue does not really matter. The prime minister’s approach is always the same – I’m right and you’re wrong. He will use facts that may technically be correct, but are completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. His initial response to the people protesting the elimination of the green space in Gezi Park was that the AKP administration has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, and that the people had no right to complain. His claim about tree planting may or may not be true, but does nothing to answer the criticism that Istanbul has become nothing but an ocean of concrete.

Another early response to the park protestors was typical of his governing style. He told reporters that the decision about the shopping centre has been made, and the protestors should go home.  Father has spoken. Do as he says. Sit Down and Shut Up! The fact that they didn’t pay any attention to him must have come as a huge shock.

His government recently passed strict rules governing the sale of alcohol. Erdoğan himself does not drink or smoke, and has no time for anyone who does. In his world view there should be no alcohol or smoking. He even went so far as to say that the Turkish national drink should be ayran (liquid yogurt) instead of the popular alcoholic drink rakı. To justify making his personal life style choice the choice of the nation he cited alcohol regulations in parts of Europe like Finland. Accurate as far as it goes but this comparison completely ignores the vast difference between alcohol consumption in Turkey and Finland. Only a tiny portion of the Turkish population uses alcohol, and it is no wonder that those that do drink believe he is merely attacking their life style choice.

On the day the protests broke out he was busy laying the foundation for the controversial third bridge across the Bosphorus. This bridge also will rip up priceless forest land for highways.  He proudly announced the name of the new bridge as the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. He either forgot or simply did not care that this particular 16th century sultan was responsible for slaughtering thousands of Alevis in Turkey. Needless to say the millions of Alevis (distant cousins to the Shiites) in Turkey today are a bit uneasy about the symbolism of this name. But the prime minister and his minions don’t really think that the Alevis practice a legitimate form of Islam, and he just doesn’t care what they think.

It’s too early to tell if these protests will weaken Erdoğan’s hold on Turkey. His base support probably won’t change, but he risks losing the opportunists who sided with the AKP for commercial or political advantage. The old saying ‘kiss the hand you can’t bite’ is as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago. When people start to believe they can bite the hand that has fed them so well over the last decade Erdogan could be in trouble. If the opportunists sense cracks in the AKP facade they could shift their allegiance in attempt to capitalise on the next wave. However, such a move requires a credible opposition. And this so far has been lacking. Perhaps these protests will galvanize the disparate opposition groups to take Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice to the American revolutionaries in the War of Independence – “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Maybe these protests will generate the unity in the opposition that could possibly challenge Erdoğan’s vice-like grip on Turkish social, political and economic life.