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.

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