Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Syrian Situation Just Got More Complicated

Besides clearly demonstrating the utter hypocrisy of both Turkish and Russian actions in Syria, the destruction of the Russian fighter plane by the Turkish Air Force demonstrates the complexity of forming any coalition to defeat ISIS. It is almost impossible to find a formula that fits everyone’s agenda, especially Turkey’s, in Syria.

According to Turkish sources the Russian plane was in Turkish air space along the northern Syrian border for all of 17 seconds. Given the uneven nature of the border at that point it is hard enough to stay on the Turkish side on foot let alone in a jet fighter travelling at more than the speed of sound. None less than Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan recognized this reality in July 2012 when Syrian forces downed a Turkish fighter plane. The BBC reported his comments then that “A short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.And now? What has changed?

Turkey has a great deal to lose by alienating Russia.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has many levers to use against Turkey if he chooses. For one thing, almost all of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia. And more than three million Russian tourists come to Turkey every year, almost filling the massive hotels along the southern coast. In addition, countless Turkish businesses operate in Russia which is also a key market for Turkish exports. Russia could also decide to use this incident as an excuse to annoy Turkey by helping the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

            So why did Turkey take such a risky step when it could just as easily have overlooked the temporary border violation and sent a sternly worded memo that the Russians would have filed in circular bin?
Dangerous Escalation In SyrIa
            The most obvious, and least credible, is that Turkey was defending its homeland. Scrambling a few fighters to ‘guide’ the Russian plane out of Turkish air space could have accomplished that. A more credible explanation is that this incident demonstrates the completely different objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria. Russia has committed money and military might to prop up Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Turkey demands that al-Assad’s departure is a requirement for any settlement.

            Rather than focusing on defeating ISIS, Russian planes, for their part, have been attacking those anti-Assad forces, mainly in the north western part of the country, that are friendly with Turkey. This annoys Erdoğan greatly, especially as he considers some of those anti-Assad forces to be distant cousins of the Turks. Therefore, shooting down a Russian fighter plane in that area could be seen as a warning not to attack the Turkmens. A dangerous step, because history has repeatedly shown that Russians tend to react harshly to threats.

            Conspiracy theorists, never in short supply in that region, go one step further and say that the attack is Erdoğan’s attempt to derail any grand coalition to destroy the barbaric ISIS forces by making it harder for Turkey’s NATO allies America and France to join forces with Russia against ISIS.

Turkey has a complicated relationship with ISIS, and so far has devoted much more rhetoric than military action against the group. This could reflect Erdoğan’s preference for ISIS rather than the Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, but it also reflects that fact that some of his political base views ISIS positively. Twice in the last month there have been ugly incidents at Turkish football matches when a moment of silence for victims of ISIS attacks in Ankara as well as Paris has been interrupted by a group of fans whistling abuse or shouting loudly “Allah-u Ekber.” Erdoğan’s criticism of this atrocious disrespect was muted at best.

Turkey will go to great lengths to prevent the Kurds in Syria from creating an autonomous region along its southern border even if the Kurds have been the most effective anti-ISIS force. Turkey is already annoyed at American support for the Kurds, and it would be doubly annoyed to see increased support from France and Russia in the name of an anti-ISIS coalition.

Add to this Turkey’s role as a transit point for refugees and you begin to see the volatile mixture that complicates any potential settlement of the Syrian issue. It is no longer just about the Syria we used to know or the future of al-Assad and his clan of Alawites. Now you have to include the contradictory agendas of several different regional and global players – agendas that include sharp religious differences, hopes for political autonomy, and national security.

Three years ago I wrote a post about Dr. Haitham Manna, one of the early opponents of the Assad regime, and how he was strongly opposed to foreign intervention into what he considered a Syrian civil war. His concern was that the foreigners would turn a Syrian conflict into their conflict. How right he was.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

War Alone Will Not Protect Us From Global Terrorism

We have seen and heard it too many times before – the wailing sirens, crowds gathered helplessly around scenes of carnage, words of solidarity with the victims, and the vows to chase the perpetrators to the ends of the earth.

And yet in response, more often than not, we wind up chasing our own tails. Even our successes in killing this or that terrorist leader soon degenerate into a deadly game of ‘whack a mole.’ Eliminate a terrorist in Syria, and his counterpart pops up in Yemen, or Sudan, or Libya, or Iraq.

An all-too-familiar scene
We also hear ringing declarations of ‘war’ – although it is not exactly clear just how and with what that ‘war’ is to be waged. Whose troops will be used? Where will they be used? And, most importantly, what happens after the military objective is won? Yes, a particular den of barbarians may be wiped out to everyone’s great – and temporary – satisfaction. But who will fill the vacuum? How can we be sure the same problem won’t crop up as soon as the troops return home in triumph with ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners waving in the air? In short, defeating the entity called ISIS will not, by itself, put an end to the larger problem of global terrorism.

Once you have ‘won’ such a war, how do you reconcile the ensuing conflict among the various local factions, each of whom has its own agenda. Olivier Roy, one of the leading scholars of political Islam, highlights this problem in an essay in The New York Times. The Kurds, for example, will fight to protect their area, but are not enthusiastic about fighting ISIS on behalf of the Arabs. The Saudis are in no rush to destroy their Sunni brothers in ISIS lest such action strengthen their main enemy, Iran. Israel, for its part, is delighted to see most of its enemies busy trying to destroy each other and relieve the pressure to do anything about Palestine.

So what can Europe do to protect itself against the outrages of global terrorism? A good place to start might be with far better defences. The Schengen agreement allows free travel throughout most of the EU member states. Once admitted into one of the Schengen countries people are allowed to travel to any other member state without worrying about visas. This attempt to emulate the United States where you can travel freely from California to Maine is admirable, but it omits one critical difference. The United States has a common policy for its external borders. As any foreign traveller can tell you, coming into the United States at any of the entry points is not that simple. Forms need to filled out before you get on the plane, the no-fly rule is checked, and you are finger printed upon arrival. These steps may not eliminate terrorists entering the United States, it makes it more difficult.

Europe, on the other hand, does not have a unified approach to its external borders. Some borders like the United Kingdom can be difficult to cross, while others are porous. Two of the weakest states in the EU, Greece and Bulgaria, have enormous pressure on their borders and the least amount of resources to deal with the problem. One problem is that low paid police and border officials are vulnerable to bribes from well organised people smugglers to turn a blind eye toward illegal entry. Many times these countries simply do not have the equipment or manpower to scrutinize ordinary travellers let alone vet and process the wave of immigrants coming from places like Syria and Libya.

This is not a problem for Greece alone
If the EU acted as a real union a common border policy would be imposed on all members. There would be one well-funded European agency with well-paid and well-trained personnel to handle security of external borders. The surge of migrants would no longer be just a Greek, Bulgarian, Italian or Spanish problem. Such a move would inevitably generate wails of protest about violating national sovereignty, but without such a solution the European Union is hardly a ‘union’, and remains easy prey to anyone seeking to create havoc inside the EU borders.

Obviously, solving the problem of external border control does not solve the issue of home-grown terrorism – be it deranged teenagers with high powered weapons in the United States or dissatisfied members of the Moslem communities across Europe. A threat in, say, Belgium can easily morph into a catastrophe in France. One would hope that seamless cooperation among the various intelligence agencies in the EU would ease this problem. But if the United States has problems coordinating activities of its several different intelligence agencies within its borders think how much more difficult it would be coordinate such activities across international borders. The Turks, for example, insist they warned the French about one of the attackers in Paris, but apparently nothing was done about this warning.

A longer term solution would be to restore a semblance of stability in Syria. Once people can be reasonably sure of going about their daily lives without getting shot they would be less eager to risk the trip to Europe. This alone won’t solve the problem of global terrorism, but it certainly would eliminate one of the contributing factors.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Protests Alone Will Never Win Elections

In retrospect no one should be surprised by yesterday’s election results. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proved once again that it is a formidable political machine with firm control over almost half the Turkish electorate. Once again the opposition learned the painful lesson that by itself protest against the increasing excesses of President Tayyip Erdoğan is not enough to win elections. The only positive note for the anti-Erdoğan forces is that AKP failed to receive enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and legitimise Erdoğan’s power grab.,

Over the next few days we will hear the tired old excuses of how the AKP didn’t ‘play fair’ or somehow manipulated the electorate – again. It is time to end the whinging and whining and get serious about the serial election defeats. Of course the AKP played the national security card and tried to frighten everyone about the ‘looming’ Kurdish problem. Politics in Turkey is a full contact sport. Domestic and foreign developments since the June elections played right into that theme. People willing to vote for the predominantly Kurdish party HDP in June had second thoughts in November. Many nationalists who voted for the MHP party in June also had second thoughts and decided to stick with the AKP as the best guaranty of Turkey’s security.

Different Election, Same Result
But these anti-Kurdish, national security themes do not explain the persistent failures of the opposition parties to mount a serious challenge to AKP’s dominance. This goes far beyond Erdoğan’s bombastic, divisive rhetoric. As things stand now the best they can hope for is getting enough votes to form a very junior partner in a coalition with AKP. Sadly, they would construe this as a victory. It’s more like calling the retreat from Dunkirk a victory.

            As long as the opposition parties remain divided the AKP, as the representative of Turkey’s overwhelming socially conservative electorate, has a fairly easy job. It is mathematically possible, but practically/politically impossible, for the opposition parties to unite and get more votes than the AKP. But egos and long outdated political ideologies make this nothing more than a pipe dream at the moment. It is nice to get the praise from worthy international organizations and from Turkey’s small but vocal intelligentsia, but neither of these can deliver enough votes to make a dent in AKP’s electoral armour.

            Furthermore, the opposition has to admit that in hundreds of large and small towns across the country the AKP municipal officials have done a decent job – not only in running the municipalities but in establishing solid, local AKP branches that deliver the votes in every election. It is this unglamorous groundwork, not censorious articles in the Economist, that wins elections.

            A useful first step might be to understand how the AKP can withstand the onslaught of serious issues like a declining economy, increasing unemployment, depreciating currency, and a very confused foreign policy. It’s almost as if despite all these issues the AKP electorate simply does not trust the opposition parties to represent its interests. “They may be corrupt. They be leading the country into a dangerous swamp. But they are OUR people. They know us and we know them. We don’t know you.” Demonstrably, very few people from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) are ‘one of us.’

            The CHP, for example, prides itself on being the party that Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, created. The party proudly symbolizes the reforms that Atatürk made as he rebuilt Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago. Yet, in my own time in small towns across Anatolia, I learned that a great many people in small-town Turkey did not share the elite’s reverence for Atatürk. Quite the opposite, they felt ignored and believed their time-honoured socially conservative traditions were being trampled under the wave of ‘Westernization’ imposed from the top down.

            Part of Erdoğan’s political genius is that he recognizes this reality and has built an enduring career by building on it. His speeches carry the same theme, familiar to demagogues around the world.  “Only I understand you and can represent you – not those people safely removed in their Istanbul villas or foreign capitals.”

            Harping on Erdoğan’s obvious faults will not change this. The only real threat I see to Erdoğan is from within the AKP itself. He has done a good job purging the party of many who do not share his extreme views. But a core of existing and former MPs is increasingly uneasy with some of his actions. But will they have the courage to act? Will they reach out to like-minded people in other parties to from a new political movement, free from the cant of the past and extremism of the present? Does their concern for the direction of the country outweigh their fear of retribution from the reis – the boss?

            Will the anti-Erdoğan forces follow the good advice that Benjamin Franklin gave to his fellow revolutionaries during the American War for Independence. “Gentlemen, we either hang together, or we hang separately.”

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Are The Elections Enough To Restore Stability In Turkey?

The election results this weekend in Turkey will resonate far beyond the borders of this country that finds itself at a critical fork in the road. Will Turkey continue to be a country aspiring to establish a real rule of law and a vital democracy with normal checks and balances? Or will it take the well-travelled authoritarian road used by most countries in the region, the road that tolerates no dissent and no challenge to unbridled power?

Most of the polls indicate that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will fail once again in its attempt to win enough deputies to form a single-party government, frustrating President Tayyip Erdoğan’s goal of creating an all-powerful presidency. Normally such an outcome would result in a new government being formed as a coalition of two or more parties. But these are not ‘normal’ times, and there is real doubt that Erdoğan would be any more amenable to a coalition now than he was in June. The personal and political stakes are too high for him to surrender easily the total control he has exercised for the past 13 years.

In large part the election hinges on the success of Erdoğan’s efforts to demonise the Kurds inside and outside Turkey as the main threat to the country’s stability. As Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar noted last night in a lecture at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College Oxford, Erdoğan blames the Kurds for blocking an absolute AKP majority and thwarting his goal of a strong presidency. The Kurdish-based HDP party won 13% of the vote in June, capturing not just its base of about 8% but also much of the Kurdish vote that had previously gone to the AKP.  Analysts estimate that what’s left of the Turkish liberal intelligentsia added another 1% - 1.5% of the HDP total.

Since the June elections Erdoğan has done everything he can to blame Kurds in general for the dramatic increase in violence since then. Forget the inconvenient fact that two of the major atrocities killing more than 100 people in Suruç and Ankara were caused by ISIS elements within Turkey where Kurds were the targets, not the instigators. This strategy might not win him many more Kurdish votes but it might help him win back enough of the nationalist votes to attain his absolute majority.

Violence in Syria comes to Turkey
   As Çandar pointed out, the Turkish Kurdish problem is complicated by the coexistence of the legal, political HDP and the long-standing Kurdish guerrilla movement called the PKK. Until recently the Turkish government was engaged in a so-called peace process with PKK aimed at ending decades of violence. These negotiations fell apart when the HDP emerged as a serious threat to Erdoğan’s political goals. The PKK says it resumed its military activities in response to attacks by the state. Other analysts say the PKK’s resumption of violence is a message to the HDP as well as the Turkish state. “Don’t forget that the road to peace in this region goes through Kandil,” the mountain in south eastern Turkey that is the symbolic home of the PKK. This is just a hint of some of the intra-Kurdish issues frustrating anyone trying to understand the Kurdish problem, let alone resolve it.

The Kurdish question has been further complicated by the emergence just across the border of a strong Syrian Kurdish group receiving international support for its fight against ISIS. The Turkish state sees the potential development of an autonomous Kurdish region next door in Syria as a threat to the very concept of a unitary Turkish nation state because of its links to Turkey’s own Kurds. This fear of a large Kurdish autonomous region encompassing Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq causes many sleepless nights in Ankara and explains in part why Turkey is much more interested in stopping the Kurds than in fighting ISIS. This anxiety is only increased as Turkish leaders recognize that they may not have much say in the matter if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is accepted by the international community as part of any resolution of the Syrian civil war.

Sunday’s election has been played out in the context of this increasing instability with ordinary citizens avoiding large crowds for fear of another bomb. These incidents used to be limited to places like Baghdad or war-torn Syria. Now they are closer to home as the mess in Syria spills over into Turkey. Erdoğan has been successful in turning this election away from normal political issues and into a question of Turkey’s security and stability. The question is who will the voters blame for the widening divisions.

Erdoğan is doing everything he can to lay the blame at the feet of what he calls a cocktail of terrorist groups – the PKK, the Syrian Kurds and ISIS. The underlying message is that any vote for the HDP is a vote for this volatile cocktail, and that the only way to guarantee the safety and security of Turkey is to return AKP – and himself -- to absolute power.

The opposition lays the blame at the divisive, authoritarian figure of Erdoğan himself and blames the instability on AKP’s failed domestic and international policies – especially its muddled Syrian policy. The way forward, according to the opposition, is to create a more democratic, open Turkey that relies on a real rule of law rather than the rule of one man.

Sunday’s election might answer the immediate question of who is to govern the country. But resolving the longer term question of how to reconcile the diverse groups within Turkey will require far more statesmanship than the bombast we have been hearing for several years.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Is Erdoğan Helping Or Hurting His Party In The Election Re-Run?

Something is missing from the early days of this re-run of the Turkish elections scheduled for Nov. 1. Maybe it’s the extended Islamic holiday, but the election seems somehow anti-climactic. All the polls indicate that, barring some major cataclysm or massive vote fraud, the results will not change very much from the first election in June.

            The ruling Justice and Development Party will once again fail to win enough deputies to form a single party government. The up-and-coming Kurdish-based Peoples’ Democratic Party will once again pass the 10% threshold to enter parliament. And the most likely coalition option remains as it was in June -- between AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

            So just why are the Turkish people being put through this trial yet again? Why have all key economic, foreign policy, and security issues been allowed to drift in a chaotic and dangerous fashion at a time when real leadership is required?

            Basically it’s because President Tayyip Erdoğan could not accept the fact that his fervent wish for a change of the constitution allowing him to become an all-powerful, unchecked president was simply not going to happen. No coalition government would ever allow that. Erdoğan could not accept this, and he scuttled all efforts to form a coalition in June. Better, he thought, to take his chances with a new election in November when the voters would be given a chance to correct the errors of their ways.

            But something strange is happening on the way to these elections. At one time it was unthinkable, but has Erdoğan’s once iron grip on the Turkish electorate  slipped a bit? Oh yes, he still rants and raves, and his house media still paints him as the modern equivalent of Suleiman the Magnificent. His circle of sycophants still lashes out at all dissenters. The large rent-a-crowds at his election rallies will give a misleading impression of deep support. But his Teflon coating seems to have become chipped. His version of reality was once unchallenged. No longer.

            If he is to have any chance at all he must push the HDP votes below the key 10% threshold. In the June elections the AKP was obliterated in the once-sure regions of the south-east and east as the insurgent HDP swept all the Kurdish votes that used to go to Erdoğan’s party. His tactic so far has been to whip up nationalist suspicion of all things Kurdish. He has tried to blame the HDP for the upsurge in violence that has cost dozens of lives.  According to Erdoğan’s rhetoric the HDP is merely a front for the outlawed PKK.  But according to the polls more people are holding him and the AKP government responsible for the violence. Funerals of slain soldiers and police officers are filled with people blaming the government, not the HDP, for this chaos. In this environment is hard to see AKP getting many of the vital Kurdish votes.

            His claims of a strong economy are also falling on deaf ears. The currency has depreciated almost 31% this year, growth is down, unemployment and inflation are up. Ayşe hanım may not grasp the finer points of macro-economic analysis but she knows very well when the prices of tomatoes and shoes for her kids keep going up. She also gets angry when her husband can’t find a job. Typically Ayşe and her friends take out their frustrations on the government in power.

            Erdoğan’s attacks on the few remaining independent media outlets have picked up steam. Thugs from the AKP attacked the daily Hürriyet building because of its alleged anti-Erdoğan stance. The leader of that mob was later elected to the ruling body of the AKP. Journalists critical of Erdoğan continue to be detained, and the hunt continues for anyone even vaguely associated with Fetullah Gülen, the Islamic scholar who was once close to Erdoğan but is now sharply opposed.

            Again, none of this so far seems to be having the usual impact of increasing AKP votes. Quite the contrary, many polls show declining support for the party. Not only has he lost the Kurdish vote, but an increasing number of anti-Erdoğan Turks are supporting the HDP. These polls may well be unreliable, but the widespread, uncritical popular support Erdoğan used to enjoy seems to be lacking.

            People are now starting to ask what happens after the election. Will there be a coalition? Will Erdoğan allow one this time? And what of the enigmatic figure of former president Abdullah Gül? So far he has disappointed those who had hoped he would take a stronger, more visible stance against Erdoğan and become an alternative leader of the party.  Cynics respond that such hopes are in vain because there is not that much daylight between Gül and Erdoğan, and that he never opposed Erdoğan when he had the chance as president.

Instead of taking an openly critical stance against his former colleague he has remained firmly on the fence by limiting his activities to almost dainty sentiments about how he would have done things differently, how he would have preferred to see more of an effort to bring people together rather than foster divisions. Nice words to be sure. But in the rough, hand-to-hand combat of Turkish politics they don’t count for very much. Will he abandon his Hamlet imitation and get directly involved to reclaim the party that has been taken over by the ‘Erdoğanistas?’

But the key question is how quickly after the election any new Turkish government can turn its attention to the country’s real problems of a declining economy, rapidly unravelling foreign policy, and restoring sustainable internal security.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Erdoğan Doubles Down With Another Electoral Gamble

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan reminds me of desperate gamblers who have lost their original stake and now are putting everything they have -- the kids' college funds, the rent, family shopping money -- into one more spin of the wheel, one more roll of the dice in hopes of recouping all their losses.

Not satisfied with the results of the June 7 where his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost sole control of government he has spent the intervening two months maneuvering to force another election – an election where voters will be sharply encouraged to correct the errors of their ways.

Half-hearted talks about a coalition government with the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) broke down last week, and the only question now is who will run the country until elections in November.

These elections are a huge gamble for Erdoğan, and an even bigger gamble for the country as a whole. But this is a gamble he has to take if he ever wants to realize his dream of a strong, unfettered presidency. The stakes could not be higher. He has already said the he is a de facto strong president and that a new constitution would merely ratify this new reality. Others differ -- strongly. Yes, the AKP may pick up enough additional MPs to form a single party government and reinforce his authoritarian rule. But, just as easily, the plan could back-fire badly and leave the AKP with even fewer MPs. This would create the scenario for another attempt at a coalition government with a partner who would force the president to operate within the tightly limited restrictions of the present constitution.
Not accepting a coalition, he rolls the dice on another election
It is not at all clear just what Erdoğan would do if he fails a second time to get his required majority. It is difficult to see him going quietly into the night. Therefore, he cannot afford to leave the campaign to his handpicked, low key prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. He will play a dominant role in the campaign, circumventing constitutional restrictions by appearing at ‘opening ceremonies’ from one end of the country to other. This tactic is also a gamble because post-election polls in June showed that his polarizing personality alienated a large number of voters. Furthermore, voters might just hold him responsible for the collapse of coalition talks and dragging the country through more uncertainty.

He is also gambling with critical issues like the economy that will drift aimlessly as the president and the ruling party focus exclusively on the election in a fight for their political lives. The possibility of at least three more months of political instability has already driven the Turkish Lira to record lows against the US dollar. Turks have developed extremely sensitive antennae for political troubles and react at warp speed by buying foreign currency at the first sign of instability. Retailers and other merchants report that business is stagnant at best as people conserve their cash and while waiting for further developments.

For Erdoğan this will be a one-issue campaign – national security. He will never forgive the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for winning enough votes to drive the ruling party below the number of MPs required for a single-party government. In the June elections HDP won 13% of the vote and sent 80 members to parliament, 80 members that used routinely to go to AKP. The charismatic leader of the HDP also committed the unforgiveable sin of proclaiming loudly that his party would never make Erdoğan the strong president he so strongly covets.
Can the HDP repeat its June electoral success?
Therefore Erdoğan is doing everything in his power to win additional nationalist votes by attempting to tie HDP to the outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK. If he is going to win he must eliminate the HDP members of parliament by driving HDP votes in any new election below the barrier of 10% of total votes cast required for sending MPs to parliament. The other strategy would be to ban the party altogether on the very tenuous grounds of its alleged links to the PKK. Both of these strategies, however, promise to re-kindle tensions that many Turks had hoped were long buried.

It is no coincidence that the level of violence in Turkey has picked up dramatically since the election with almost daily clashes between government security forces and an eclectic group of terrorists. The deadly bombing in the town of Suruç was blamed on the barbarians from ISIS, a bizarre group of anarchists was blamed for the hapless attack with a few shots fired at the fortress-like American consulate in Istanbul, and then the PKK has stepped up its attacks against police and the army. 

The PKK, for its part, is playing right into Erdoğan’s hands with the revival of its militant tactics that caused so much bloodshed over the years. The head of the Kurdish-based political party HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, must be tearing his hair in despair. Just as the Kurds had achieved their long-desired political break through with strong parliamentary representation the guerrilla group threatens to undo all those gains with its renewed violence.

Even with the renewed violence, a number of pieces have to fall into place for Erdoğan’s gamble to pay off.

1.      Closing the HDP  - ironically this has been made more difficult by changes instituted by Erdoğan’s own political party. The closure could happen, but it would be difficult. Would infuriate a significant portion of the Turkish population.
2.      Drive HDP votes below the 10% threshold. Very difficult. Hard to see the Kurds switching their votes back to the AKP. HDP might get less than 13%, but will still pass the 10% threshold.
3.      Attract more nationalist votes to AKP – Possible. Votes lost to the nationalist MHP party could swing back to the AKP.
4.      Reduce the number of non-Kurds voting for the HDP – Very difficult. These voters dislike Erdoğan intensely and will vote for anyone who promises to derail his ambitions.
5.      AKP must remain united behind Erdoğan – This is not a given. There are a significant number of original AKP members unhappy with Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. It’s not at all clear how this faction will vote. Also not clear if former President Abdullah Gül will finally get off the fence and openly declare his opposition to Erdoğan. So far he seems to prefer issuing vague pronouncements while seated firmly on the fence ready to go in any direction.

My prediction is that unless HDP is shut down the election results will not differ very much from June. Even if AKP scrapes in with just enough votes to form a single-party government it will not have enough MPs to change the constitution the way Erdoğan wants. Meanwhile the economy will stutter along and internal security threats will raise their ugly head again. It’s one thing to gamble with one’s own political life. It’s quite another to include the entire country in that throw of the dice.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

What Caused Turkey's Sharp Reversal On The Fight Against ISIS?

It would be nice to think that Turkey’s abrupt about-face on joining the war against ISIS was solely the result of President Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-delayed and agonized conclusion that the barbaric Sunni Islamic terrorist group was a threat to Turkey as well as Iraq and Syria. Alas, things in Turkey are never that simple or straight-forward.

            Ever since ISIS appeared on the scene Erdoğan has been reluctant to commit his massive armed forces to stopping ISIS or allowing American fighters to use the large Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. His refusal to help the beleaguered town of Kobani last winter sent a message to the Kurds that he preferred ISIS to Kurdish control of northern Syria.

            What happened to change his mind? Why did he suddenly see the light? Now, about six months after the successful Kurdish and American defence of Kobani, the proximate cause for his change of heart was the July 20 suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruç where at least 31 people – most of them Turkish Kurds -- were killed. The bombing was attributed to ISIS and finally caused Turkish policy makers to get off the fence and join the fight. So goes the Turkish government narrative.

            The reality is a bit more complicated. It is not lost on many people in Turkey that this change of heart coincides with a nasty bit of domestic politics. Erdoğan and the AKP suffered a major set-back in the June 7 parliamentary elections. AKP, thanks in large part to the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) that polled far better than anyone suspected, failed to secure enough votes to form a government by itself for the first time since 2002. This dealt a severe blow to Erdoğan’s dream of changing the constitution to make the presidency a strong, unchecked, unchallenged position. Any coalition resulting from the elections would never allow that development.

This is unacceptable to Erdoğan. Few people doubt that he now spends more time plotting an early election this fall than working to form a strong coalition government. In order to get better results for the AKP he has do something to reduce the votes for the HDP that, in addition to the Kurds, is also supported by much of what is left of the Turkish liberal intelligentsia.

            Bear with me while we do a little election math here. In order for any single party in Turkey to form a government it must win at least 276 of the 550 seats in parliament. AKP easily accomplished this in every election from 2002 – 2015. This year, however, a new party (HDP) entered the elections and had a real chance to win at least 10% of the total vote, a requirement to send any MPs to parliament. HDP surprised everyone by winning more than 13% of the vote and sending 80 MPs to parliament, thus depriving AKP of its controlling majority as it won only 258 MPs. This was a very unpleasant surprise for Erdoğan who was now faced with the real possibility that a coalition government would restrict his powers. Worse, such a coalition government could even start seriously investigating corruption charges against former ministers and Erdoğan’s friends and family.
The Kurdish-based HDP won a solid hold on the southeast and east parts of Turkey
            Ever since the election Erdoğan and his anointed successor as prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, have dragged their feet on forming a coalition government. Erdoğan at least would much prefer to take his chances on a second election this fall in hopes that AKP would get more than 276 MPs.
            The only real way for this scenario to work would be to somehow drive HDP below the 10% threshold and for AKP to reclaim those 80 MPs. There were a total of just over 46 million votes cast in the June election, and HDP won more than six million of those votes. Driving HDP under the 10% barrier would require a swing of almost two million votes away from HDP. It’s difficult to see any of the Kurdish voters changing their votes, and I don’t believe any of the liberals who voted for HDP would suddenly recant and send their votes elsewhere.
Who are the main opponents of the large Turkish army?
            Erdoğan’s only alternative is to play the Turkish nationalist card and accuse the HDP of being nothing more than a front for the Kurdish guerrilla group the PKK. This entails ripping up his loudly publicized ‘peace process’ with the same PKK. Between now and November he would hope to drive home the image of AKP as the only hope for stability and peace by associating HDP with instability and terrorist violence.

            By suddenly agreeing to work with the Americans against ISIS Erdoğan also opens the door for renewed Turkish air attacks against Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria – all in the name of preventing the spread of allegedly Kurdish-inspired terrorism to Turkey. It’s almost as if he is saying, “I told you so. This is what voting for the HDP gets you.” In addition to the guilt by association strategy, there are growing calls from Erdoğan loyalists and ultra-nationalists who loathe the Kurds to ban HDP altogether.

            But will this transparent strategy achieve its goal? This is a very risky policy because it is not even clear that the AKP could hold onto the votes it won in June let alone increase them. And, unless HDP is banned, it is difficult to see its solid hold on the southeast weakening. Furthermore, there are threats of serious cracks within the AKP as some of the founders of the party strongly disagree with what has happened to their party under Erdoğan’s autocratic rule. Meanwhile the inconclusive, insincere coalition dance continues as the country faces another several months of instability in the run-up to yet another election.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Greek Crisis Has Some Dreaming Of Independence -- From Athens

The only funny thing about the sad situation in which Greece finds itself is reading essays about what the Greek people ‘must’ or ‘must not’ do from renowned economists and leading academics writing comfortably from their offices thousands of miles from the turmoil. They are not the ones lurching from crisis to crisis worrying about when the money runs out, when the pharmaceuticals run out, when their pensions run out, or even if the food runs out.

Even Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman urge the Greek people to rejectthe latest proposal from the creditors and risk leaving the Euro and returningto the drachma. Surely, he opines, this would be better than submitting to the even greater ‘austerity’ required by the creditors. Greece would be free of the creditors’ shackles and resume growth quickly. Nothing demonstrates the dangers of long-range analysis better than this.

In a perfect world Krugman might be right. If, and it is an enormous ‘if’ Greece had a smoothly functioning bureaucracy, a government determined to institute sweeping reforms, a political class not wedded to corruption and cronyism, and no deeply entrenched groups from  protected business interests to pampered public service employees with a strong interest in preserving the dysfunctional status quo such a recipe might work. But, alas, we are dealing with the reality of modern Greece and not some theoretical classroom exercise. And that sad reality is that without those sweeping reforms what remains of the Greek economy, regardless of the currency in use, will most certainly contract further.

Syriza could have been an agent of change. It could have instituted long-overdue reforms and, in the process, generated the revenue to improve the welfare of the people. Instead, it has proven to be nothing more than an extension, a particularly incompetent extension, of the failed political system that has decimated Greece over the last several decades. And the sad thing is if it had committed to these reforms it could have minimized the hated ‘austerity’. And the really sad thing is that the price of this intransigence is being borne by the very people Syriza said it wanted to help – the poorest sectors of the Greek population.

It chose instead to implement its school-boy theories, which by the way have not worked anywhere in the world, and substitute revolutionary rhetoric for real achievement. In the process their hypocrisy and deceit have succeeded only in alienating just about everyone who was in position to help. It would have been interesting to see, for example, if the creditors would have taken a softer tone if the government had moved aggressively on revenue producing reforms like privatization or breaking the stranglehold of protected businesses. But all we heard were thunderous pronouncements against such steps. One could almost hear the Euro Group, the IMF and the IMF pleading with Syriza to ‘give us something to work with.’ But the only thing that emerged were half-baked demands for debt reduction. Fine, but in return for what – precisely? I can imagine Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, asking the Greek government what it would do to help itself.

One can argue that the European institutions made a serious error a few years ago by bailing out the private banks that had recklessly loaned massive amounts to Greece. How often should tax payers be required to rescue private banks that should have known better? When do they these banks have to pay the price for their mistakes? Wouldn’t it have been much better to force those foolish banks to take the necessary hair-cut to reduce Greek debt to manageable levels? The problem was only compounded when public institutions assumed that debt. All this may be true. But, as The FinancialTimes Martin Wolf puts it, those are now ‘sunk costs’ and it is time to move on.

Meanwhile the drama is played out on the streets of Greece as most economic activity grinds to a halt pending the outcome of Sunday’s so-called referendum called by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The 72-word question is a ridiculous summation of complicated financial discussions that very few people can possibly understand. The legal grounds for the referendum are not even clear, because currently there is NO deal on the table. What, exactly are people voting on? Whatever the stated question may be, most people seem to understand that the real issue in this referendum is Greece’s position not only in the Eurozone but in the European Union itself.

A friend on the island of Andros had an interesting solution to his anger at the government and the uncertainty of the current situation – independence. “We should immediately declare independence from the oppressive, idiotic regime in Athens! We could build a real economy here based on out maritime history, but including other centers of excellence such as financial and health care.” All it needs now is a Declaration of Independence. We are, after all, close to July 4th.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

"They've Succeeded In The Impossible. They've Made Jersey City, New Jersey Look Better Than Greece!"

There is, unfortunately, very little optimism about the critical meeting on Monday, June 22 with Greece and its creditors. There is very little reason to think that the institutions controlling much of Greece’s enormous debt are going to bend on their demands for economic/social reforms in Greece before releasing more cash. And there is even less reason to hope that the rigid ideologues that now run Greece have the slightest intention of implementing reforms that might help Greece but would weaken their political position.

            If the talks fail there is a very good chance that Greeks would rush to pull whatever funds they have left out of the banks, thereby creating the situation that would call for capital controls. Another logical consequence is that Greece would fail to make scheduled payments to the International Monetary Fund and would start on the slippery road to default and possible exit from the Euro.

            A reasonable person might think this is a scenario to be avoided at all costs. It could plunge Greece into the economic unknown and severely intensify the poverty and hardship already suffered by many in the country. But that same reasonable person would be making the same mistake that Greece’s European counterparts have been making for the past five months, i.e. believing that the ruling Syriza party has any interest in compromise or making a mutually beneficial agreement.

            All one had to do is listen closely to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s comments at the opening of the new parliament or the comments of other Syriza MPs and ministers to understand the total commitment to a failed ideology. Various Syriza MPs have said over and over again that the government should never sign a deal and that returning to the drachma with the ensuing economic chaos would be a very good thing. The Minister of Education said a key policy of his ministry would be to eliminate the concept of excellence in education. Who knows? Perhaps in his mind such a thing as educational excellence smacks too much of the dreaded elitism. Maybe he really does think a generation of morons can compete with the Chinese and Indians who have no problem promoting excellence. In his opening speech Tsipras mentioned four times the Greek word roughly translated as equalization. Only now are people realizing that his version of social and economic equalization is to drag the top down, not bring the bottom up. In his brave new world everyone is the same – they’re all desperately poor with no hope for the future. Even today at the 11th hour Greece’s finance minister Yiannis Varoufakis is saying that he hopes the creditors will fulfil their responsibilities to save Greece and, by the strange extension of his unique logic, all of Europe. Needless to say he failed to say much about Greece’s own responsibility to come up with a realistic compromise.

            In the beginning many in the European Union thought Tsipras’s opening remarks last winter were just part of electioneering. Surely, they thought, he would become more rationale in time, and separate himself from the leftist ideologues in his own party. Wrong. A Greek journalist friend in Brussels made an interesting observation early in the negotiations. “Too many people here think there is a difference between the ‘good’ Tsipras and the ‘bad’ hard left element of the party. They’re wrong. There is no difference at all.

            Perhaps the most surprising element of all, however, is the inability of very smart people in Greece to mount any opposition to these destructive developments. Where is the broad-based communication program pointing out to ordinary Greeks just how much they will suffer under new drachma regime? Why leave the moral high ground to Syriza? Perhaps there is a fatalistic acceptance of what is considered inevitable.

            I remember a dinner party last fall in Athens when a group of lawyers and businessmen were discussing what would happen if Syriza won the election. Most were modestly hopeful that disaster could be avoided. One former bank executive had a very succinct response to the question. “Train wreck. Huge train wreck. That’s what will happen. Perhaps from the rubble we can build a good economy.” That certainly was a conversation stopper.

            Another businessman, one who pays all his taxes and obeys the country’s labyrinthine regulations was beside himself with anger. “These liars will ruin everything! They are going to turn us into the North Korea of the Aegean. They have no idea of the damage they are causing for generations. Any young person in Greece with an IQ of room temperature will leave.”

            But again, why are these sentiments restricted to private conversations? Where is the leadership of the opposition? It takes more than dry speeches in parliament to counter Syriza’s bombardment of mis-information.

            An exasperated Greek-American who recently moved back to Greece is re-thinking his decision. “These idiots in government are ruining what could be paradise! They have succeeded in something I thought was impossible. They have made Jersey City, New Jersey look better than Greece. That takes talent.”


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Will Sunday's Elections Challenge Tayyip Erdoğan's Dominance Of Turkish Politics?

With just three days remaining before the critical Turkish elections the noise is reaching deafening crescendo levels, the streets are blanketed in party posters, and party leaders continue their furious pace around the country trying to convince voters that they and only they can put the country on the right course. And, above all else, speculation on the outcome and post-election scenarios has replaced football as the favourite national pastime.

As we all discovered in the British elections last month polls can be misleading. They can miss underlying trends by asking the wrong question or taking at face value what people tell the pollsters. Polls in Turkey are even more useless. And the media merely takes the side of whoever owns that particular outlet. If the media owner owes his fortune to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) it’s a safe bet that his broadcast outlet or newspaper will claim that Turkey without President Tayyip Erdoğan will rapidly go down tubes. And if the owner is brave enough to oppose Erdoğan you can bet his TV station or newspaper will lay all of Turkey’s present and future problems at his doorstep.

Election posters cover all available space

Nonetheless, even with all these caveats, your fearless correspondent has asked a number of people from different walks of life about their predictions for these elections.

One expat who has been in Turkey for a number of years offered one of the more cynical opinions.

“The AKP will definitely get enough votes and deputies to change the constitution to give Erdoğan what he wants. Erdoğan and his henchmen will do whatever is necessary to keep the Kurdish party (HDP) just below the 10% threshold for entering parliament. This may be a cynical reaction, but I have learned never to underestimate Erdoğan’s ability to generate, one way or another, the outcome he wants. Too many people are confusing what they hope will happen with what will happen.”

The other extreme came from another friend who admittedly has no love for AKP, but has been observing Turkish politics for several decades.

“This time AKP will get only 35% - 38%. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will get 28% - 32%, the nationalist party (MHP) will get 14% - 17%, and HDP will get 12% - 15%. With this scenario AKP will definitely fail to get enough deputies to form a single party government. Even worse for them is that a group of 50 – 60 AKP deputies could split off and form an independent group inside the parliament.”

A Turkish cab driver in New York was more succinct. “The country has finally woken up. Those b…… won’t even get 40%. They’re just frauds and phonies.”

A London-based young Turkish professional also believes the AKP vote will fall to the low 40% level and that HDP will succeed in entering parliament. But he warns not to forget the Gülenists, referring to followers of the Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen who are accused by Erdoğan of running a parallel government within Turkish state institutions. “They hate Erdoğan and are running as independents in many districts. Some of them will enter parliament and cause problems for AKP. Watch the post-election manoeuvring. That will be fascinating.”

An Istanbul housewife who typically supports CHP says she will vote for the Kurdish party this time. “I have been trying to convince all my friends to vote for HDP. It’s critical that they cross the 10% threshold.  I think that AKP’s vote will fall to just above 40%, still the biggest party but not powerful enough to force a constitution change. CHP could get as much as 27%, MHP around 17% and HDP could get 11% - 12%.”

The all-important ballot box

Another long-term expat who accurately predicted the outcome of last summer’s presidential election agrees that AKP’s vote share will drop sharply this time.

“They will probably get somewhere around 43%, CHP 26%, MHP 17% and HDP between 10% - 11%. The actual HDP votes will have to be quite a bit higher than the final number because of potential election fraud. They could lose a lot of votes because some of Erdoğan’s more fervent followers will try anything to make sure HDP stays below 10%. AKP will be close to getting enough deputies to form a single-party government, but won’t have enough to change the constitution.”

One of the intriguing things about this election is the persistent rumours of sharp tensions within the AKP that could lead to post-election re-alignment of alliances. One rumour gaining some traction is that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is tired of Erdoğan’s constant interference and wants to assert his own power. According to this scenario he would not be at all unhappy if Erdoğan failed to the constitutional change allowing for a strong president. He could then put Erdoğan back into his box and carry running the government in a rational fashion with his own people. Davutoğlu has gone out his way, for example, to state that his plans for economic reform and growth are far different from Erdoğan’s.

Tayyip Erdoğan has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, and desperately wants to consolidate his position by changing the constitution to create a strong executive presidency enabling him to rule with no checks or balances. Even though he is not running for anything this time, this election is in large measure a referendum on him. But Turkish society has changed a great deal since 2002. It remains to be seen if Erdoğan’s old father-knows-best approach will work with an increasingly assertive group of voters. One can only hope that massive fraud does not derail the results and plunge the country into chaos.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Erdoğan Needs To Be Very Careful At This Point

A possible sign that Turkey’s notoriously inaccurate election polls may for once be on the right track is the increasingly shrill and often bizarre behaviour of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the run-up to June’s general election.

Since storming to power in 2002 the AKP has swept every election with overwhelming majorities and maintained its strong grip on single-party government. Now, due a host of factors including a weak economy, fatigue with President Tayyip Erdoğan, corruption and disunity within AKP that tight grip is being challenged. One of the main threats is coming from the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) with its charismatic, pop-star-like leader Selahattin Demirtaş. If Demirtaş can lead his party over the absurd 10% barrier to enter parliament it can pose a serious threat to AKP’s ability to rule by itself without a coalition.

The panicked response of AKP to this threat indicates that the polls showing HDP close to the 10% goal might just be accurate. Elections in Turkey have always been raucous affairs with accusations of wholesale vote rigging, threats of violence, massive demonstrations, and lots and lots of loud noise. But this one is going even further.

AKP minions, led by Erdoğan who is supposed to be above such things as president, are busy labelling the Kurdish party as:

·                     Terrorists
·                     Atheists
·                     And my favourite, ‘Zoroastrians’. For those of you whose knowledge of Zoroastrians is as limited as mine I recommend a wonderful book about remnants of ancient Middle Eastern religions called Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell. He writes that the Zoroastrian faith dominated Persia until the Islamic conquest in the 7th century. There are only a very few Zoroastrians remaining in modern Iran, but, even so, Erdoğan now counts them as an existential threat to Turkey in the form of a Kurdish political party.

Assaults on the HDP are growing beyond verbal absurdities. So far there have more than 50 attacks on HDP election offices across the country. Yesterday there were serious bomb attacks on two HDP offices in the cities of Adana and Mersin. Two senior AKP officials condemned the attacks, and no one has claimed responsibility. And no suspects have been found.
Scene after bomb at HDP office in Mersin
A sign of AKP desperation is the fact that Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister and official head of the party, has been almost completely side-lined. He is perceived as a weak campaigner, and Erdoğan has gladly leapt into the breach with his almost daily fire-and-brimstone speeches about the catastrophe that awaits Turkey if the AKP fails to win enough deputies to form a single-party government.

In another indication of AKP nervousness, some party stalwarts are demanding the few remaining opposition media outlets be shut down and their assets confiscated.

            Then there is the very strange incident of rumours about a possible Turkish military incursion into Syria, an incursion that could cause the elections to be postponed thereby staving off potential embarrassment for the AKP. These rumours were quickly followed by the surprise decision of the Chief of Staff of the Turkish army to take a 15-day medical leave. It is well known that the army is firmly opposed to any such Syrian adventure, and the absence of the Chief of Staff makes any move into Syria very difficult. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day with this one, but it will be quite a while before anything resembling the truth emerges.

            Even more serious are the mounting concerns about voter fraud. With the judiciary and the theoretically independent election commission firmly under government control many people are concerned that the results will mysteriously turn out to be in AKP’s favour, regardless of the actual vote. A friend in London recalled that in the last election there were more votes cast in several districts than the total number of registered voters in those districts. There are also leaked reports of massive government efforts to ‘control’ the results. Opposition parties say they will send thousands of monitors to the polling sites, but it is not clear how effective they will be.
Iran faced widespread protests after the flawed 2009 election
            This is where Erdoğan has to be very careful. It is one thing if HDP legitimately fails to surpass the 10% barrier. It is quite another if the party suspects that electoral fraud kept them out of parliament. Erdoğan should remember the 2009 eruption of the Green Revolution in Iran following the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Similar accusations in Turkey would go viral in a matter of moments leaving the so-called Kurdish ‘peace process’ in tatters. 

Erdoğan may or may not like the results of this election, But one hopes he realizes that nothing would improve Turkey’s democratic standing in this troubled region more than letting the results, whatever they may be, unfold without interference.