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.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

"If You're Going To Shoot Me, Shoot Me! Just Get On With It!"

ATHENS -- Fatigue, exhaustion and frustration seem to have descended on Greece like a cloud, dampening the natural exuberance and underlying optimism of many people. They are simply worn out by speculation on the outcome of endless negotiations that achieve nothing, the daily struggle with total uncertainty about their economic future, and the barrage of contradictory proclamations from an inexperienced government. “We are on the verge of an agreement with the creditors! There is no agreement! We might agree to privatise some state assets. We will NEVER sell or lease a single state asset!” And so it goes. Meanwhile hapless citizens are caught in the middle of a frightening maze.

“If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me! Just get on with it,” cried one anguished citizen. “I’m tired of this mess. We’ve been dealing with it since 2008 and there is no end in sight. I just want it over with, one way or the other.” One housewife said she hardly leaves the house these days. “I sit home on my sofa all day watching TV hoping to see some developments. Nothing.  All I’m doing  is wearing out sofa fabric.”

How many Greeks feel at the moment
More galling perhaps is the loss of self-esteem. “We used to be proud to be Greek. We were considered the home of democracy, the worthy heirs of the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and the great playwrights. Now Greece is considered just another unruly little country stuck onto the bottom of the Balkans. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’re Greek these days,” says one Brussels-based Greek.

In the current, rapidly deteriorating economic situation cash is king. No one knows if the banks and all their ATM machines are suddenly going to close. Tourists are advised to bring lots of cash. Many businesses are forced to pay cash for raw materials because suppliers limit credit to only the largest of companies. The central government has stripped municipalities of their spare cash in a desperate attempt to meet pension payments and pay creditors.

The Syriza government swept into power in January with the promise that it would stand up for the ‘little man’, roll back the hated austerity program, and force the country’s creditors to renegotiate a much more favourable package of repayments. This simply hasn’t happened. A lethal combination of inexperience, arrogance and party disunity led the new government to badly overplay its already weak hand.

For four months the Greek people have been living on promises of a better tomorrow. But that tomorrow keeps receding further and further into the distance. Faced with an intractable Eurozone making demands that a fractured, internally chaotic Syriza simply cannot deliver the government faces some unpalatable choices that could rip the party into its constituent parts.

            Some more bizarre members of the ruling party want to dump the whole negotiating process. They openly call for leaving the Eurozone in favour of the old currency, the drachma. They ignore the horrific costs of such a move for the average citizen they claim to represent. Among other things, this move would certainly reduce food supplies in the country. Greece imports about 75% of everything it eats and drinks. How are the stores going to pay for these goods with a sharply devalued drachma? How is the present generation of Greeks going to react to shortages it has never seen?

One ruling party MP, Costas Lapavitsas, blithely, almost cheerfully, admits – from the safety of his academic sinecure in London – that going back to the drachma would, of course, entail a return to rationing of most of life’s basic items – a condition Greece escaped decades ago. I'm not sure how most Greeks would react to standing in line with their ration cards waiting for their daily bread. He also says that Greece should re-align its foreign relations away from Europe, and by implication the United States, and cosy up to such economic power-houses as Venezuela, Iran and China. Never mind that Iran is working hard to re-join the Western world and that Venezuela is flat broke despite its vast oil reserves. Tough to see Greece doing much of deal with China after repeatedly refusing to let a Chinese company buy the portion of the Port of Piraeus it doesn’t already own. Maybe he meant Greece to copy that other Asian powerhouse -- North Korea.

While most of the world has moved on from this Stalinist economic view, it does represent a strong faction within the government, and demonstrates clearly why any agreement with the Eurozone could split the party wide open. This partly explains the hesitant, confusing approach of the Greek government toward any deal with its creditors to keep Greece in the Euro. The Syriza government itself may not have a clear, unified approach. Who speaks for the government?  Ministers are constantly contradicting each other. The government is caught in a bind. Sign a deal, break up the party. Reject a deal, lose Greece. That’s a tough choice for a party filled with people trying to run a country on the basis of revolutionary rhetoric more suited to university agitation than actually running a real country.

Does Tsipras even want a deal with the creditors?
Unable, or unwilling, to make that choice the party may resort to a referendum to solve the dilemma. Let the people choose whether to stay in the Euro or return to the drachma. Fine in theory. Difficult in reality. How exactly will the question be worded? Will the banks have to be closed during the period of the referendum to stop massive withdrawals? Will capital controls have to be imposed? Will people clean out the supermarket shelves and start hoarding just in case the country goes back to the drachma? The only thing that is clear at this point is that the resilience and endurance of the Greek people are stretched to their limits.