Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Maybe This Time The Opposition Has Learned Something

People in Turkey are beginning to think the previously unthinkable. President Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that have dominated every election since 2002 may actually fall far short of their goals in the national elections scheduled for June. At this early stage it appears very difficult for AKP to get enough deputies to give Erdoğan his long-sought powerful, unchecked presidency. There is even a chance that for the first time in its history AKP will fail to get enough deputies to establish a government by itself. And, perhaps most important, for the first time I can remember  the Kurds seem to hold the trump card for this election.

            AKP, despite its almost total control of the broadcast media, is suddenly on the defensive. Party leaders have to explain away a sharply deteriorating economy. Erdoğan even has to concede the possibility of a coalition by saying such an outcome would be a ‘nightmare, the end of Turkey.’  Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was forced to copy the opposition’s opening to Turkey’s dwindling number of minorities by making sweeping promises to the Roma community. He even went so far as to say that AKP candidates include members (unnamed at this point) of the Alevi community, a branch of Islam considered heretical by the majority Sunni AKP.

            What has changed since the humiliating debacle of the presidential elections last summer when Erdoğan’s opponents couldn’t be bothered to get off their sunbeds in the holiday resorts to vote? Voter participation in that election fell to about 74%, the lowest level in 12 years. The apathy and incompetence of the opposition allowed Erdoğan to win just enough votes on the first ballot to win. What gives Erdoğan’s growing number of opponents the nervous, the very cautious hope that just maybe this time is different?
Is his appeal fading fast?
            In addition to the fatigue factor involved in listening to Erdoğan’s inflated bombast for so many years, the economy on which he based much of his political success is sliding rapidly downhill. The Turkish lira has lost almost 16% this year, and now trades close to a record low. GDP growth has stalled, inflation is up, unemployment has climbed to about 11%, and foreign direct investment has slowed down dramatically. Some voters are beginning to make the connection between the AKP’s policies and the economic decline. The AKP swept into power on the back of an economic collapse, and some people are openly repeating an old Turkish saying, ‘They will go as they came.’

            Then there are the political mistakes that the usually sure-footed AKP has made. In hindsight, the first mistake may have been Erdoğan’s decision to run for president. This decision could wind up isolating him in his new, huge presidential palace. The Turkish presidency is largely a ceremonial position with limited political power. The president is supposed to be above partisan politics and refrain from active involvement in government affairs. Erdoğan of course paid no attention to these constitutional constraints, and was deeply involved in all facets of party and government work. In order to justify these constitutionally questionable activities he was counting on the AKP winning enough deputies to change the constitution and implement a system with a politically powerful, unchecked presidency. This possibility opened cracks within the usually solid AKP. Several leading member of the party oppose his interference and the strong presidential system. They have made no secret of their opposition. The party also stuck with a rule limiting MPs to three terms in parliament. This meant that many experienced AKP deputies are being replaced on the candidate lists with novices unknown by voters.

Another challenge facing AKP is a revitalized opposition. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has emerged from its usual torpor to run a vigorous campaign with some decent positive ideas rather than relying simply on the ‘anti-Erdogan’ vote. But the biggest surprise is the emergence of the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) led by the young, charismatic Selahattin Demirtaş.
The king maker this time?
            In order to cross the barrier of winning 10% of total votes he has to extend the party’s vote beyond its traditional regional, Kurdish base. There are some signs that he is doing this. For one thing, he has a good chance of getting the votes of Turkey’s small, but vocal, liberal/intellectual constituency. This group used to vote AKP in protest against the military and authoritarian tendencies of earlier governments. Now that AKP has become even more authoritarian, this block of votes is looking for a new home. Another point is that the Kurds in general have won a great deal of sympathy for their struggle against the brutal, fundamentalist hordes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Even my stalwart CHP friends are talking of switching their votes to
HDP. “I am definitely voting for him (Demirtaş), and I am telling all my friends to vote for him or I will beat them around the head and shoulders,” exclaimed one Istanbul matron waving her arms in a threatening manner. Dinner party conversations in smart Istanbul homes are dominated by animated opinions about the Kurds. “You must vote them,” cry most. “I will never vote for terrorists,” others insist.

Others claim there is a risk HDP will do a deal with AKP if it gets into parliament. In return for getting greater cultural and perhaps political autonomy, the argument runs, the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. “Rubbish,” responds Demirtaş. Every chance he gets he repeats that HDP will never support AKP.

HDP would have an immense impact on Turkish politics if it can cross the 10% the barrier. For one thing, Erdoğan’s presidential hopes would disappear. More than that, HDP could conceivably get enough MPs to force a coalition government for the first time since 2002. This possibility alone is making AKP very nervous. In this case even AKP’s rock-solid voter base of about 40% may not be enough to let them form a single-party government. No wonder Erdoğan is throwing all constitutional constraints aside and campaigning hard for his political life.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Very High Stakes Turkish Election

The plots and sub-plots in the Turkish general election scheduled for June make this one of the most interesting and, undoubtedly, the most important election for years. The stakes are very high. The outcome will determine the course of this large, important country’s domestic and international policies that seem to have lost direction over the last few years.

The over-riding issue, as always, is President Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who has dominated Turkish policy for more than a decade. Erdoğan became Turkey’s first elected president last summer, and he desperately wants to transform that office into a strong executive presidency with limited parliamentary over-sight. The major road block to such a transformation is the existing constitution that puts the president above party politics and limits his role largely to ceremonial duties. Erdoğan, never one for constitutional niceties, has intervened heavily in government affairs and was active in selecting candidates for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Tayyip Erdogan, the man who would be king
 In order to change the constitution the AKP must increase its seats in parliament from 316 to 330. This has suddenly become difficult to achieve. For one thing, Erdoğan’s continued interference in the government has alienated many in his own party who are highly sensitive about anyone interfering in their parliamentary rights. This block of senior AKP officials, notably Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç, has made no secret of its opposition to the idea of a strong president with limited or no checks and balances. This feud between the old guard and the sycophantic Erdoğanistas could turn off many who used to vote for AKP. Few people doubt that AKP will wind up with the most deputies. But the real question is whether they will get enough to give Erdoğan his desired one-man rule. As one commentator put it perhaps the best outcome for stability is one where AKP continues to control parliament, but Erdoğan fails to get his one-man rule.

In addition to the intra-AKP issues, the most surprising development of this election season is the emergence of invigorated opposition parties. Even the venerable, sclerotic Republican People’s Party (CHP) has shown surprising innovation. Candidates in several of the party’s districts were chosen through a primary election system rather than simply being tapped by the party leaders. This led to the unexpected victory of several new faces over the tired re-treads that had dominated the CHP for years. The CHP list now includes an outspoken Turkish-Armenian woman as well as a representative of the Roma (gypsy) community. Any increase in CHP’s vote share would put a serious dent in Erdoğan’s plans.
CHP's Kemal Kilicdaroglu wants YOU!
However, the real key to this election is not the AKP or the CHP. It’s the Kurds who appear to hold the trump card. With their young, charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, the Kurdish party (HDP) is making a bold move beyond its traditional base to become a national party. It has positioned itself as the most inclusive party in Turkey in its effort to get over the barrier of 10% of the national vote required to enter parliament. It has selected as one of its candidates a German-born Yazidi woman. The Yazidis are mainly in northern Iraq and practice an ancient religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is vastly different. The Yazidis have been in the news recently because of their brutal treatment at the hands of ISIS. Anyone who would like to learn more about the remnants of these ancient religions should read Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East by Gerard Russell. Given the complicated mathematics of the Turkish election system, if Demirtaş can lead his party over the 10% barrier Erdoğan’s chances of getting enough parliamentary seats would just about disappear.
Demirtas seems to hold the trump card
Then there is also the intriguing question of former president Abdullah Gül. What exactly, if anything, is he up to? Since leaving office last summer and being dramatically snubbed by the AKP party he helped to found, Gül has played a very cautious game. He has made no secret of his dislike for the strong presidential system, and he has always portrayed himself as the ‘soft’ side of AKP in contrast to the shrill, divisive, bombast of Erdoğan. But he has been careful to avoid any public confrontation with his former colleague. There is quite a bit of speculation that he is very active behind the scenes, gathering support in the event Erdoğan fails in his attempt to change the constitution. If that happens, according to current speculation, he will return and try to take control of the AKP. In this event, Erdoğan would be well and truly isolated in his ridiculous new palace. Gül would make sure that Erdoğan sticks to his extremely limited constitutional role.
What is former president Gul up to?
It is very, very difficult to see Erdoğan gracefully, or any other way, accepting such a role. How can a man who has dominated every aspect of Turkish life for so long retire to the warm milk and slippers of a figure-head president? It simply does not compute. Turkey has been rocked by several violent incidents in recent weeks. Many people think this is a dangerous prelude as political passions get played out in the streets in the run-up to the most critical election in recent Turkish history.

However, despite all the noise and chaos of this election campaign, it is heartening to see that at least one country in this troubled region has a vibrant democratic streak that will not be suppressed. Even if Erdoğan gets his way with the constitution, it’s hard to see him stuffing this democratic genie back into the bottle.