Is Turkey’s Future A Liberal One?

August 14, 2014 § 3 Comments

Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.

It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.

The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.

Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:

The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.

Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.

He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.

There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.

I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.

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Checking In On The Turkish PM Race

June 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

Despite my instincts that Prime Minister Erdoğan was going to decide that it is better to be a super-empowered prime minister than the Turkish president under the current constitutional configuration, it seems pretty clear at this point that he has his sights trained on the Çankaya Palace. The AKP has officially announced that it is not going to change its internal party regulations to allow MPs who have served three terms to run for a fourth, which means that Erdoğan will be term limited out and will thus seek the presidency. There is no doubt that Erdoğan will win and become the first directly elected Turkish president, and there is also little doubt that he will transform the presidency as he sees fit from a traditionally apolitical office with few real powers into something far different. The more interesting question that remains is who will replace Erdoğan as prime minister, and the answer to that is a lot murkier.

Due to the AKP’s three-terms-and-out rule, 73 AKP parliamentarians are unable to stand for election again and the list is a rundown of nearly all of the party heavyweights. Bülent Arınç, Bekir Bozdağ, Ali Babacan, Ömer Çelik, etc. The A team, that founded the party and shepherded it through three consecutive electoral victories, is out, and that leaves precious few suitable candidates to replace Erdoğan. It will have to be someone who has some modicum of name recognition and influence, but also someone whom Erdoğan can control. To the best of my calculations, there are two people who fit the bill and who are not subject to the term limit conundrum.

The first, and most obvious one, is Ahmet Davutoğlu. There is no question that he has a burning ambition to move on to bigger and better things, and his standing as a candidate for election in 2011 – after being appointed foreign minister despite not being a member of the Grand National Assembly – was a signal that he knew he would need to be more involved politically if he hoped to replace his patron. In many ways, Davutoğlu is the ego (in more ways than one) to Erdoğan’s id, tamping down some of the prime minister’s more rash instincts and never failing to parrot what Erdoğan is saying but putting it in a more favorable light. Whatever the level of outrageousness that Erdoğan is spouting, Davutoğlu always has a ready explanation for what the prime minister actually meant, and he has also shown a willingness to play the attack dog and go on the offensive. Like the prime minister, he always has a scolding lecture handy for those who challenge him. Because he is more reserved and far less willing to reveal whatever he happens to be thinking at any given moment though, Davutoğlu is in some ways more predictable that Erdoğan but in other ways less so, and he is similar to Abdullah Gül in that he plays better with foreign audiences. I once sat through a Davutoğlu lecture at Georgetown where he was at his most charming and dissembling best, and by the end the dean of the School of Foreign Service had literally offered him a position as a professor whenever he was ready to leave the Foreign Ministry. The downside to Erdoğan handing the reins to Davutoğlu is that he might be too ambitious; while he has never publicly displayed any willingness to challenge Erdoğan in any way and has been nothing but the loyal servant, he might very well act differently once prime minister and be less willing to defer to Erdoğan on any and all subjects.

The other plausible candidate is Numan Kurtulmuş, who is far less known to those outside of Turkey. Kurtulmuş and Erdoğan rose up together through the ranks of the Fazilet Party, but split after Fazilet was banned by the Constitutional Court and dissolved, with Kurtulmuş joining with the hardliners to found Saadet and Erdoğan going on to found the AKP. After he was ousted from Saadet, Kurtulmuş formed the HSP – known colloquially as HAS, meaning pure – and then merged HAS with the AKP in July 2012. Unlike Davutoğlu, Kurtulmuş has the street cred that comes from having been part of the crowd around Necmettin Erbakan and the old Islamist parties, and he has a devoted following among Turkish religious conservatives. When the AKP absorbed HAS two years ago, I wrote the following:

There is speculation that the reason Erdoğan has now invited HAS into the fold has to do more with Kurtulmuş than with HAS itself. As he announced yesterday,Erdoğan is only going to run as AKP leader one more time, which means that he needs a way to remain as the dominant figure within his party. While everyone anticipates that the new constitution spearheaded by the AKP will transform Turkey into a presidential system and that Erdoğan will run to be Turkey’s first newly powerful president, that does not mean that his path forward is completely clear. Should Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, make a bid to be PM, then Erdoğan will have a serious and credible rival standing opposite him within his own party. Gül is a popular politician, a serious thinker, and less divisive than Erdoğan, and it is unclear that a President Erdoğan would be able to dominate a Prime Minister Gül. Kurtulmuş, on the other hand, is another story. He is exactly the type of PM that a President Erdoğan would want, since he is pliable and less likely to seek to carve out an independent power base from which to challenge Erdoğan. In fact, when the HAS Party was formed, some of its members were concerned that Kurtulmuş was not tough enough and that his lack of an “authoritarian mentality” would be a weakness compared to the leaders of other parties. Should HAS merge with the AKP, and all signs so far point to this happening, look for Kurtulmuş to slowly emerge as Erdoğan’s favored candidate to replace him as PM.

I don’t think that Gül is going to try and become prime minister, but the rest of the analysis still holds true. Kurtulmuş seems like precisely the type of PM that Erdoğan could manipulate as president, and who would not protest once Erdoğan begins to expand the powers of his new office and infringe upon the prerogatives that belong to his old office. The question is whether Erdoğan actually trusts Kurtulmuş after their years apart, and to that I have no answer. With the presidential race not in doubt though, how the prime ministry shapes up is what all of those interested in the inside baseball of Turkish politics will be watching as the summer progresses.

The Problem With The Turkish Government In A Nutshell

May 14, 2014 § 10 Comments

Turkey is reeling over a tragic loss of human life following an explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, with the death toll up to 238 as of this writing and at least 120 miners still trapped. The government has declared three days of public mourning, and Turks are wearing coal mining outfits and spelunking helmets in the streets in solidarity with the families of those who perished. So what does the government have to do with any of this? As has so often been the case under the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan, the damage comes in the government’s response to events outside of its control and makes a bad situation that much worse.

Workplace disasters happen all the time, and this is particularly so when it comes to mining, which is an extremely dangerous profession that takes places under volatile conditions. This past Monday, two coal miners died in a mine in West Virginia, and 29 died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010. As Erdoğan said in opening his press conference today, accidents happen. In this case, however, there is the extremely inconvenient fact that only two weeks ago, the AKP rejected a motion in the Grand National Assembly brought by the opposition CHP – and supported by the MHP and BDP – calling for an investigation into the legion of mine accidents in Soma. In 2013, for instance, 4500 workplace accidents were reported in Soma mines alone. There is also this picture making the rounds of two AKP ministers chatting away two weeks ago during an opposition parliamentary speech about safety concerns in Soma coal mines. In other words, serious concerns were raised within the last month about this particular mine, the government chose to ignore them, and now has a terrible public relations disaster on its hands on top of the fact that 238 Turkish citizens are dead after an accident that might have been avoided had the government taken the warnings about Soma more seriously.

A serious and responsible government would only have one logical response under these circumstances. It would acknowledge a terrible mistake, apologize, vow to get to the bottom of what went wrong, and generally act in a contrite fashion. But as we all know by now, the AKP under Erdoğan neither acknowledges mistakes nor apologizes, and is never contrite about anything. A preview of things to come began last night, when one of the pro-government TV channels started running a graphic putting things into “perspective” with death tolls from other mining disasters around the world, such as 1549 deaths in China in 1942, 1100 deaths in France in 1906, 687 deaths in Japan in 1914, 682 deaths in China in 1960…you can see where this is going. The messaging is that since there have been mining disasters throughout history – and really, throughout history is the operative term here given the dates used – the Turkish government should be absolved of all blame for anything related to Soma.

Then came Erdoğan’s press conference today, which began in typical fashion with Erdoğan berating a reporter for asking a question that he didn’t like, continued with Erdoğan pulling out the talking points that had clearly already been distributed to the pro-government press and citing mining accidents from around the world, including England in 1862 and the U.S. in 1907 and nothing later than 1970, and moved on to Erdoğan dismissing the motion brought by the CHP and subsequently rejected by the AKP as nothing more than a grandstanding effort to shut down the Assembly with procedural gridlock. In other words, what takes place in Turkey in 2014 should be judged by the standards of Victorian England, and the opposition’s oft-stated concerns about mine safety aren’t genuine but just a plot to bring down the government. In the meantime, police and water cannons are already confronting protesters in the streets who are upset about the government’s response, and no doubt we will soon hear from Erdoğan or one of his lackeys about foreign plots, terrorists, the insidious workplace safety lobby, and how elections confer upon him and the government the right to do anything they please.

This all emanates from the same place as Erdoğan’s response just yesterday to Freedom House ranking Turkey as not free in the realm of press freedom, during which he rolled out the tired argument that because some Turkish newspapers write bad things about the government, Turkey must by definition have perfect press freedom, and then went after Freedom House’s credibility for ranking Israel as the freest country in the Middle East, as if that fact isn’t glaringly obvious. He also brought up what he called Helen Thomas’s firing – but was in fact mass ostracization – following her comments that Israeli Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back home to Germany and Poland as evidence that the U.S. does not have a free press, so therefore nobody should criticize Turkey. The playbook is always the same – deny that the facts are the facts, blame someone else, and cite incorrect information or things that are laughably out of context in order to defend grossly objectionable behavior.

It’s one thing to resort to these tactics with something like the Gezi protests or a corruption scandal, when a substantial percentage of Turks doesn’t sympathize with those protesting, or thinks that corruption doesn’t matter as long as the government is delivering economic improvements and that the inquiry is being driven by Gülenists. It’s quite another to do it with a mining disaster in which hundreds of people die, since this time there is no other side. The miners were not perceived enemies of the government, and no shadowy groups are driving any investigations. Concurrent with announcing three days of official mourning, Erdoğan essentially told the country to get over it and stop whining because lots of miners died at the dawn of the Industrial Age in countries halfway around the world. I don’t think the tried and true AKP playbook is going to be quite as effective this time around.

What’s Going To Happen After Turkish Elections?

March 27, 2014 § 9 Comments

The short answer is, nothing good. No matter how things shake out on Sunday when Turks go to vote in municipal elections, I don’t thing the results are going to alleviate Turkey’s current instability but will only exacerbate it. The reason for this is that whether the AKP does well or the AKP underperforms relative to expectations, it is going to take away the wrong lesson from the whole process.

Let’s assume that the AKP does well and hangs on to Istanbul and Ankara, more or less sweeps the interior of the country, and limits its losses to the CHP to Izmir and a couple of other cities along the southeastern coast, along with losing Diyarbakır and Van to the BDP. Should this happen, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP are going to seize upon this as a vindication of everything they have done – the harsh rhetoric against demonstrators, the purges of Gülenists, the cowing of the media, blocking Twitter, etc. – and assume that the only opposition they have comes from unruly and anarchist “Gezi people” or terrorist sympathizers; in other words, nobody whom Erdoğan views as legitimate. This is the story that Erdoğan has essentially been repeating over and over again ad nauseum for months, and I don’t think it is just campaign rhetoric. Erdoğan and his inner circle genuinely think that everything they have done is for Turkey’s benefit, don’t see how anyone can  believe otherwise, and view all opposition as a Kemalist or Gülenist or leftist or military or Zionist or foreign plot to humiliate them and bring the “new Turkey” to its knees. A perceived electoral victory will convince Erdoğan that his version of events is the correct one, and he will only double down on the over the top rhetoric and the polarizing policies that are designed to appeal to his base of supporters, who at this point are not prepared to believe anything that is reported about corruption, graft, illicit business dealings, personal failings, or anything else.

The other factor here is that Erdoğan fetishizes elections in the sense that he views them as conferring the right to do absolutely anything he pleases. He is a true republican (small r) theorist in that once the people have voted and empowered their representatives, the representatives are not encumbered by any type of public opinion or populist will until they are turned out of office. This is the reason he has been hyping these elections so heavily and talking about them as a demonstration of the AKP’s power. Should the AKP do well, Erdoğan will point to the election results as an ex post facto legitimation of anything and everything that he has done, and it will only spur him to make sure that the party does even better during the presidential election this summer and the parliamentary elections next year. He will not view this as a bullet dodged, but as an exhortation to keep up the pressure on his opponents. In short, a victory will magnify all of his worst instincts and inclinations and convince him that his vision for the country is the right one and that it must be enforced at any cost.

Should Erdoğan and the AKP do worse than expected, and somehow lose Istanbul – which to them is the worst possible thing that could happen given its symbolic importance to the AKP, its role as a political bellwether for the rest of the country, and Erdoğan’s view of the city as his own personal fiefdom – they will not take it as a humbling warning. They will go into panic mode, and lash out at everything and anything. Expect to hear claims of election fraud, efforts to obstruct AKP voters, and Gülenist plots. Social media will become an even bigger target, protestors will be dealt with even more harshly, and Turkish cities will become even more frequent sites of confrontations between police and civilians. The hyper nationalist rhetoric will get turned up, and I wouldn’t even put it past the realm of possibility that Erdoğan would seek to create a distraction, such as military escalation with Syria, to change the subject and try to regain his footing.

If I had to make a prediction, I think that there is a good chance that the CHP takes Ankara, but the AKP will hold on to Istanbul. In Ankara, Mad Melih Gökçek seems to have jumped the shark – all you need to know is that part of his election platform is his pledge to build a Las Vegas hotel-type canal, replete with gondolas and everything, in landlocked Ankara – and the polls there (to the extent they are in any way reliable) are as tight as I’ve seen anywhere. When you add in the recent scenes of teargas and bludgeoning of protestors, I have a feeling that the CHP will pull out a victory. In Istanbul, however, Erdoğan is not going to allow any other party to win. I say that in the sense that Istanbullu friends tell me that the mismatch in money and campaign organizing between the AKP and CHP is evident all over the city, and I say it in the sense that the APK will do anything to win Istanbul, legal or not. Istanbul has huge symbolic importance given its status as the imperial Ottoman capital during Turkey’s glory days, to which Erdoğan and the AKP constantly harken back, and the AKP sees it as its headquarters. Erdoğan micromanages everything in the city, which is what led to the Gezi Park crisis and protests in the first place, and I don’t see him giving it up willingly.

To all my Turkish friends and readers, please make sure to go out and vote on Sunday, and let’s hope that the aftermath is not quite so dire as I predict.

Tayyip Erdoğan, World’s Newest Billionaire

February 25, 2014 § 13 Comments

Let me stipulate from the beginning that I have no idea whether the allegations are true that Tayyip Erdoğan conspired with his son Bilal to hide one billion dollars once Turkey’s graft probe was opened in December. Recordings of the two Erdoğans having four separate phone conversations about this topic are on Youtube [ed. note: the billion dollar figure is listed in the introduction to the Youtube clip and has been widely reported, but the taped conversation itself shows the Erdoğans talking about hiding tens of millions and not billions], and for those of you  - like me – whose Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate a bunch of garbled conversations in their entirety, a translated transcript can be found here. Erdoğan has not yet denied that the voices on the recordings are his and Bilal’s, but instead has dismissed the taped conversations as having been “montaged,” by which I assume he means that different recordings were spliced together to misrepresent what he said. Sabah and Yeni Şafak are both claiming that the recordings were doctored and that they have their own recordings of the people who edited the Erdoğan phone call. It wouldn’t surprise me if Erdoğan was hiding huge sums of money, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if he is being framed to look much worse than he actually is (although the latter would surprise me more than the former). Neither side here is particularly laudatory or above dirty tricks, and it’s a shame that this is Turkey’s new reality; a corrupt and paranoid government in a death match against a shadowy and corrupt powerful social group.

Of everything that has come out of Turkey in the past two months, this is the most explosive and has actual potential to bring down Erdoğan and the government, since these are charges that are going to be less easy to just dismiss. Assuming for the moment that there is some element of truth to the news and that Erdoğan is sitting on a pile of money that he is trying to hide, three quick takeaways come to mind.

First, one has to begin to question whether the prime minister is capable of thinking clearly. He certainly knew that his phones were tapped, as he expressly warns Bilal on the recording. Furthermore, in December 2012 it came out that Erdoğan’s home office, car, and parliamentary office were bugged, which had Gülenist fingerprints all over it. He knew that he was being listened to and he knew that the Gülenists had dirt on many of his closest allies, and yet he still allegedly called Bilal four times to discuss hiding money on the very day that the heat was the hottest. Leaving all of his other issues aside, is this someone who should be running a country? I have always assumed that the crazier statements that emanate from Erdoğan’s mouth are in the vein of him being crazy like a fox, and that he doesn’t actually believe that higher interest rates will lead to inflation or that there is such thing as an interest rate lobby or that social media is actually the worst menace to society that exists. But maybe he really does believe all of these things, in which case his judgment is fatally flawed and it explains why he would talk about hiding one billion dollars over an unsecured line when he had a very strong hunch that the people who were looking to bring him down were listening in.

Second, and this flows from the first, Erdoğan has reached the point where he is in such a cocoon that he assumes he can just do anything and say anything without real consequences. And really, why wouldn’t he? Throughout Gezi and the corruption scandal up until today, the AKP has not been in any real danger of losing a national election, and Erdoğan himself has been able to dictate what his next moves will be. He says all manner of outrageous things, micromanages municipal building projects, has Turks gassed and beaten in the streets, tries his best to sabotage his own economy by driving away foreign investment, and yet still has a large percentage of his supporters who are willing to believe every explanation and denial, no matter how ridiculous, and to go down with their captain as he sinks the Turkish ship of state. Maybe he isn’t losing his marbles, but just assumes based on recent history that he can do anything he wants and get away with it. He can siphon off a billion dollars and give it out to his family and friends, and talk about how to hide it when he knows his bitter rivals are recording him, and then not even deny that it is him talking on the recordings, and he may still not be dislodged from power. Maybe the joke is on us and not on him. Or maybe it’s not, and he is in such a state of epistemic closure and surrounded by sycophants that he has very badly misjudged the situation, which speaks volumes as well. I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but none of them are good.

Lastly, let’s drop the pretense that Turkey’s political system comes close to anything resembling a consolidated democracy, a mature democracy, or any other phrase the Turkish government wants to use. We are accustomed to seeing dictators steal from public coffers in order to line their own pockets along this order of magnitude, whether it be the Shah’s plane having difficulty taking off from Iran because it was so laden down with gold bars or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s various seaside palaces or Teodorin Obiang buying mansions, private jets, and yachts. When a prime minister is elected three times in a country that is trying to join the EU and is a NATO member and has been widely hailed as the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy, you do not expect to see that prime minister – a man who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul and has never held a job outside of working in politics and does not come from family money – amassing a billion dollars on the job. As much as this is an indictment of Erdoğan, it is a far bigger indictment of the Turkish system itself, since a functioning democracy with genuinely transparent institutions would never abide such over the top corruption. No democracy is perfect, and certainly the U.S. has plenty of its own issues, but one can never envision something like this taking place under everyone’s nose for over a decade. As bad as I have been saying that things are in Turkey, it’s even worse than I thought, which makes me extremely sad and disheartened for a country that I adore.

Graft, Gülen, and the Future of the AKP

December 17, 2013 § 10 Comments

For months now there has been open war between the AKP and its erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement. The feuding can be traced back to an overzealous Gülenist prosecutor’s attempt to interrogate Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and things have spiraled downward from there, with Gülenist media outlets such as Zaman now routinely slamming the prime minister and government officials making shadowy threats about the Gülen movement having to be put down. When the government announced a couple of months ago that it was going to shut down the largely Gülen-run prep schools called dershanes, things began to get really nasty, and despite Tayyip Erdoğan’s eventual partial walk back, in which he announced that nothing would be done about the dershanes until September 2015, this was an effort to strike directly at the Gülenists’ livelihood, which they could not simply ignore. The aftermath of the dershane fight saw all sorts of uncomfortable leaks about the government, including the revelation – that the government did not deny – that back in 2004, the Turkish National Security Council had issued a directive (signed by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül) that plans should be made to counter and block the Gülen movement. While deputy PM Bülen Arınç and others immediately claimed that the directive was only advisory and was never implemented, the damage was done and the fighting between the top layers of the AKP and the Gülenists was fated to keep on escalating.

That brings us to today, when Turkish police arrested nearly 50 people at Halkbank, including the sons of two cabinet ministers, over corruption allegations in the government tender process. Halkbank has long been reputed to be actively involved in evading U.S. sanction on Iran, and indeed is the bank that processes Turkish payments for Iranian oil and gas, so it is highly likely that this probe is not based on fictitious charges. Nevertheless, it does not escape notice that the Turkish police and judiciary are dominated by Gülenists, and that the Istanbul prosecutor’s office has now arrested a number of people who are prominently connected to the government. Given the timing involved, this does not seem like a mere coincidence. I’ll also note that this fight has been taking place on the margins for awhile (in June 2012 I speculated that a split was coming, and I think that my hunch about who had tapped the PM’s office was likely correct in light of recent events).

Parsing what exactly is going on here is difficult, but I’ll take a stab at it nonetheless. The first big mystery is why Erdoğan decided to take a conflict that had been going along at a barely perceptible simmer and turn it into a huge conflagration with his aborted move against the dershanes. My hunch is that after three national elections in which each subsequent margin of victory was larger than the previous one, Erdoğan decided it was time to flex his muscles and show the Gülenists – who are in many ways natural rivals given their own Islamic, conservative backgrounds and tendencies – who was boss. In doing so, Erdoğan made a mistaken political calculation to rival the mistake he made in his approach to Gezi. If you need proof of this, think about how the conversation a few months ago was about who Erdoğan was going to install as a puppet PM after he assumes the presidency, and now it’s about whether he will be able to control his own party. Because Erdoğan never admits wrongdoing and loathes backing down, this feud was destined to get worse, and my bet is that it will get even worse still. Erdoğan is not going to crawl into a corner and lick his wounds, and I’d bet my last Turkish lira that the fallout from this will get uglier yet. As of this writing, Erdoğan is putting together a board that will have the power to fire prosecutors, which is a direct shot across the bow at the Gülenists.

The second big mystery is what the Gülenists hope to get out of this. There are some who think that the electoral alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement is now over, but I’m not so quick to declare this marriage completely spent. I don’t see that the Gülenists have anywhere else to go; are socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth voters suddenly going to abandon the socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth party and vote for CHP? The same CHP that in public and in private denigrates religious voters, or that is so closely associated with the institution – the military – that is the Gülen movement’s biggest foe? I find it very difficult to see a situation in which that is a long term or even sustainable short term political solution for Gülen adherents. I think what is going on here is a struggle to take over the AKP rather than cast it aside now that the Gülenists are feeling personally threatened by past and present government decisions. Based on what I observe, the calculation seems to be to weaken the party ahead of municipal elections in March to the point where some important posts, such as the Istanbul mayoralty, are lost, and make the AKP higher ups realize that they risk losing a great deal if they so blithely cast the Gülenists aside. At the same time, the Gülenists seem to want to do whatever they can to destroy AKP officials or keep them under their thumb, which explains the rumors flying around now about AKP ministers on tape accepting 7 figure bribes and the Halkbank prosecutions. I don’t think the intention here is to break away from the AKP, but to more thoroughly control the AKP.

The great danger in all of this, of course, is that once things get too far out of hand, there is no going back. The Gülen movement may want to show how valuable/powerful they are in an effort to control the party, but the law of unintended consequences always rears its head and may end up blowing up the party instead. Similarly, Erdoğan may want to put the Gülen movement in what he views as its proper place while keeping them in the fold, and instead could prompt his own downfall. There is just no telling where all of this will lead, and neither party seems to want to back down or deescalate in any way. Both the AKP and the Cemaat may have a final aim in mind and think they know how to get there, but the environment right now is amazingly combustible and volatile. Each side is playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and anyone who claims to know precisely how this will end is much wiser than I. But stay tuned, because this is a battle of epic proportions whose chaos has the potential to overwhelm everything else taking place in Turkey.

Turkey’s “Democratization” Package

October 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Ten days ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP released the details of their long-promised and long-awaited democratization package, which had been hyped for months as a major initiative aimed at correcting imbalances righting wrongs in the Turkish political system. Since I am late to the game here, I am not going to do a deep dive into everything it entails – a summary can be found here - but most commentary, as typified by this column by Amanda Paul, has focused on the fact that the new proposals are good in some ways and fall short in others. In other words, a decent start but not far enough.

This is definitely one way to view the package. Another way is to think about it through the prism of how the AKP views democracy. In June 2012, Steven Cook and I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which we contended that the AKP was expanding Turkish democracy when you look at measures of participation – meaning the extent to which citizens are able to participate in democracy – but limiting Turkish democracy when you look at measures of contestation – meaning the ability to contest the government’s power. The democratization package appears to break down along this dichotomy, which is unsurprising. Much of the package makes life a little easier for Kurds by allowing Kurdish-language education in public schools; allowing the use of the letters q, w, and x, which are found in Kurdish but not in Turkish; allowing Kurdish and other languages to be used in election campaigns; restoring former Kurdish names of majority-Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. These measures allow Kurds to participate in Turkey’s political and civic life to a larger extent. Other measures that affect the general population do the same, such as allowing government employees to wear headscarves ( which is unabashedly a good thing, no matter how many scary columns you read about the “Islamization of Turkey”).

When it comes to contestation though, there is nothing to cheer about. The proposal to lower Turkey’s electoral threshold to enter the Grand National Assembly from 10% to 5% is not actually being proposed as a law, but is being proposed simply as a topic for debate. Furthermore, the proposal to create single-member districts (rather than keep a system of proportional representation) or to keep a system of partial representation and create districts of 5 or so members would almost certainly benefit the AKP and maintain or increase its percentage of parliamentary seats. In addition, hoped-for proposals on reforming the anti-terror law – which is increasingly used as a cudgel against journalists and government critics – were absent. If it wasn’t clear to everyone that the AKP cannot stand to be challenged in any way even after this summer’s events, it should certainly be clear now. When this government talks about expanding democracy, it only means it in a very narrow sense (and even then, it apparently doesn’t mean it if you happen to be Alevi rather than Sunni).

There is still another way to view this democratization package, which is that it actually intends to do the precise opposite of what it claims. There is a proposal to establish a hate crimes law that would impose three year prison sentences on anyone who commits a crime based on someone’s or some group’s language, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, gender, disability condition, political views, philosophical beliefs, religion, or sect. In theory this sounds like an effort to protect minorities, but given the Turkish government’s track record of prosecuting students who protest against Erdoğan or pianists who insult Islam, I would bet nearly anything that the hate crimes law will be used to go after AKP opponents and critics. Nearly any speech can be criminalized and punished at the government’s behest under this legislation, and Erdoğan has unfortunately demonstrated that he has no qualms about cracking down on things he simply doesn’t like or finds offensive. There is a good chance that the most far-reaching and significant part of this “democratization” package will be an element that does not enhance Turkish democracy but instead greatly weakens it. So yes, there are ways in which the government’s efforts to improve Turkish democracy may be a good start, but there are also ways in which “this doesn’t go far enough” is not quite the criticism that should be leveled. It’s not the absence of certain elements in this proposal that worries me so much as the inclusion of others.

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