June 27, 2013 § 8 Comments
A little over a year ago, the Likud party was going through a tug of war between the old Likud princes – Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and their ilk – and a younger and more hardline group consisting of people like Danny Danon, Moshe Feiglin, Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, and Miri Regev. At the time, the latter group were upstarts who were farther down on the party list – or in the case of Feiglin, not even an MKs – while the Likud princes were cabinet ministers. It was clear that the genuine fervor within the party lay with the hardliners but they did not yet control things, and so the party was exhibiting all kinds of strains while still holding together. The hardline group did not trust or even like Bibi Netanyahu at all, but he was the prime minister and his allies were in the top ranks of the party and so there was little they could do about it.
The came the Likud convention in May 2012, where Netanyahu was booed and subjected to rampant criticism, and unable to even secure the ceremonial post of convention chairman, which was deeply embarrassing. Next was the Likud primary in November, in which Danon came in 6th – ensuring that he would end up not only high in the Likud but as a deputy minister in the next government – and Feiglin made it into the Knesset, and Netanyahu allies Meridor and Begin lost their MK status entirely. Completing the trifecta, Danon won the chairmanship of the Likud convention this week with 85% of the vote after Netanyahu didn’t even try to challenge him for fear of being humiliated, and much more importantly is about to win the vote for chair of the Likud Central Committee, which is a powerful and consequential post. He has already stated his intentions to block Netanyahu’s plans to make the unity deal with Yisrael Beiteinu permanent and to subject any peace agreement to a Likud vote, which will never approve any deal with the Palestinians. Overall, things are looking bleaker for Netanyahu within Likud than they ever have before. He is presiding over an unruly caucus where his deputy ministers repeatedly undermine him, his old allies are gone from the scene, his party members do not respect him, and he is busy making plans to resume negotiations with the Palestinians while his own party warns him that it will not acquiesce to a deal under any circumstances.
Mati Tuchfeld today argues that the picture is not actually quite so bleak and that Netanyahu can retake Likud if he desires. His argument boils down to this:
Likud members venerate their prime ministers. Since Israel was established, there have been only four Likud prime ministers. If Netanyahu decides to return to the field, it’s safe to assume that everyone will again fall at his feet. If Netanyahu makes an effort, however small, to show that he wants another term as prime minister, the rebellious voices within Likud will likely die down at once. Unlike Livni, who fought tooth and nail to survive as Kadima leader and lost, or Barak, who was forced to leave Labor, all Netanyahu needs to do is make a decision — return to the field or retire. It’s likely that he’ll ultimately prefer the first option.
I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it. In fact, from their perspective, the sooner he is gone the better. Netanyahu has not made any attempts to court them, as opposed to other senior Likud members like Bogie Ya’alon, and while there is evidence that he is just now waking up to the problem he has within the grassroots of his party, it’s likely too little, too late. There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.
So what are Netanyahu’s options? He appears to have three. First, he can finish him term as prime minister and retire. That is exceedingly unlikely, as by many accounts Netanyahu is more obsessed with being PM than he is with actually doing anything as PM, and even were that not the case, he has never given any indication that he is ready to be done. Second, he can start to fight a little to regain control of Likud and ultimately hope, as Shmuel Sandler argues in the last paragraph of this Jerusalem Post piece, that Likud members believe that they are incapable of winning an election without Netanyahu at the helm and so his position will always be safe. This is more plausible than the first option, but it’s a gamble since Netanyahu is currently caving to the enormous pressure being placed on him on settlements and the peace process, and any real initiatives on that front are going to bring a serious Likud backlash and a threat from Habayit Hayehudi to exit the coalition (which is why I argued back in January that the current government was doomed to fail). If Netanyahu assumes that his position in Likud will be safe after resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, irrespective of the outcome, I think he is fated to be surprised the next time around when Ya’alon or Gideon Sa’ar emerges to try and take his place.
That leaves option three, which is pulling an Arik Sharon and breaking away from Likud to form a new party. Netanyahu is historically risk-averse and is not operating from a position of strength at the moment, and unlike Ben Gurion breaking Mapai to ultimately form Labor, he is not immensely popular, nor does he have a single coalescing issue like Sharon. He also has a number of people, like Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, waiting in the wings to take him down. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is bleeding support within his own party every hour, and that is before he has even taken any real steps on the Israeli-Palestinian front. If he is actually serious about doing something and making sure that this is not his last term as prime minister, the only way around that is to form a new party. Formulating it around the idea of keeping all of the large blocs plus a multi-decade IDF presence in the Jordan Valley and selling it as a necessary security measure in the wake of Arab Spring upheaval in Egypt and Syria would attract enough support to make it a viable party, and would let Netanyahu shed the Likud thorns in his side. I wouldn’t bet on him actually going ahead and doing it, but it would be the smart move at this juncture. If he doesn’t, I am not nearly as sanguine as Tuchfeld on his future within his current political home.
June 18, 2013 § 6 Comments
When the AKP came to power in 2002, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party set out on an ambitious mission to remake Turkey’s economy and politics, turn Turkey into a regional power, and step up efforts to join the EU. It was a huge undertaking that was successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. In recent days, however, the prime minister has embarked on an even greater challenge, since this time he is not content to simply remake Turkey. Instead, Erdoğan has decided to tackle a more global problem, which is redefining words whose definition seems clear in every language but which the prime minister has decided do not adequately reflect realities as he sees them.
Let’s start with the word “terrorist” which is often contested in terms of details but generally means a person who uses violence as a way of causing mass fear and intimidation. It seems relatively simple to distinguish terrorists from people who are not terrorists. For instance, Osama bin Laden is a terrorist for a number of reasons, including bringing down the World Trade Center. The folks who hang out in Franklin Square during my lunch hour are not terrorists since all they are doing is standing around. Erdoğan has apparently decided that the common definition is not good enough because it is too limiting. For him, the word terrorist must encompass all sorts of actions, such as protesting against the government, running away from police who are teargassing you, criticizing the prime minister or the cabinet or the police on Twitter, heading an opposition party, and almost certainly soon to include people who, like the folks in Franklin Square during my lunch hour, just stand around not doing much of anything at all. The new ingenious wave of protests sweeping Turkey encompasses nothing more than standing still, which began with a single man named Erdem Gündüz who spent hours standing silently in Taksim Square and has sparked hundreds of people doing the same (here are some awe-inspiring pictures of the phenomenon, and to see more go to Twitter and search #duranadam). The government claims that it will not intervene in the Duran Adam (Standing Man) protests unless there is a menace to public order, but I have little doubt that in a few days, as this spreads to more cities and grows to even greater heights, that Erdoğan will figure out a way to broaden the definition of “breaking public order” and we will all be enlightened as to how Gündüz is actually a foreign agent acting on the orders of the interest rate lobby, financial lobby, international media, social media, Communists, leftwing terrorists and anarchists, Zionists, foreign provocateurs, and how anyone who emulates him must be a foreign agent as well. And in case you are wondering, yes, he was in fact briefly detained by police for standing, a fate that also met Davide Martello’s piano after he played it for the crowds in Taksim over the weekend. It’s good to know that the piano spent a couple of days in jail, as you can never be too careful when it comes to terrorist musical instruments.
Another term that Erdoğan is having issues with is “democracy.” Just yesterday, we found out from the prime minister that the European Union has no respect for democracy despite it encompassing the largest federation of democratic states in the history of the world. By criticizing Turkey, Erdoğan says that the EU is anti-democratic, which is funny because I was under the impression that democracy had something to do with free and fair contested elections for effective power along with granting and protecting a set of liberties, but apparently democracy is henceforth to be defined as agreeing with the current Turkish government. In fact, while one might argue that the right to criticize, as the EU has done with regard to the Turkish government’s response to the protests, is actually in itself a hallmark of democratic behavior, the prime minister wants to set us straight by letting us know that in fact criticizing the Turkish government is the very definition of anti-democratic behavior. Erdoğan chided the EU for supporting those who attack the freedom of others, since he insists that the Gezi protestors are restricting his own freedom rather than the other way around. Again, I was under the impression that the entity that detains, arrests, beats, teargasses, and chemically burns civilians was the party restricting freedoms, but once again I must be mistaken. Thankfully, Erdoğan has most helpfully educated all of us by instructing the world that it is not the ones who do the detaining, arresting, beating, teargassing, and chemically burning who restrict freedom, but in reality it is the ones who are themselves detained, arrested, beaten, teargassed, and chemically burned who are restricting freedom. As always, good to know. In addition, the prime minister would like us all to be aware that the Turkish police have an “inherent right” to use as much teargas as they please, so I’m happy to see that at least one group’s rights are being zealously protected by the state. And in case you were wondering, Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bağış assures that there is absolutely no state violence in Turkey and that this is all a foreign plot. Phew! I was starting to think that maybe Turkey was having some issues with democracy.
I could go on like this for literally hours, but you get the point. When a government has to resort to the most tortured explanations, absurd rhetorical flights of fancy, and outright dishonesty and dissembling to try and convince the entire world that what it is seeing in the streets is not actually happening, then there is something rotten afoot. I still can’t tell if Erdoğan has completely lost his mind or if this is a deliberate strategy, but no matter what the answer is, the Turkish government is looking more foolish and unhinged by the hour. The government has announced that it is writing new laws to regulate the use of social media in Turkey, and as Yigal Schleifer pointed out earlier today, the irony is thick when a prime minister who was imprisoned for reciting a poem tries to imprison people for exercising their rights to free speech on Twitter and Facebook. As the government moves to arrest people without charges and hold them indefinitely while throwing around vague accusations of terrorism, coup plots, and links to leftwing anarchist groups, it is eerily reminiscent of the prosecutions of the military, which also involved allegations of shadowy conspiracies and detentions without charges. We know how that game ended, and it appears as if the government is once again pulling out the Ergenekon playbook. All the meanwhile, Erdoğan attempts to convince everyone that up is down, black is white, and freedom and democracy mean getting mauled by police for protesting. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. All that’s left is for Erdoğan to announce that the protestors will be dealt with by the Ministry of Love. If you can’t convince your citizens that basic terms mean something other than what everyone always thought they meant, then what’s the point of being prime minister anyway?
June 12, 2013 § 6 Comments
The AKP was elected in 2002, and in the decade that it has been in power under the direction of Prime Minister Erdoğan, it has risen to enormous heights. The AKP has received credit for the Turkish economy taking off, Turkey has been viewed by many (whether appropriately or not, and I am on record as voting for not) as a model for Arab countries, and Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu have been frequently and repeatedly lauded as brilliant and innovative thinkers. Whether any of this was correct or accurate at the time is beside the point; what mattered was the perception that Turkey under Erdoğan and his acolytes was, as Foreign Policy put it in 2011, “a regional powerhouse” with “a level of influence in the Middle East it hasn’t had since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” Particularly when it came to the Arab Spring, Turkey was seen as the clear regional winner, having avoided any upheaval while touting its version of electoral democracy and pushing an image of itself as an indispensable bridge between Europe and the Middle East and the lynchpin of stability in the region. All the while, Turkey attracted billions of dollars in foreign capital and talked of making Istanbul a global financial center on par with New York and London, opened embassies and consulates all over Africa, massively increased trade with Arab countries, and became America’s go-to regional partner. All of this took a decade, and in the span of just ten days Erdoğan has destroyed an image that took ten years to painstakingly build.
Last month the Center for Strategic Research, which is a think tank affiliated with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, published what it called a conceptual map of Turkish foreign policy under the AKP. It is a 35 page attempt to define what it sees as important foreign policy concepts and terms used by the AKP, and it is simply stunning in its complete lack of self-awareness. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would swear that it was not a real report but rather a parody. To take one of my favorite entries, “rhythmic diplomacy” is defined thusly: “Although it has not found an exact conceptual equivalence in international relations theory, rhythmic diplomacy is a specific style of foreign policy practiced in Turkey. It is a tactical activity that envisages simultaneously and harmoniously using diplomacy in different fields.” In case you are still confused, there is a quote from Davutoğlu purporting to explain it. “What is meant by rhythm is the co-existence of mobility and harmony. If there is mobility but not harmony it might lead to chaos. Unnecessary leaps might bring along unnecessary risks. However, if you have rhythm but no mobility than you will not make any progress. There needs to be mobility as well. Yet, if you desire for the perfect harmony and wait for it there will be no mobility.” Confused? You should be, although this combination of arrogant assertiveness and meaningless pablum is what Davutoğlu has ridden to widespread international acclaim and a reputation for unparalleled brilliance.
Other gems include lines like, “Being an order-building actor has been said to be one of the methodological macro-level objectives of foreign policy in the AK Party era.” Or asserting that Turkey has successfully pursued a win-win strategy when it comes to Cyprus. Or describing Turkey as a “wise country” which “is listened to on global matters, who predicts incidents in advance, takes precautions against these, and produces solutions for them.” Or the fact that despite the sheer volume of self-serving nonsense contained in its pages, the very first term defined in the paper is self-perception. A couple of weeks ago, some good friends – who are all veteran Turkey analysts – and I got a good chuckle out of mocking the report, but just stop for a moment and reflect upon how even more insane this stuff sounds in light of what is going on in Taksim, John F. Kennedy Avenue in Ankara, and other places around Turkey where the police are wreaking havoc on protestors and civilians of all stripes. Once Christiane Amanpour and Richard Engel are reporting live from Istanbul in gas masks while the world watches the Turkish police storm Taksim Square on the orders of the government – and after promising not to touch any of the protestors in Gezi Park, no less – your claim to be some sort of exceptionally wise country and model state is pretty much destroyed.
Perception matters a great deal in world politics, but in Turkey’s case perception has been even more important, as it fueled Turkey as a figurative growth stock all the while masking some very serious problems. As should now be clear to everyone, Turkish democracy is not nearly as robust as the government wanted the world to believe. Turkey under Erdoğan has had a real problem with creeping authoritarianism that is looking a lot less creeping every day. And yes, the problem is authoritarianism and not Islamism. This has been a recurring theme for me, as lots of people have a hair trigger when it comes to any action on the part of the AKP that has a whiff of Islamist rationale behind it while glossing over the much larger issue, which is garden variety autocratic and illiberal behavior.
On a related note, Michael Rubin somehow accused Aaron Stein and me of “dismiss[ing] the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness” because we interpret Erdoğan’s alcohol bill as more a problem of authoritarian instincts than a problem of Islamism, and says that since the protests have started – which Rubin implies are being driven primarily by the alcohol bill – “there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.” First, if Rubin genuinely believes that the protestors in the streets are primarily motivated by an alleged Islamist turn by Erdoğan and the AKP, then I have serious doubts about whether he has actually spoken with anyone in Turkey over the last two weeks. The alcohol bill is certainly a factor in these protests, but it is one factor of many, and anger over a majoritarian theory of governing, mistreatment of minorities, crony capitalism, rampant over-development in Istanbul, and most importantly police cracking heads in the service of clearing environmental protestors out of Gezi Park have absolutely nothing to do with backlash against Islamism. I’d urge Rubin to read today’s post from Zeynep Tufekci, who has spent days interviewing Gezi protestors and has catalogued their complaints, which have nothing to do with religion or Islamism. Second, if Rubin thinks I have dismissed Turkish repression, it is glaringly obvious that he has never read a thing I have written. He might want to try this or this or this, or perhaps he might want to check out “subsequent introspection” such as this widely read piece. *Deep breath* And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Turkish economic growth has been driven by foreign borrowing and increasing reliance on energy imports from Russia and Iran, which have led to an over-leveraged economy and a structural current account deficit, neither of which have any prospect of abating in the near future. There is a civil war taking place right across Turkey’s southern border, and not only is it not going to end any time soon, the Turkish military is in such a sorry state as to be unable to respond to the downing of its aircraft or to stop the Syrian military from shooting across to the Turkish side. These are all problems that have existed in one form or another for some time, but now that Erdoğan has decided to go postal on his own citizens, it is going to be a lot more difficult for Turkey to paper them over.
Turkey is about to see its foreign financing disappear as the perception of Turkey as an island of stability goes up in a cloud of tear gas smoke. The enormous building projects designed to attract the 2020 Olympics are now going to be used solely by Istanbul residents, since not only will Turkey not get the Olympics but regular tourists are going to stay away in droves. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can also forget about hosting various foreign conferences, as Western countries are going to elect to forego the optics of meeting in a country where protestors are being dubbed as marginal terrorists. The next time that Davutoğlu insists that Turkey isn’t a model for anyone while actually implying that Turkey is indeed a regional exemplar for Arab states to emulate, who is going to take him seriously? The next time Erdoğan crows about how the European economy needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe, who isn’t going to dismiss him out of hand? What Turkish diplomats are going to have the gall to seriously talk about Turkish democracy as a genuine success story? All of those issues that Turkey was able to largely keep under wraps by painting a portrait of a country on the rise, a country with a vibrant economy and a vibrant democracy and a vibrant diplomacy, are now about to be exposed to the world.
I wrote last week that Erdoğan isn’t going anywhere and that these protests are not going to dislodge him, and I am confident that is still the case. When this is all over, Turkey is still going to be stuck with its prime minister, for better or worse. But that does not mean that what is taking place is inconsequential; indeed, the long run consequences of the last few days are potentially devastating. Erdoğan has taken the conscious decision to pursue a strategy of solidifying his base and pitting it against everyone else in an us-versus-them rhetorical battle. He has dismissed the people in the streets as marginals, hoodlums, foreign agents, international provocateurs, parasitic financiers, and any other derogatory term that he can come up with. He is quite clearly trying to mobilize his supporters by acting as if his opponents are attempting to carry out a civilian coup, and by repeatedly refusing to stand down and instead upping the ante with tear gas, truncheons, water cannons, and endless tone deaf insults, he is beginning to tear the country apart. There are numerous cleavages in Turkish society that run along fault lines of religious-secular, rural-urban, conservative-liberal, rich-poor, and Sunni-Alevi-Kurdish, to name just a few. Some of these have been more under wraps than others, but this brings them all to the surface in a way that will be difficult to undo. After the government’s over the top and appalling response to the protests, the AKP won’t be able to command half of the votes anymore come the next election, and neither will it be able to run on the economy after what I think is about to happen. What this means is more of an appeal to people’s base instincts, more nationalist rhetoric, more pitting one group against another. I think we are in for a return to a distinct past flavor of Turkish politics, and not one that has ever ended well. Turkey’s house of cards has fallen down, and everyone can now see what Erdoğan has been holding.
June 7, 2013 § 8 Comments
Prime Minister Erdoğan returned home yesterday from his trip to North Africa and immediately erased any hope that might have existed that he has been chastened by the protests rocking Turkey. He was met at the airport by a few hundred (or a few thousand, depending on who is doing the counting) supporters whom the AKP had bussed in to greet his plane (along with others who got there via metro and tram lines that were mysteriously kept open after hours), and the PM was not in a particularly conciliatory mood. In a fiery speech, he called for the protests to end immediately, blamed shadowy foreign interests and international bankers for stirring up trouble, and said that the stock market dip was caused by speculators and the “interest rate lobby” while his supporters chanted that they were going to “crush” Taksim Square. This stands in stark contrast to President Gül, who continues to send signals indicating his displeasure with the government’s response to the Gezi protests. It seems that Erdoğan, however, is beginning a campaign to mobilize his supporters to start showing up in the streets, and has no intention of backing down, admitting real errors were made, or apologizing for the police response to the protests. He is rather gearing up for a showdown and counting on the fact that the AKP still has enormous support, so much so that it would almost certainly be reelected for a fourth term were elections held today.
None of this should be surprising. Erdoğan is supremely confident, not prone to self-reflection or course correction, and has surrounded himself with a coterie of yes men who either cannot or will not stand up to him. He never admits mistakes and seems to be genuinely offended and incensed that protestors are committing what he views as illegitimate criticism and illegal acts against the government, and there is nothing in his nature or his track record to suggest that he is suddenly going to become more diplomatic and less Manichean in his outlook. To Erdoğan, the government is unqualifiedly in the right and the protestors are unqualifiedly in the wrong, and the fact that he has begun resorting to nationalist rhetoric about foreign powers and speculative bankers and keeping up his lines about terrorists in the streets show that he is purposely appealing to polarizing cleavages in order to strengthen his base of support and that he is also continuing to misread what is actually driving the protests. Expecting him to back down given this mindset is bound to lead to extremely frustrated expectations. Erdoğan is convinced of his cause, and almost nothing is going to change his mind.
On the other side though, there are some serious structural economic conditions that are soon going to make Erdoğan’s stance more difficult to maintain. Erdoğan’s bombast has been very bad, to say the least, for the Turkish economy. During his press conference in Tunisia yesterday, the Turkish stock market dropped 4.5% and bond yields rose 60 basis points literally while Erdoğan was speaking – which this graphic does a better job of illustrating visually than any numbers will do – and overall Turkey’s benchmark index is down 15% since the end of May. Bond yields are now at 8%, and by some estimates $1 billion in capital outflows left the country in the last week. This is not at crisis level yet, but the government is playing a dangerous game given how heavily it relies on foreign capital. The Turkish economy relies on outside short-term loans comprising 25% of GDP and the Turkish economic miracle has been driven by hot money. In addition, Turkey’s current account deficit is driven by energy imports, which is not bound to change anytime soon, and the only good way of even making a dent in the deficit is by increasing exports, which will be far more difficult if the unrest continues as it contributes to a credit crunch and the drying up of foreign financing. The only reasons the current account deficit has not been a bigger problem is because of Turkey’s sustained economic growth, which had already slowed down in 2012 and 2013, and certainly what is taking place right now is not going to help matters. If foreign investors become too spooked, Turkey will potentially face a fiscal crisis that will erase many of the economic gains made under the AKP.
This is important for deeper political reasons as well. Despite all the talk of the AKP as an Islamist party that appeals to a socially conservative populace, it is important to remember that the AKP ran in 2002 on an economic platform of which the primary plank was joining the EU. Many of those socially conservative Anatolian voters cast reelection votes for the AKP in 2007 and 2011 because the Turkish economy has taken off under this government, and while the values aspect of the AKP is appealing to them, it is the economic growth and improved living standards that are most important. The reason for the AKP’s unprecedented vote totals – and remember that the AKP has gained an additional 15% of the vote from 2002 to 2011 – is because more people are more well off, and those social conservatives have been joined by a fair share of more liberal and more secular voters who vote for the AKP on economics alone. Erdoğan is counting on the 50% of the country who, as he repeatedly reminds everyone, voted for him less than two years ago to keep on supporting him as he takes a hardline against the people in the streets, but if he thinks that all of these voters are solidly in the AKP camp come economic hell or high water, he is in for a shock. Nationalist rhetoric will only take him so far in this situation, and as Erdoğan raises the stakes of confrontation while the economy begins to teeter, he is creating a potentially explosive situation.
It is tough to see which side is going to give here. Erdoğan does not want to back down, but my instincts tell me that as he is reminded of just how much his popularity depends on the economy and as he faces the prospect of losing the bid for the 2020 Turkish Olympics, he will try to come up with some sort of solution to end the chaos in the streets without having to go so far as to issue a formal full-blown apology. The fact that there is no opposition party poised to take advantage of the situation makes backing down slightly easier for him to do, and even Erdoğan understands just how crucial it is for his and his party’s longterm political future to make sure the Turkish economy keeps humming along. Only the prospect of serious economic damage will get him to back down, since giving in to the protestors in any way is completely anathema to his general philosophy and outlook. How long it will take for him to get to this point is way beyond my prognostication skills, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get there at one point or another.
June 5, 2013 § 15 Comments
Events in Turkey are still taking their course and so it is obviously premature to write any type of postscript, but I thought it might be useful to try and look ahead and game out some of the longer term consequences of the protests. First though, it is important to dispense with two quick points that I have seen floating around in various places. First, the Turkish government unquestionably displays some authoritarian tendencies and even more unquestionably has a distinct illiberal and majoritarian bent, and the excessive use of teargas on peaceful protestors is nothing short of shameful. Turkey is not, however, a fascist state and neither is it a dictatorship, and throwing those charges around in a vociferous manner won’t make them any less inaccurate. Second, Prime Minister Erdoğan is not going to resign, no matter what some stunningly ignorant folks might speculate. The AKP was elected with 50% of the vote in the last election, which was more than double than the share received by the second place CHP, and Erdoğan does not have any serious challengers in the party who would even think about trying to depose him. When these protests die down, Erdoğan will still be the prime minister, albeit a weakened one and maybe – but not likely – a chastened one, and the AKP will still be Turkey’s governing party. And furthermore, if I had to wager today, I’d bet with a large degree of confidence that the AKP will be Turkey’s governing party after the next election as well.
So how does this thing end? As Claire Sadar noted among other points in an excellent post, the comparisons to the Arab Spring are particularly inapt for a few reasons. The first and most obvious one is that, as I pointed out above, Turkey has free and fair democratic elections by even the strictest standard, and Erdoğan is not an unelected autocrat. The thousands of protestors in the street are shouting for Erdoğan to resign because they are unhappy and it is a convenient slogan to use, but I highly doubt that many of them – and this is certainly the case with my own friends currently manning the barricades in Istanbul and Izmir – have any reasonable expectation that this will happen. Everyone knows that Erdoğan will leave government the same way by which he entered, which is through elections, and because this is his last term as prime minister anyway, the protests are not going to change the timeline of his departure.
Another way in which this differs from the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia in particular is that the military is highly unlikely to get involved. The Turkish armed forces have been brought to heel, first by the democratic reforms that placed the military under true civilian control for the first time in Turkey’s history, and then by the far less democratic witch hunt that jailed over 20% of Turkey’s active and retired officers for alleged coup plots against the government. Civil-military relations in Turkey have been transformed in a way that cannot be overstated, and while I would never go so far as to say that a military coup is absolutely impossible given Turkey’s history, the chances of one happening are infinitesimal.
Finally, the situation in Egypt was marked by scenes of non-uniformed government thugs attacking protestors, armed clashes between supporters of the government and opponents of the government, and a general violent breakdown along sectarian and ideological lines pitting civilians against other civilians. Despite the abhorrent police behavior – and reports indicate that police brutality seems to be slowing down as well – so far we have not seen bands of AKP supporters attacking protestors, and this is a good thing on many levels. When something along those lines occurs, it creates the likelihood of the situation spiraling out of control in unpredictable ways, and hopefully the fact that it has not happened yet means that Turkey is going to avoid large scale violent unrest.
What the situation in Turkey does remind me of in some ways is the J14 social protests in Israel in the summer of 2011, during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis were in the streets protesting over the high cost of living for everything from housing to cottage cheese. Many predicted that this was going to mean the downfall of the government and a radical sea change in Israeli politics, but what actually happened was that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud government were reelected less than two years later. The primary reasons for this were that Netanyahu and Likud still remained popular with a large segment of the population, and perhaps more importantly there was no strong opposition party able to take advantage of the situation and unseat Netanyahu. Labor, which was the main party on the left, was fractured and disorganized, and Kadima’s constituency was not one that had social justice concerns as its main priority as Kadima had never embraced such a platform in any way. Similarly, it’s important to remember that the AKP has enormous support in Turkey, and this might diminish that support but it will not undo it. The economy is strong, many Turks have conservative values that the AKP embodies, and if you are not an educated urbanite or a persecuted minority (such as a Kurd or an Alevi), you are still relatively happy with the job the government is doing. Even more crucially, Turkey has no viable opposition at all. The CHP is little more than a joke, completely feckless and politically tone deaf and with no vision at all other than opposing anything the AKP does out of spite. There seems to be a constituency of Turks who crave a more liberal party that will be a bit more humble and protect the rights of all Turks while keeping in mind that differences of opinion do exist. There is no party currently in existence that can fill that role though, as the CHP is Turkish political equivalent of the Washington Generals and the BDP is too narrowly focused as a party representing Kurdish interests to attract true widespread support. The upshot of this is that when the next elections roll around, I expect the AKP to win again handily, albeit with a smaller total vote share than it received in 2011.
That does not mean that the path of Turkish politics will not be altered. The new presidential system that Erdoğan has been trying to push through is now, in my opinion, dead and buried. Nobody, and that includes people within the AKP, is going to be supporting a system in which Erdoğan gets to be a powerful president, particularly after he has complained that the American presidency is inadequate for his needs because the U.S. president has insufficient power due to having to deal with Congressional checks. This means that President Gül may continue as president without a hitch, but I think what this actually brings about is Gül as the next Turkish prime minister. Gül likely has no desire at all to serve as PM under a President Erdoğan who actually holds the real political power in Turkey, but serving as prime minister in the current system is an attractive proposition. In the last few days Gül has been distancing himself from Erdoğan, first disagreeing with Erdoğan’s contention that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases, and then implying that he might not approve Erdoğan’s new law restricting the sale of alcohol. These are moves designed to shore up his support within the party and to appeal to AKP members for whom Erdoğan’s scorched earth approach is wearing thin.
The irony in all of this is that the likelihood of the party splitting apart is now lessened than it was even a week ago. When Erdoğan stood the chance of becoming the president in a new presidential system, which would have meant unseating Gül in 2014, it would have led to a clash between the two men and the distinct possibility that the AKP would divide into two camps. If the system remain as it is, however, Gül can become a prime minister who actually has real political power, and so despite what appears to be growing enmity between the two longtime friends and political partners, I think the AKP actually stands a better chance now of remaining united, even as it is will be weaker following the damage that Erdoğan has wrought over the past week.
June 3, 2013 § 2 Comments
As anyone who has been casually following the news knows by now, Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities across Turkey are awash in protests, with calls for Prime Minister Erdoğan to resign and scenes of Turkish police using massive amounts of tear gas against protestors throwing up barricades in the streets. The protests began with a few hundred people rallying in an Occupy-type scene in an effort to save Gezi Park, a small green space bordering the northern side of Taksim Square in Istanbul. The government has announced plans to replace the park with a replica of the Ottoman-era barracks that used to exist on the site, replete with a shopping mall and museum. While I have always found Gezi Park to be relatively drab and unimpressive, there are many Istanbullus who see it as a small haven in the middle of a sprawling city, and when the government began to uproot trees in the park last week and then responded to protestors with violence, Istanbul exploded. For some good summaries of what has gone on, read Hugh Pope, Claire Sadar, and Agent L. To see what Istanbul looks like in the aftermath of an unprecedented outburst against the government, check out the array of pictures here.
So how did some angst over the cutting down of some trees turn into such a huge eruption of protest? Brent Sasley has correctly pointed out that there are long term processes at work and that any government in power for a decade is bound to cause frustration. This is particularly true when the government in question has been acting less and less democratic with each passing year. Last June, Steven Cook and I argued in Foreign Affairs that the AKP had been increasing opportunities for Turks to participate in political and civic life while making it far more difficult for anyone to contest the government’s power. In the time since we wrote that piece, however, Erdoğan and the government have actually reversed course on the participation front in a number of ways and become far less responsive to many social concerns on the theory that being elected with such huge vote margins entitle the government to do anything it pleases, no matter how vociferous the opposition or how many Turks feel disenfranchised in the process. The heavy-handedness of Turkish majoritarian democracy has led to frustration under the surface, which is now boiling over thanks to the Gezi spark. All of this leads to the question of how democratic Turkey actually is, and whether the Obama administration has been wise to rely so heavily on Turkey to help forge a new and more democratic Middle East. Steven and I tackled this topic yesterday in Foreign Policy, and argue that Turkish democracy is not nearly as strong as is widely perceived in Washington. Here is a teaser, and for the rest please click over to Foreign Policy:
It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square — is driving the unrest.
The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.
The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul’s Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that “excellent model” or “model partner,” is also, as many put it, “more democratic than it was a decade ago.” There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.
For the rest, see here.