April 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
With the Turkish parliamentary election a little more than six weeks away – and being cognizant of the fact that I’ve been ignoring the Ottomans side of the blog in recent months – today’s guest post comes to you from Selim Koru, who is a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in Ankara. He focuses on Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and his post delves into some of the policy changes the CHP has made in an effort to be more electorally competitive and cut into the AKP’s vote share in June. You can follow him on Twitter @SelimKoru
It is tempting to write the CHP campaign’s obituary before the June 7 elections. Turkey’s main opposition party has racked up one spectacular loss after another in the past two decades. It has been clinging to a bankrupt ideology, was consumed by internal squabbling, and blinded by a stubborn sense of entitlement that comes from being Turkey’s founding party. It survived on its core of ideological supporters, who are concentrated in big cities and the Western coast. In the absence of a viable opposition, the AK Party dominated the scene.
It appears however, that the CHP is now squinting into the light of electoral politics. Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu introduced his platform last weekend, and to the country’s surprise, his more than 70-minute speech was not focused on the threat of creeping Islamization, or corruption under AK Party rule. He talked mostly about economic policy. His party seems to have come up with an overall economic plan, then dissected its electorate into groups and targeted each one in offering some reasons to vote for the party. Retired people get holiday bonuses, young people get their credit card interests lowered, farmers get lower fuel prices, newlyweds get lower housing prices and family insurance (delivered to women’s bank accounts) and so on. In other words, planners and strategists at the CHP seem to have done something resembling their actual jobs. They have tried to go beyond their core of 20-25 percent of the electorate, and to convince the middle to vote for them. And they haven’t done that through ideological tricks, like posing for photos with headscarved women, but with actual policy proposals.
Of course this brings problems with it. The Minister of Finance joked the next day that if the CHP showed him how they were going to pay for their promises without exploding the budget, he would vote for them. His point was well received. Turkish politics has a history of big promises, and people haven’t forgotten. In 1991, Tansu Ciller promised every farmer a tractor; the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was going to abolish interest rates across the board; Süleyman Demirel said everyone would have “three keys” – to a home, a car, and a workplace – and once, that he would give “five liras more than whatever anyone else is giving.” That is why Kılıçdaroğlu’s election promises summoned the specter of the 1990s, a time of dysfunctional coalitions governments and debts to the IMF, remembered today as imperialist overlords. The AK Party press of course, has lost no time to accuse Kılıçdaroğlu of “exhuming old Turkey.”
That means that Kılıçdaroğlu treads a narrow path. He needs to grab people’s attention with ambitious promises, but remain credible. So far, things have been a little shaky. CHP spokesmen have said that the money for their election promises was there, but that the AK Party’s corruption kept it off the books. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has tried to reassure people by reminding them of his past as a star bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance, where he managed the social security budget. He has been uncharacteristically confident on fiscal matters, recently responding to the Finance Minister’s comments by saying that “he doesn’t know how taxes are collected, I do.” He will have to stay on the offensive in the run-up to June 7.
The party leader is getting help from an eclectic team. He has chosen an unusual number of new parliamentary candidates, which should enliven the party’s base. The CHP leadership has also been fed polls and ideas by the Benenson Strategy Group, an American firm that has worked for Obama and is said to be working with the 2016 Clinton campaign. The real firepower however, comes from Ali Taran, whose advertising firm is known for its role in the rise of the “Genç Party” (Youth Party), which was founded right before its first and last elections in 2002. The party is infamous for having raised its vote from zero to 7.25 by making promises like free textbooks, or fixing the price of diesel gas to one lira. The CHP should not abandon responsibility, but it could well benefit from that kind of skill to liven up its base.
In the end, however, the CHP will have to pick off disillusioned AK Party voters if it wants to improve on its recent underwhelming performance, which should be possible in this election. Polls place the AK Party vote around the low 40th percentile, which is lower than usual. The party has lost much appeal in the past year, as even senior members have been chafing under President Erdoğan’s domineering presence. On the other hand, the AK Party continues to have by far the best grassroots organization and a superb communication strategy. Erdoğan has developed a grand narrative of Turkey as a rising regional power, which makes him impervious to external shocks. A slowing economy can be chalked up to the “interest lobby” and corruption allegations are mere “tricks of the parallel state.”
Kılıçdaroğlu will have to pierce that fog of inevitability and convince people that his party is a viable alternative. Given recent history, nobody should expect miracles. If his team stays focused, they might manage to move their vote a bit closer to 30 percent. Depending on how the CHP and other opposition parties perform, we might be looking at a coalition government come June. That could freshen up government, or it could bring back the paralysis of the 1990s. Whatever happens, a little political competition after a long rut is welcome.
April 21, 2015 § 3 Comments
Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.
Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.
The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.
For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.
On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.
To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.
Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.
For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.
Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.
April 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
Guest poster extraordinaire Dov Friedman is back with some inside baseball on the political prospects of Turkey’s Kurdish party and how its success or failure might determine Erdoğan’s future power inside and outside the AKP.
For 14 years, Tayyip Erdoğan has answered every doubt and challenge in Turkey’s political realm. Yet, two months shy of new parliamentary elections, analysts continue to speculate about whether the Turkish President stands poised for a political decline. In the past, this speculation has represented hope—or perhaps mere wishful thinking. These days, though, it feels laden with unease. Perhaps it grasps at a sense that in the near term, Turkey faces a political future with several, highly divergent potential outcomes.
Much of the political talk in the election run-up revolves around Selahattin Demirtaş and the HDP—the People’s Democratic Party. The HDP is an evolutionary phenomenon in Turkish politics. In one sense, it is the latest iteration of the Kurdish-oriented parties, with their locus of power in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast. At the same time, under the charismatic leadership of Demirtaş, the party has a burgeoning following within the democratic left—among those uncomfortable with the old guard Kemalists of the mainstream opposition CHP.
Last August, when Erdoğan was elected president, Demirtaş surprised many with his strong showing—drawing 9.76 percent of the vote. His tally was particularly noteworthy because of Turkey’s 10 percent entry threshold for parliament. Historically, Turkish governments have maintained an uncommonly high threshold as a mechanism to keep the Kurds politically marginalized. To date, Kurdish deputies enter parliament as individual candidates and caucus together—meaning they lose a significant number of seats relative to their proportional share of the overall voting.
Demirtaş’ showing not only changed the way voters saw the HDP; it also changed the HDP’s own election calculus, as the party decided—for the first time ever—to run as a unified list in June 2015. The stakes could not be higher. If HDP passes the 10 percent threshold, it will increase its representation in parliament and—equally importantly—ensure that the AKP remains below the two-thirds supermajority threshold in parliament.
Since his third term as prime minister wound down, Erdoğan has made noise about transitioning Turkey to a presidential system. When he won the presidency in August 2014, he assumed a nominally ceremonial post, anticipating that he could convert the system while in seat. With a parliamentary supermajority, Erdoğan can ram through a drastic overhaul that will rapidly increase presidential powers. The HDP’s possible clearance of the electoral threshold stands in the way of that goal.
For Demirtaş, the challenge remains in convincing liberal voters that he will refuse to be an AKP tool. Ever since the AKP reinitiated peace talks with the Kurdish opposition, speculation mounted that the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidential system ambitions in exchange for a negotiated resolution and increased local autonomy. Whether the Kurdish parties initially intended to strike that deal obscures the HDP’s present view. Not only has the AKP dragged its feet in the peace process, but Demirtaş sees an opportunity to strengthen politically without the AKP. At a regular HDP parliamentary group meeting in mid-March, Demirtaş delivered a stinging rebuke of Erdoğan—designed in part to distance his party from any perceptions of a corrupt grand bargain.
If the HDP clears the threshold, Erdoğan may already have reached the zenith of his power. The AKP rank and file would then consider who might best secure their political future, and—for the first time—the answer might be someone other than Tayyip Erdoğan. That calculus might touch off the internal AKP maneuvering that could produce new leadership of the Islamist center-right.
Here, we must briefly mention Mansur Yavaş. In the 2014 municipal elections, Yavaş stood as the CHP candidate for mayor of Ankara against the AKP’s Melih Gökçek. Last April, economist and Turkey-watcher Erik Meyersson published clever analysis indicating that the AKP stole the election from Yavaş through massive invalidation of CHP votes. If HDP just barely passes the threshold, can we rule out similar election rigging to bring the HDP under the threshold? Given ongoing tensions, the risks would be enormous. One hopes the AKP might be chastened by the risks of further disenfranchising the Kurdish minority, but with Erdoğan, one can never be certain.
The more interesting question for Turkey watchers is, what happens if HDP does not pass the parliamentary threshold. A series of polls have shown HDP straddling the 10 percent barrier. This is where opinions diverge.
Even with HDP’s failure to enter parliament, some argue, Erdoğan’s power stands to decline—within the party, and thus nationally as well. Gareth Jenkins argued as much in a recent article for Turkey Analyst. Even if the AKP won the 330 mandates necessary to put Erdoğan’s favored system to a referendum, Jenkins explained, party unity, contentment, and discipline are weakening.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s outbursts at Erdoğan loyalist Gökçek—and his subtle critiques of the president himself—provided a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the normally lockstep AKP. This came on the heels of Hakan Fidan’s bizarre resignation as national intelligence chief, declaration of candidacy for parliament, withdrawal, and reappointment as head of national intelligence. Even if the AKP secures a parliamentary majority, its star is dimming. The process may simply move more slowly—Erdoğan’s “long goodbye”, as Jenkins terms it.
But there’s another, darker view of the AKP’s future. In Istanbul several weeks ago, I asked a Turkish friend with keen political insight about the bizarre Fidan episode—why had the intelligence chief made his move if he was not prepared to stand by his decision? “It was not the right time”, my friend replied. “Erdoğan can still damage him.”
As president, Erdoğan could veto ministerial appointments, and Fidan was not running to be a parliamentary back-bencher. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has shown no inclination to spar with the combative president. Though nominally he controls the parliamentary list, the ostensibly apolitical Erdoğan held enormous sway in—and some say, direct control over—its construction.
Davutoğlu’s meek, ineffectual performance as nominal leader of the government drives much of the skepticism that Erdoğan’s grip on power is loosening. Davutoğlu has made former President Abdullah Gül seem commanding by comparison. As one seasoned observer put it to me, both of these ostensible leaders are docile. Gül enjoyed flying around as a figurehead, putting a bright face on Turkey abroad. Davutoğlu enjoys his current role—able to posture as de jure leader while ceding key decision-making power to Erdoğan. If June 7 produces the status quo—a solid AKP majority without the power to overhaul the system—, why would Erdoğan not merely carry on as de facto leader?
The internal AKP reshuffling that many predict would require many more party heavyweights willing to stick their necks out—much as Bülent Arınç began to in March. The dividing question is whether such bravery exists in a party that rose and prospered under the domination of Erdoğan.
On one of my last days in Turkey, a friend who believes change is coming remarked that Erdoğan would see death by 1000 cuts. If so, who will be so bold as to draw first blood?