Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rough Waters Ahead?

PHOTO from Radikal

Sunday's elections created what is perhaps the most representative parliament in the history of the Turkish Republic. Of the 87% of eligible Turkish voters who showed up to cast ballots, only 4.4% voted for parties were not ultimately elected to parliament. This is down from 13% in 2007 and 32% in 2002. This representation problem has been a function of small political parties being unable to meet the country's high 10% threshold required to enter parliament. (The Kurdish BDP is an exception to this rule since it has not run as a political party, but rather chosen to run candidates as independents. A difficult feat to pull off, the BDP won 36 MPs this parliamentary election cycle.)

However, though there are now few political parties in parliament, this does not mean Turkey is necessarily any less divided. In fact, each of the four political parties now represented have unique constituencies and platforms that do not necessarily square with each other or facilitate compromise. As the AKP vows to seek compromise and civil society input as it moves forward with re-drafting the country's 1982 constitution, which was drafted in the shadow of a dramatic coup in 1980, it is unclear just how successful it can and will be.

Assessing the BDP

Cengiz Candar argues in today's Radikal that what a " BDP opening" is needed, meaning that the AKP must accommodate the voices and politics of the Kurdish nationalist party. At the same time, Candar, who is joined by other liberal public intellectuals who support Kurdish political, civil, and cultural rights, argues that the BDP has not shown itself to be a positive player when it comes to adopting the conciliatory politics required to reach a solution to the age-old Kurdish problem.

As Henri Barkey elucidated at an event at the Carnegie Endowment today (podcast here), the BDP's victory is impressive in that it resulted not only from the support it receives in the southeast (and in Kurdish areas throughout the country), but also from its tremendous capacity to organize. Successfully unning independent candidates for parliament is no easy task, and basically required the party to apportion its support for specific candidates running at the provincial level and then organize voters to elect these candidates. For example, in Diyarbakir, where support for the BDP was high, BDP supporters were divided between the number of candidates the BDP thought it could successfully run. Such a strategy requires the BDP to perform a complicated electoral math in determining just how many candidates it can elect in the context of a complicated electoral system and successfully rally the vote behind these independent candidates.

Though the BDP's success should not be underestimated, it should also not be overplayed. As Candar explains, though the BDP has gotten better at electoral engineering, political support for the party has not necessarily increased. Further, it should not be forgotten that a significant number of Kurds voted for the AKP despite its heavy nationalist rhetoric (Candar estimates 42%). Had the AKP not run a nationalist campaign in an effort to run the MHP into the ground, the result might have been different. Candar also points attention to the factions the BDP has managed to bring together (for example, bringing leftists together with staunch Kurdish nationalists and pro-Kurdish conservatives like Altan Tan and Sereafettin Elci). According to Candar, though this coalition-building is taking place at the elite level, the BDP has not succeeded in doing so among voters.

Trouble Brewing

In the days after the election, the BDP used this mammoth victory to call for the release of PKK terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan and direct negotiations with the PKK, actions sure to infuriate the vast majority of Turkish votes. In doing, the BDP is alienating itself from the larger electorate and adopting a divisive politics sure to further fuel the conflict.

At the same time, the AKP has paid little attention to the Kurdish problem, the existence of which the party denied during the campaign, and is instead focusing on moving onward with business as usual. The two positions combined create the conditions for a political crisis, which could come soon given that six of BDP's deputies are currently in jail and their eligibility to hold seats in parliament still up in the air.

Chief among these is Hatip Dicle, who was convicted in 2009 for disseminating PKK propaganda and whose candidacy was at the heart of the riots that enfolded at the end of April when the High Election Board (YSK) invalidated the candidacies of 11 BDP candidates (see April 21 post). On June 9, just three days before the elections, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld Dicle's conviction. Though it was too late to remove his name from the ballot, the High Elections Board will decide whether he is able to serve in parliament.

The six BDP candidates currently jailed as part of the KCK operations (and who are awaiting trial) include Gulseren Yildirm, Ibrahim Ayhan, Selma Irmak, Faysal Sarayildiz, Kemal Aktas, and Dicle. Dicle's case is special since he is not only jailed and awaiting trial for alleged membership in the PKK (KCK), but has been convicted previously and been unable to attain the necessary paperwork required to allow him to enter parliament. The Constitution bars convicted persons from holding parliamentary office. (In addition to the six jailed BDP candidates, two CHP candidates and one MHP candidate, both recently elected, are also currently detained (for their role in Ergenekon).)

Meeting in Diyarbakir yesterday, the BDP called for the release of all six elected members and demanded the release of Ocalan. If the release of the six was not controversial enough, combining such a move with Ocalan's release is not politically savvy nor helpful for the peace process. Reaction in the Turkish press, nationalist and otherwise, has been harsh, and will likely only increase in intensity should a crisis with Dicle come to a head.

Will the AKP Seek Compromise?

Speculation is still high as to whether Prime Minister Erdogan will seek a presidential term in either 2012 or 2014 given the party's successful election result. While some observers argues the party's loss of seats and new need for compromise when it comes to amending the country's constitution renders null the possibility of a powerful Erdogan presidency, others conjecture the AKP will still be able to find the support it needs to change the constitution and empower Erdogan.

The prime minister has announced that he will not run for parliament again, and the AKP's current by-laws prevent him from being appointed to another term as prime minister. CSIS' Bulent Aliriza writes
The new constitution seems certain to usher in a presidential system, and it is clear that Erdogan intends to run for the presidency, either in 2012 or more likely in 2014. If he were to choose the latter date, he would then be in a position to implement his “Target 2023” election manifesto through the centennial of the Turkish Republic as president. However, the inability of the JDP to obtain 330 seats, which would have enabled Erdogan to get public approval for a new constitution in a referendum, presents an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
Apart from the question of Erdogan continuance as the leading force in Turkish politics, the more immediate question is whether and just how the AKP will seek compromise and consensus on the constitution, especially given the likelihood of conflict over the jailed opposition candidates who have just been elected from parliament.

Again, a key question here is whether and how the party will attempt to repair the bridges it has burnt with the large number of Kurdish voters to whom the party turned its back. Though the AKP failed to push the ultra-nationalist MHP beneath the 10% threshold, according to Barkey, any increase in the AKP's number of voters (above the 50% of the country who supported it in this election) will come from nationalist voters.

Getting these votes is dependent on how the party treats the Kurdish issue, and should it be intent to continue its nationalist rhetoric, the BDP opening for which Candar hopes is simply not going to come to fruition. At the same time, the AKP has expressed intent to negotiate with the CHP and the MHP, and there are those in the party who realize the necessity of dealing with the BDP, however unsavory and threatening its politics. At the party's parliamentary group meeting today, Erdogan re-affirmed his intent to move forward with the constitution and said he would personally supervise negotiations with the opposition and engagement with civil society.

Just how all of this will happen is yet to be seen, especially given that the next few weeks could prove difficult if the courts and the YSK prevent the release and entry of those elected candidates currently jailed. And, while Turkey might have a more representative parliament, a less divided country it is not.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Pyrhhic Victory?

I recently wrote a short entry on the elections for Democracy Digest, a project of the National Endowment for Democracy. An excerpt:
Increasingly, Turkey is polarized between those who support the AKP and those who do not. The AKP’s critics include not only the secular elite, but also liberals, Kurds and other minority groups, and others who fear the intolerance with which the party deals with difference and dissent.

However, the new parliament presents fresh opportunities for compromise and reconciliation. All parties agree that Turkey should adopt a new constitution, and given the CHP’s progressive turn, the country now has a genuine opportunity to pass a liberal democratic constitution that will respect and affirm the rights of all citizens.

Nevertheless, and despite Prime Minister Erdogan’s acceptance speech yesterday in which he vowed to seek compromise on a new constitution, it is possible, even likely, that the AKP will promote its agenda with minimal compromise and consultation (as it has in the past). Such a unilateral approach increases the likelihood of the new constitution entrenching the illiberal practices evident in the AKP’s current exercise of power, including the targeting of journalists, libel suits, increased reliance on executive and administrative orders, enhanced cabinet powers at the expense of parliament, limited minority rights, and restrictions on freedom of association and civil society.

Turkish civil society is crucial to ensuring that Erdogan seeks compromise with the other three political parties that have entered parliament. In this context, civil society will prove just as key to saving Turkish democracy as it did during the optimistic years after the EU accepted Turkey’s application for membership in 1999 and major reforms started coming down the pipe. Support for strengthening political parties and institution building has been enormously successful, but further progress is unlikely without funding and empowering civil society to hold the government and political parties in check and goad them to respond to democratic demands.

A democratic regression in Turkey will not only mark the end of a regional success story but also set back Islamist/conservative democrats in other Muslim states who view the AKP as an exemplar. As recent survey research attests, 66% of Arabs view Turkey as a democratic model.

Turkish democracy is neither a mission accomplished nor a lost cause. Authoritarian trends can be reversed and the AKP government may yet return to the more liberal politics of its inception. However, this will take serious work and dedication from the government, opposition political parties, and civil society. These elections and upcoming plans to draft a new constitution provide at once a strong impetus for reform and a new starting point.
For the full entry, click here. The blog is a good way to monitor political development throughout the world.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Country Divided

Cartoon from Hurriyet

Sounding the same refrain as last September's constitutional referendum, yesterday's election results reveal Turkey to be increasingly divided between those who support the ruling AKP government and those who do not.

Yesterday the AKP managed to increase its vote from the  46.58% it captured in 2007 parliamentary elections to 49.91%, though the party lost lost seats and its 3/5 majority in parliament (see yesterday's post).

Additionally, the AKP became the first party since the Democratic Party in the 1950s to win three consecutive parliamentary elections; however, unlike the Democratic Party, the AKP has become more popular each election, not less. Yet, while the results hint at the AKP's growing popularity, they also hint at a growing disconnect between the party's supporters and those who fear its burgeoning illiberal tendencies (see last Tuesday's post).

The Other Half

As echoed by the results of a recent Pew poll, Turkey is becoming an increasingly divided country. While those who support the AKP continue to enthusiastically return it to power, the other half (and it is literally half) of its population is deeply concerned with the direction in which the country is headed. The abyss between the two camps has grown in recent years, revealing a social phenomenon much more complicated than the narrative so often told in Western newspapers of a conflict between the ascendant Islamist middle class and the secular Kemalist elite.

Instead, what is happening in Turkey is that half the population solidly supports the AKP and its policies while the other half are becoming increasingly alienated from the party for a variety of reasons. This "other half" is not some unified Kemalist/secularist/nationalist opposition bloc, but rather represents a diverse array of different facets of Turkish society that have been left out of the AKP's increasingly hegemonic vision.

Of those opposed to the AKP, there are those concerned with the party's Turkish-Sunni chauvinism. These include not only members of a secular elite, but also Alevis (15 to 20 million people), Kurds (also 15 to 20 million people, though many Kurds are also Alevis), liberals (including Islamists), and leftists concerned about the AKP's neoliberal economic schemes. There are also plenty of observant Sunni Muslims who are nonetheless less pious than the AKP and/or increasingly concerned with the party's attempts to legislate its values. At the same time, there is a significant number of voters (~10%) for whom the AKP is not chauvinist enough. Most of these vote for the ultra-nationalist MHP.

The Next Steps

From Radikal
Starting with Refah in 1994, the AKP's antecedent, the AKP has gradually increased its votes since first elected office in 2002 with the one exception being the March 2009 local elections.

This is where the steps the AKP takes after the elections become crucial. Prime Minister Erdogan is determined to push through a new constitution that would institute a presidential system. Erdogan is widely thought to have designs on running for president should the changes come into being.

However, in a twist, though the AKP increased its share of the popular vote, it lost seats in parliament and is now short of the 3/5 majority it needs to unilaterally amend the constitution as it did last year. The loss of seats is a function of two factors,  namely a high 10% threshold and a complicated system of closed-list proportional representation: an increase in the number of independent deputies associated with the Kurdish nationalist BDP and the increased number of voters in big cities where the party tends to do less well.

As a result of the shortfall, the AKP to some degree be pressured to compromise with opposition political parties if a new constitution is going to emerge, an objective supported by all political parties entering parliament.

That said, and despite Prime Minister Erdogan's acceptance speech yesterday in which he vowed to seek consensus as his government moves forward with a new constitution, it is possible, even likely, that the AKP will use its power to push forward its agenda with minimal compromise and consultation (as it has in the past). However, the risk, of course, is the way that power is enacted  (targeting of journalists, libel suits, increased reliance on executive and administrative orders, more power to cabinet/less to parliament, limited minority rights, restrictions on association/NGO activity, etc.).

The most popular politician in the history of Turkish electoral politics, Erdogan has accomplished a tremendous electoral feat. It is more likely to encourage his appetite for power than to tame it. Power corrupts, and the more absolute the power, the more absolutely it corrupts.

Weep Not for the Opposition

And, where does the opposition stand -- and those who did not vote for the AKP? For one, it is unlikely the AKP will be able to further increase its vote. Given that the number of people unhappy with the direction in which Turkey is headed is the same number of people who did not vote for the AKP (see Pew Poll above), there is little headway the AKP can make in terms of winning additional votes -- basically, the party is maxed out.

All the same, the AKP's uncanny ability to turn nationalist then liberal -- only to do it all over again -- cannot be underestimated, and the party has a decent shot at maintaining its current numbers, especially if it decides to move again to the left so as to not be out-done by the CHP. However, I do believe the party's most recent bout of illiberalism, on full-display in its handling of the Ergenekon investigation, has burned many bridges, as did its extreme nationalist return in the past few months preceding the election.

There is little likelihood that bridges with more nationalist-inclined Kurds can be repaired given the ruling party's tenor this election cycle, especially given the failure of its Kurdish opening to deliver many concretes. Even less likely is that the party will win back the liberals and progressives who have been breaking ranks since 2005, many of whom have come to fear the party as a new authoritarian threat.

While the AKP might win some hardline nationalist votes from the MHP, it is unlikely to have much success here without losing a certain remainder of optimistic liberals who have continued to support the party for its economic successes and in spite of its illiberal tendencies.

The CHP

PHOTO from Radikal

Meanwhile, the CHP should regard its performance yesterday as a victory. "The new CHP," as the party has billed itself in the run up to the elections, managed to increase its vote share by 5% (a larger increase than the AKP) and gain 38 seats. Additionally, the CHP seems to have broadened its geographic reach, winning its party leader's home province of Tunceli while faring reasonably better in areas outside of its traditional strongholds. Support for the party might not be as deep in traditonally nationalist coastal enclaves (Antalya, Canakkale, and Izmir) as it once was, but the party has broadened its support beyond voters in these provinces while successfully moving toward establishing a different, much more liberal, pro-European electoral base.

Though no doubt disappointed, the CHP should realize it will take time for the Turkish public to trust it. A party in transition, the CHP had been up until a year ago an intolerant, oftentimes destructive force, providing people with little to no alternative but to vote for the AKP. There are likely plenty of Turkish voters who cast ballots for the AKP but are less than solid supporters; however, they do not trust the CHP either.

 Further, as Milliyet columnist Asli Aydintasbas (in Turkish) writes, the CHP lacks the organizational and fundraising capacity of the AKP and should give itself some time to catch up.

All the same, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is likely to face extreme pressure from his party. There are already rumors that the party's old guard is plotting his demise and some papers are reporting the leader offered to step down.

Message to CHP: Patience is a virtue. After many years of not being progressive, it is simply going to take time and commitment to get people to trust in the party. If the party decides to once more change course, it is likely to do more harm than good to its long-term viability.

The BDP

The BDP is the clear winner in this election. Most pre-election polls expected the BDP to win between 25 and 30 seats, a significant increase over its present 20. However, the BDP's ability to capture 36 seats has taken many by surprise, though it should not. As mentioned above, the AKP's nationalist turn (see past post) has thoroughly alienated many Kurds. Though many of these voters were already alienated, hence the BDP's electoral success in local elections in March 2009, the most recent electoral cycle has driven many to a virtual point of no return. It will be difficult for the AKP to build consensus with the party given the bad feeling and that the BDP will feel more emboldened by this recent triumph.
The good news is that two of the party's more dovish figures, Ahmet Turk and Aysel Tugluk, who were expelled from parliament in December 2009, have returned, but so has Leyla Zana, a Kurdish militant hardliner who often advocates on behalf of the PKK. Just what the BDP will do in the coming months is uncertain, but one thing is for certain: hardline Kurdish nationalism, including militancy, got a boost this election year.

The MHP

While many thought the sex scandal would finish off what was already an ultra-nationalist party in decline, the MHP managed to comfortably pass the 10% threshold with relative ease. This might in part be due to rising unrest in the southeast and Kurdish nationalism, to which equally virulent Turkish nationalism is too frequently the response. No matter how hard the AKP tries to devour this ultra-nationalist core of voters, they still do not seem comfortable voting for Erdogan. Pro-state, nationalist idealists are just simply not going to budge on this one.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Election Night . . .

From Radikal

Election results started to come out at six o'clock in the evening Turkey time, and it became evident early on that the AKP had a commanding lead of the popular vote. However, despite capturing a near 50% of voters, the largest percentage the party has captured since it first came to power in 2002, the party fell four seats shy of the 330 seats it needs in parliament (a 3/5 majority) to push through a constitution unilaterally. For an electoral map complete with official results, click here.



This means that for the first time in a long time the AKP will have to engage in political bargaining (see yesterday's post). Last year the AKP successfully pushed through a series of constitutional amendments using its previous 3/5 majority before successfully submitting the amendments to referendum. Meanwhile, the ultra-nationalist MHP managed to comfortably surpass the 10% threshold required for political parties to enter parliament, winning 13% of the popular vote. Though the party went from 69 to 54 seats, coming in above then 10% threshold made it difficult for the AKP to meet the 3/5 marker.

The AKP's chances at gaining a 3/5 majority were further damaged by the historical success of the Kurdish nationalist party, the BDP. The BDP managed to pick up a whopping 36 seats (up from 20), no doubt a result in part to growing disenchantment with -- and, in many cases, outright hostility toward -- the party in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast. Running as independents so as to escape the 10% threshold, the BDP captured 6% of the vote.

The AKP's nationalist turn, presumably an effort to win voters away from the MHP, had the predictable effect of alienating Kurdish voters. Ironically, as the only other political party competitive in the region, it also contributed greatly to its failure to win 3/5 of parliamenatary seats since the BDP fared so well. AKP's efforts to defeat the MHP were a gamble, losing Kurdish votes for ultra-nationalist votes (while at the same time empowering the BDP), and the party paid the price.

In addition to MHP votes, the party did pick up a significant number of votes from the SP (Felicity Party), a legacy of Erbakan's National Outlook movement, consolidating its control over the Islamist vote. It also picked up votes from the center-right Democrat Party, which also harkens back to an earlier era. I would venture to say these are the blocs that explain the party's ability to increase its share of the popular vote.

Meanwhile, the CHP, which took enormous risks this election cycle, performed under expectations. The CHP captured 26% of the popular vote to gain 38 seats (from 97 to 135), but some expected the party to poll over 30%. During the campaign, the CHP became by far the most progressive mainline party, taking positions more pro-European, pro-peace, and pro-liberal than the AKP (again, see yesterday's post). However, the party's controversial positions, especially on the Kurdish issue, may have alienated some in its formerly nationalist base -- votes that would have gone to the AKP or the MHP. However, nonetheless, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and ""the new CHP" managed to gain almost 3.5 million new voters and pick up seats. Whether the CHP will continue to steer Kilicdaroglu's chart or be so frustrated with the results that it changes course once more remains to be seen.

In his acceptance speech, Prime Minister Erdogan vowed to build consensus on a new constitution and reiterated that he represented all Turkish citizens, not just those who voted for him. Prime Minister Erdogans aid the consensus would be built among political parties and civil society groups, all of which would be consulted during the process. However, the prime minister made the same promise last year and fell short.

All parties support drafting of a whole new document to replace the country's 1982 constitution drafted under military tutelage, but just what will happen in the coming months is very much up in the air. The AKP is far from weak, and could well gain the 3/5 majority it needs without too much maneuvering.


UPDATE I (6/13) -- For a truly wonderful electoral map complete with candidate names according to the provinces from which they were elected, click here. The AKP won more provinces along Turkey's more secular Western coast than it has in the past, but this should not be read as a significant setback for the CHP. Though the CHP no doubt lost votes in some of these Kemalist/nationalist strongholds, including majorities, it seems to have widened its support throughout the country, picking up votes in provinces where before it was not at all competitive.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Will Happen Tomorrow (And After)?

Reuters Photo from VOA Kurdish

I gave a radio interview this morning to Voice of America's Kurdish service in which I was asked what would be the impact of tomorrow's elections on the AKP-led government's plans to introduce a new constitution.  Though the interview mostly focused on the Kurdish issue, of particular interest was just how successful the AKP could be in bringing forward plans to introduce a new constitution.

If the AKP wins at least 330 seats in the parliament (it now has 336), it will be able to introduce constitutional amendments without the need for much consensus before taking them to referendum -- an approach the AKP took last year and with great success. If the party manages to surpass 367 votes, it will have a 2/3 super majority that will allow it to unilaterally overhaul the constitution without the need for referendum. While the latter is unlikely and the former in doubt, the larger issue is just how sincere the party is in its reiterations that it will seek consensus as it moves forward. At the moment, all four parties with a chance of entering parliament have pledged to adopt a new constitution.

Last year, the party showed little concern as it pushed amendments rapidly forward. Neither civil society nor opposition political parties were given much voice in the process and the result was a referendum that basically polarized the Turkish public. The Kurdish nationalist BDP boycotted the referendum while the CHP and the MHP campaigned hard against the amendments. Though the official result was 58%, the actual number of Turkish citizens who approved the changes was lower given that a large number of Kurds who did boycott.

If the referendum is taken as a measure of the support for the AKP, it can be said that roughly over one-half of Turkish citizens approve of the party and the direction in which it is taking the country. This matches more or less with what a recent Pew poll found. According to the poll, 48 percent of Turkish citizens are satisfied with the direction the country is taking; however, 49 percent responded they are dissatisfied. The satisfied voters, more or less, can be assumed to be likely to vote for the AKP, but of more interest are those who are not. How many of these voters are simply typical Turkish cynics and how many are disenchanted with the party? The rising number of potentially disenchanted is cause for concern (and that is more than an understatement).


One of the most pressing problems in Turkish politics today is the amount of polarization in Turkish political society. Some of this can be explained by the increasing illiberal attitudes and policies of the AKP (see Tuesday's post), which, of course, is made all the more problematic by the AKP's seeming lack of willingness to engage opposition parties and craft serious political compromises when it comes to making government policy. Without an entrenched rights-based liberal democracy, the lack of compromise becomes all the more disturbing. A unilaterally-drawn up constitution will only serve to further polarize the Turkish public while continuing to fail at any real resolution of the classic dilemma posed by democracy and difference.

However, should the AKP fall short of 330 seats tomorrow, the party will be more inclined to compromise. Just exactly what this process of compromise would look like and what parties it would include remains to be seen, but perhaps for the first time in a long time the AKP will be forced to work with other parties to carve out a political agenda.

At stake are Erdogan's ambitions to institute a presidential system that would facilitate his ascendancy to the presidency. If Erdogan wins comfortably tomorrow, he will be more confident in these efforts. Even should the AKP fall short of gaining 3/5 of the seats in parliament, an increase in the popular vote for the AKP will embolden the already emboldened leader to move forward in his quest.

Meanwhile, just as interestingly, the CHP, which has drastically changed its leadership and party platform, will discover whether its new position in Turkish politics will be rewarded. The CHP is expected to pick up seats and increase its vote either way, but will likely have a difficult time gaining the 30% of the vote for which the party is striving. The CHP, which has billed itself as "the new CHP,"  has taken enormous risks this election cycle, presenting itself as pro-Europe, pro-liberal, pro-peace, and importantly, anti-nationalist and anti-coup. With Kilicdaroglu's victory over the party stalwart and former party secretary-general Onder Sav last year, the party has turned 180-degrees in many of its policies, especially in regard to the Kurds and its former pro-military/pro-coup attitude. Defeating Sav, Kilicdaroglu remarked, "The empire of fear is over in the CHP. Now it is time to end the empire of fear in Turkey."

The MHP will also face a serious test tomorrow. A little less than a month ago, there was serious question as to whether the ultra-nationalist party would be able to surpass the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. However, polls conducted at the end of June put the party safely over the threshold. That said, just how well the party does tomorrow will have an impact on the number of seats allocated to the AKP and CHP. The AKP has been competing for its nationalist voter base while the CHP's recent positions, especially in regard to the Kurds, might have alienated some in its former nationalist base to vote for the MHP.

And, finally, not without its own test will be the Kurdish nationalist BDP. The BDP currently has 20 seats in parliament, just enough to form a parliamentary group and be represented. However, there is little doubt that the BDP will surpass this number and could pick up well over 30 seats. Though the BDP candidates are running as independents since there in no chance they could meet the 10 percent threshold, the rising force of the party in the southeast and in Western cities populated by a large number of Kurdish migrants will indubitably be one of the most important stories of this election cycle. As its main challenger, the AKP's increased nationalist rhetoric is likely to work in favor of the party.

We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fleeing for Their Lives

PHOTO from Hurriyet Daily News

Syrian refugees flooding over the border with Turkey now number over 3,000 persons as Turkish officials struggle to deal with the influx. Turkish sources are reporting that the government is prepared for 15,000 more to arrive from the town in the coming days.

Jandarma have been on the border since Wednesday when the killings begun, and there is talk of setting up a buffer zone (in Turkish) to check the identity of Syrian refugees before they are escorted to one of the four refugee camps that have been setup along the border. The buffer zone will be designed to prevent PKK members from using the crisis to enter Turkey. However, plans are still being drawn up and Turkish authorities are saying it will not be necessary unless the number of refugees

Meanwhile stories of the crisis continue to emerge from refugees. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Some Syrians waiting at the border are also meeting up with their relatives from the other side who bring them provisions, which they then carry back into Syria.

The town of Jisr al-Shughour was besieged from three directions, another Syrian refugee, Ahmet Arafat, 40, claimed. “There are wounded [people] in Jisr al-Shughour, and no one can help them,” he said.

“We had restaurants and shops in Jisr al-Shughour. They razed them to the ground. They are shooting protesters too. They even poisoned the waters. We saw people as they drank from the water and died,” said another Syrian refugee, K.F., 24.
Prime Minister Erdogan has said that today and Saturday will be very important in terms of determining Turkey's future relations with Assad. The National Security Council (MGK) is set to meet after Sunday's elections.


UPDATE I (6/10) -- Hurriyet Daily News correspondent Ipek Yazdani reports that Syrian refugees coming from Jisr al-Shughour, a town of 50,000 people just 12 miles over the Turkish-Syrian border, are telling Turkish authorities that Syrian security officials attacked the town early this morning. The town has been surrounded from three sides since Wednesday.
HDN had the exclusive footage of the Syrian refugees waiting at the Syria-Turkey border on Friday showing them protesting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Syrian soldiers killed all the young men in the village", an old woman amongst the Syrian refugees waiting at the border said in an excluseive footage obtained by the HDN.

Syrians escaping from the Syrian security forces who allegedly made a military operation to Jisr al-Shughour, Ghani and other villages massed in Turkish border, chanting slogans like "We want freedom, we want liberty."

A woman from Sıleybi village said the Syrian soldiers killed her husband. "They (Syrian government forces) attacked us at 6:00 a.m., they have been trying to kill us all day long and they killed my husband. Now they pretend like nothing is happening, they are lying! They threw us out of our country, they threw us out from our land," she said.

Another woman who showed her baby to the cameras said, "President Assad, you left this one without a father. Don't you have any fear of God?"

A man who talked to the camera while walking said, "Assad, don't you have any conscience? Is this Bashar's justice? We were all kicked out of our homes, you see all of us, all the Syrians in this region are gathering here now. So all the world shall see what we are going through."

"They attacked all of us and we had to run away. They killed my husband, he was murdered while he was trying to protect us" another woman said in a different footage shot in a tent by the Syrian side of the border.

"Syrian soldiers killed all the young men in the village, they burned our houses, God punish them, God punish Assad", an old woman shouted to the camera.
UPDATE II (6/10) -- In response to this morning's incursion into Jisr al-Shughour, Prime Minister Erdogan issued his strongest statement yet against Assad, acussing the Syrian government of committing mass atrocities and "behaving inhumanely."

“In the face of violence, we cannot continue to support Syria. We do have relatives living in Syria,” said Erdogan. The prime minister indicated that he has not been in contract with Assad since the seige began.

Turkey is refraining from calling those fleeing refugees, saying he hopes they will soon be able to return home. In the meantime, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is prepared to step in should the Turkish government need assistance. At the moment, Erdogan says neither UNHCR assistance nor a "safe haven" are needed.

Though Turkey is keen to keep Syrian refugees safe and do the right thing here, it is also understandably concerned about its border and the potential for a repeat of Operation Provide Comfort, which played a major role in initiating the Kurdish conflict of the 1990s.

UPDATE III (6/13) --  The number of Syrian refugees is now up to 5,000, with another 10,000 waiting just over the Syrian border, ready to leave if need be. Syrian security forces are in complete control of Jisr al-Shughour.

Financial Support to Libyan Opposition

Speaking on the sidelines of the third Libya contract group, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Aduvtoglu has pledged $100 million to fund the Libyan Transitional Council. From Hurriyet Daily News
"There is a real need for humanitarian access as well as for the natural needs of Libya like schools, hospitals and all those facilities," Davutoğlu said, according to a report by Reuters.

Davutoğlu was speaking to reporters at a summit of Western and Arab countries backing Libya's rebels and planned to prepare for a political structure after the departure of leader Moammar Gadhafi from power, Reuters reported on its website.

The statements came at the third meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Davutoğlu was among participants at the meeting along with his counterparts from 21 countries. The participants also included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Contact Group, including the United States, European powers, allies from the Middle East and international bodies, was established during an international conference in London in March to lead international efforts to map out Libya's future. The group held its first meeting in Qatar, the second in Italy. The fourth meeting of the Libya Contact Group will be held in Turkey (click here for more).
Yesterday United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized Turkey alongside four other NATO member states for not doing enough to support NATO's ongoing military operations. The United Kingdom, France, and the United States have vowed not to quit the strikes until Gadhafi is removed from power. At the third Libyan contact group meeting, Turkey argued the Tripoli regime consisted of more personalities than just Gadhafi.

Getting the Nationalist Vote . . .

EPA Photo from Al-Jazeera English

As the part of the AKP's continuing efforts to cater its election rhetoric to nationalist voters, Prime Minister Erdogan has declared that he would have executed jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had he been prime minister at the time. Erdogan accused the MHP of giving its support to a 2002 that abolished the death penalty, implying that problems with Ocalan would have been solved if the government at the time had properly sent him to the gallows.

The remarks came in response to unfounded allegations from the MHP that the AKP-led government was in negotiations with the PKK to arrange for Ocalan's release. At the moment, the AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP are both competing to win nationalist votes. For more on this dynamic, click here.

While the AKP might succeed in luring votes away from MHP by taking a hardline position on the Kurdish issue, it does so at the cost of further alienating Kurdish voters in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast. Recently, the party has been behaving as if these voters simply do not matter and the result will indubitably be a historic increase in the number of votes the Kurdish nationalist party receives on Sunday.

More troubling is that the AKP's election rhetoric will seriously hamper its chances of repairing its relationship with nationalist Kurds with whom it will likely have to work with to some degree if it is going to pass a constitution that takes all views into account, as Erdogan has expressed is his intention. Given the party's nationalist turn, it will be very difficult to win Kurdish nationalist voters, even those who are not necessarily supportive of the PKK-affiliated BDP.

Meanwhile, an even bigger danger lurks that could further compounds AKP's Kurdish problem. Ocalan, through his lawyers, is threatening a drastic increase in PKK violence should the government not move to negotiate with the PKK by June 15. The specter of renewed PKK violence of the kind last summer will only serve to distract from the government's efforts to pass a constitution and further polarize Turks and Kurds.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Consolidating Power . . .

AA Photo from Hurriyet Daily News

Ahead of the AKP's expected victory on Sunday, Prime Minister Erdogan announced plans to alter the structure of his cabinet, a move many are reading as a step toward realizing Erdogan's ultimate ambition to establish a presidential system.

The new cabinet will contain 25 ministers, including the prime minister. Some ministries, such as the Ministry for Women and Family, will be eliminated or merged, while six more will be added. From Hurriyet Daily News:
If his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is returned to power in the June polls, Erdoğan said, the administration will have six new ministries, while the total number of ministries will be lowered from 27 to 25.

The prime minister said eight current state ministries will be abolished. The new ministries will be the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, the Ministry of European Union, the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Customs and Trade and the Ministry of Development. The Ministry of European Union will coordinate the affairs for Turkey’s EU bid.

Currently these areas fall under the responsibility of state ministers in Ankara; the new ministries will also have offices around the country.

“We will also create a deputy minister position” that will rank between the minister and the undersecretary, Erdoğan said, speaking at his party’s headquarters.

The new Cabinet will include 20 ministers plus the prime minister and four deputy prime ministers. Each of the 20 ministers will be assigned deputies.

The deputy ministers will not be parliamentary deputies, but will be appointed to their positions with the new government and will leave their posts if it is voted out of power. The deputy ministers will be experts in their sectors and will be selected for their ability to make the ministries operate faster and more efficiently, Erdoğan said. “It will be possible to bring them in from the private sector,” he added.

Each deputy minister will be appointed with the approval of the respective minister, the prime minister and the president. The appointees will not have to have university degrees, “and can even be elementary school graduates,” Erdoğan said, pointing to important businesspeople such as Vehbi Koç as examples.

“They will work as a political undersecretary, and the current undersecretaries will carry out the administrative functions,” the prime minister said.

Some ministries will be renamed or merged under the proposed restructuring. The Ministry of Industry and Trade will become the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs will be changed to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Livestock. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry will meanwhile merge with the Ministry of Public Affairs and Settlement to become the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and City Planning.
One concern with the new plan is that each ministry will now have an undersecretary responsible for the technical aspects of the ministerial portfolio as well as a deputy prime minister responsible for the politics involved therein. What happens if the two ministers have conflicting views? Will the deputy ministers, who do not sit in parliament, be subject to parliamentary oversight?

Hurriyet Daily News columnist Izgi Gungor reviews some of the potential problems with the deputy minister scheme here, including the potential for further privatization given that the deputies will be appointed outside normal bureaucratic channels and that many of whom will be coming from the private sector. Privatization of public resources has been a keystone of Erdogan's political and economic agenda.

President Gul has expressed his opposition to the presidency, which Erdogan has expressed his intention to occupy should a presidential system come to be as the government moves forward to re-write a whole new constitution after Sunday's elections.


UPDATE I (6/9) -- Human Rights Watch echoes the concerns of many Turkish women's groups in response to the government's plans to eliminate the Ministry for Women and Family Affairs. The government is planning to create another ministry re-named the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. Women's groups have expressed concerns that women's issues are important only insomuch as they involve the family and this despite rising domestic violence and continuing problems related to underemployment and representation in politics.  Jenny White expounds on the problem here.

UPDATE II (6/10) -- The CHP has announced its intention to challenge the restructuring at the Constitutional Court. For more, click here.

"A Blessing from God"?

PHOTO from Hurriyet

The fears of those who opposed last September's referendum on the grounds that the constitutional amendments approved therein would strengthen the AKP government's hold over the judiciary may be coming home to roost. The Council of State, Turkey's chief administrative court, has elected Huseyin Karakullukcu to the court's presidency, a vote facilitated by newly appointed Council of State judges. For more (in Turkish), click here.

In Turkey, judges are appointed by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the composition of which was altered by the recent amendments. The HSYK was expanded from seven to 22 members, 19 of which are appointed by a variety of institutions. Earlier Nazim Kaynak, another friend of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, was appointed to head the Supreme Court of Appeals, the same institution that in 2008 brought a closure case against the AKP.

After Karakullukcu's election, Arinc said the appointment was "another blessing given by God."

The Row with Austria

Tensions between Austria and Turkey are high after Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced on Friday that Turkey would block the nomination of former Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik to become secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

According to Austrian officials, President Abdullah Gul promised Austria it would not veto Plassnik's nomination during a recent visit to Vienna. Austrian officials cite that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made the same promise. Turkish officials reject the allegations.

Austrian officials top even Sarkozy and Merkel in their opposition to Turkey's accession to the European Union and, like Sarkozy and Merkel, Plassnik has called for Europe to conclude a strategic partnership with Turkey rather than granting it membership.

Turkey had nominated its own candidate, Ersin Ercin, though Greek Cyprus and Armenia blocked the appointment.

Relations with Vienna have been particularly sore since December when Austrian rightist MP Ewald Stadler lambasted Turkish Ambassador to Austria Evcet Tezcan in a fiery (fascist?) speech in Austria's parliament. Stadler and the Austrian right have led staunch anti-immigration reform efforts in Austria.
For the speech, see here:



I am not suggesting that blocking Plassnik's nomination is payback, but it is understandable why Turkey would not want yet another Islamophobe heading a key European institution.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Syrian Refugees Pour Into Turkey

As Syrian security forces surround the the town of Jisr al-Shughour, located just 12 miles from the Turkish border, traumatized refugees continue to pour into the country. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Turkey will not close its doors to Syrians fleeing unrest in their country, the Turkish prime minister said Wednesday after a group of 169 Syrians fled the border town of Jisr al-Shughour overnight, fearing bloodshed.

“We are monitoring developments in Syria with concern,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan said at a news conference, urging Damascus to “change its attitude toward civilians” and “take its attitude to a more tolerant level as soon as possible.”

Turkey has exerted efforts for a peaceful transition process in Syria, but reforms have not been carried out at the desired speed and are being outpaced by growing violence, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told the private channel NTV in an interview Wednesday. He said Turkey is prepared to deal with a mass influx of Syrian refugees.

“We have taken all necessary precautions in case of a massive flow of crossings,” Davutoğlu said. Implying a security check would be made for Syrian refugees, he added, “We have to determine their intention [in] seeking refuge.”

People who fled the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Wednesday, fearing a crackdown by their government after the alleged massacre of 120 policemen, are sheltering at a camp set up by the Turkish Red Crescent in the Yayladagi district of Hatay, a Turkish city on the Syrian border.

A total of 420 Syrians have crossed the border and stayed in Turkey since the start of the unrest, a Turkish Foreign Ministry diplomat told the Daily News. The Anatolia news agency reported, however, that new groups are continuing to arrive at the Turkish border. Turkish officials also told reporters that many Syrians were waiting at villages near the border.
There are reports in the Turkish press that Syrian opposition is urging Syrians trapped in the conflict to flee over the border. Zaman reports that 200 refugees arrived in Turkey late on Monday night, and that the numbers have increased since. For Syrian expert Joshua Landis's account of what is going on, click here.

As Turkey gears up to respond to an influx of Syrian refugees as it continues to call on Syrian President Assad to cease human rights abuses and institute major reforms, the London School of Economics has released a report stating what is all the more obvious given Turkey's increasingly prominent role in the Arab spring. According to the newly released LSE report, "Turkey's influence and reach are certain to be central to the future of the economic and political development of the region as the revolutions responsible for overthrowing governments make the difficult transition to constructing them." For the full report, click here.


UPDATE I (6/9) -- Sabah reports (in Turkish) that the number of refugees arriving from Jisr al-Shughour now total over 400. According to the paper, the government has allocated 30 million Turkish Lira to deal with a wave of refugees it is expecting to total from 500,000 to one million persons. Prime Minister Erdogan has said the border will stay open. At the moment, Turkey is the only country to have an open border with Syria.

Additionally, refugees are giving Turkish authorities information that what Syria alleges was a massacre of 120 people by the opposition was instead a massacre of 120 people committed by Syrian security officials following a mutiny within the country's security apparatus.

UPDATE II (6/9) -- Refugees coming from Jisr al-Shughour are continuing to confirm stories that a mutiny occurred when Syrian security officials refused to do the regime's dirty work. From Hurriyet Daily News: A Syrian security officer who fled with the civilian refugees told the Hürriyet Daily News:
that they received an order by phone Friday to kill all the protesters in the town.

“We received a phone call from the center, and they ordered us to shoot and kill all the protesters,” said Ahmad Gavi, 21, a Syrian soldier who fled to Turkey following the deadly clashes in Jisr Al-Shughour.

“Five soldiers who refused to follow this order were killed immediately in front of me. Then commanders and some soldiers started to shoot each other,” Gavi said. “There were 180 soldiers at the security check post and 120 of them were killed.”

Gavi said he dropped his gun and ran away to Turkey as a refugee. “It was not the protesters who killed the soldiers, it was the commanders who killed them; most of the soldiers ran away with the protesters then,” he said, adding that there are 60 Syrian soldiers in the group that fled to Turkey.
Over 200 Syrians are reported to be hospitalized in Hatay. The narratives drastically increase the likelihood that Erdogan will strangthen the Turkish government's line with Assad. The National Security Council (MGK) is scheduled to meet after Sunday's elections.

Not Just a Thin Skin . . .

The Wall Street Journal's Marc Champion will no doubt soon be on the AKP's list of journalists being used by international gangs to undermine its government. In an article appearing yesterday, Champion reports on what observers of Turkish politics have long known: Prime Minister Erdogan is a very, very litigious man. For the story, click here.

According to Champion, Erdogan had filed 57 libel suits by 2005, just two years after taking office. He won 21 of the cases, netting a total 700,000 Turkish Lira, or about $440,000, in compensation. An excerpt:
Since then, the government has refused to answer further questions on the matter. It said that whomever Mr. Erdogan sues—under article 125 of the Turkish penal code—is a private affair. The law criminalizes insults against a person's honor, differentiating such barbs from other protected free speech. Guilty parties face a maximum penalty of two years in jail.

Mr. Erdogan's spokesman didn't respond to several phone and email requests for comment.

Fikret Ilkiz, a prominent Turkish press freedom lawyer, says the frequency with which the prime minister's lawyers launch insult suits on his behalf has increased since 2005. By now the tally is "in the hundreds," he estimates, and has triggered a boom in lawsuits launched by cabinet ministers and legislators. Mr. Ilkiz added that previous prime ministers rarely used article 125.
The article goes on to document a few recent libel suits the prime minister has filed, including the one against the Milliyet cartoonist who depicted him as a cat tied up in yarn, as well as another involving a theater troupe and the case against British citizen Michael Dickinson, who drew the prime minister's head on a dog's body.

While the prime minister seem to have problems dealing with criticism, however tasteless or disrespectful it might be, he has no problems dishing it out. Erdogan recently called Milliyet journalist Nuray Mert "despicable" for having written that new roads the government is building in the southeast will facilitate security operations and threatened another journalist, Abbas Guclu, for tying the prime minister to a scandal involving Turkey's university entrance exam. In regard to Guclu, Erdogan said the journalist would "pay the price" for his allegations. For a litany of such allegations, see Sedat Ergin's recent column (in Turkish) in Hurriyet.


UPDATE I (6/9) --  Another example (from Milliyet, in Turkish) of the prime minister's thin skin was displayed when Erdogan accused Taraf columnist Ahmet Altan of insulting him after the columnist said he would not be voting for the AKP on Sunday.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why Turkey and Turkish Civil Society Matter

Far too many Western political leaders, thinkers, and donors, especially here in Washington, have come to think of Turkish democracy as a “mission accomplished,” or at least, a project "near complete.” The sad state of affairs is indeed the opposite, and mostly sadly, it is this premature attitude that could turn Turkey back toward its authoritarian past rather than build on the democratic successes it has achieved in the past 15 years.

As American think-tanks bandy about a “Turkish model” as some ideal path for the newly emerging Arab democracies to follow, the real state of Turkish political affairs remains a mystery to all too many. In fact, Turkey now has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world, including China. And, like China, a new Internet regulation that goes into effect Aug. 22 will set up an online filtering and surveillance system by which every Turkish citizen will be followed by the government using an online profile. These developments are all the more disturbing given the ongoing Ergenekon investigation, which while supposed to bring down the infamous Turkish “deep state,” instead has been used as a political tool to go after the ruling AKP government’s political enemies.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish conflict, which the government’s “Kurdish opening” was to finally bring to a close by granting Turkey’s Kurdish population of 15 million plus people cultural and minority rights, has ground to a halt. Prime Minister Erdogan just over a year ago recognized the “Kurdish problem” as a democracy problem, but has since denied its existence. Last summer saw the largest escalation of the conflict since the 1990s, and given the government’s recent nationalist posturing, it is highly unlikely that the problem will be resolved.

Most important of all is Turkey’s stalled European Union accession process, the primary fuel behind the rapid-pace reforms that constitute Turkey’s democratic successes at the turn of the millennium. However, more than four years have passed since Turkey began accession negotiations, wherein the country has made little progress in fully meeting the EU’s Copenhagen criteria for democracy and human rights. Indeed, as Dilek Kurban notes in yesterday’s post, progress has actually become regression. Turkey now has a repressive Anti-Terrorism Law in place that has landed thousands in prison without adequate legal redress and torture, illegal detention, and impunity remain problems just as daunting as they were before the AKP entered power in 2002.

The main problem, more than any other, is a ruling party that has distanced itself from the liberal democracy it once embraced to in its place champion a majoritarian conception of rule by the people where minorities, opposition figures, and political dissenters are becoming less secure in their rights by the day. Democracy, as the AKP understands it, is rule by the majority—it is electoral authoritarianism dressed up to look nice for Western audiences keen to fondly fixate on the notion of an Islamist party that has somehow come to champion a long oppressed majority while adopting liberal values. However, the AKP is not liberal. While there is plenty of truth that the majority of conservative Muslim Anatolia has been repressed throughout the history of the country’s history, now it is the majority who is comfortable to reign over the minority.

There is no resolving the Madisonian dilemma—the inherent conflict between majority rule and individual liberties—for the ruling AKP government. There is only a will to power—a will evinced by Prime Minister Erdogan’s designs to create a presidential system. As The Economist noted in its controversial editorial endorsing the CHP and which now has the prime minister fuming about Zionist-driven conspiracies, if the AKP is to unilaterally push through a new constitution, it could end up being worse than the greatly amended one currently in place.

Ironically, if the United States and Europe do not move fast to realize what is happening inside Turkey, the world will lose a country that really could serve as a democratic example to the Arab Middle East. The AKP government made tremendous progress when it first came to power in 2002, and it could be said that the party’s first years in office provided the best government in the history of the Turkish Republic. However, a lot has happened since and the model is at risk. If Turkey’s democratic progress is ultimately lost, then there will not only be the lack of a democratic success story in the region but a failure that could set back Islamist/conservative democrats in other Muslim countries who otherwise have good chances of making democracy work. And, as recent survey research attests, Arabs are paying attention. (66% of Arabs surveyed at the end of last summer said they viewed Turkey as a democratic model.)

What is to be done?

Now is the time for action. The EU accession engine that powered the AKP’s early reform efforts is imperiled by the Greek Cypriot presidency, which will commence in just a little more than a year from now.  This means the Turkish government, which will still be led by the AKP whether the party gains a super majority or not, must make serious progress toward accession. The country is in a race against time. And, no matter what happens in June elections, movement toward a new constitution, or at least major constitutional reform, will be on the plate.

In this context, Turkish civil society will prove key to saving Turkish democracy just as it did during the optimistic years after the EU accepted Turkey’s application for membership in 1999 and major reforms started coming down the pipe. The authoritarian tendencies of Turkish political parties, not exclusive to the current party in power, need to be countered by civil society.

When the AKP tried to make adultery illegal in 2004 and ignore legislative proposals that would reduce the sentences for honor killings and rape in certain instances, it was a highly mobilized network of women’s groups that pushed the party to do the right thing. Many of these groups had become empowered thanks to donor money and expertise, and they fought the good fight, and well, won.

Though Turkey is now confronting a different set of challenges, support for civil society is just as critical now as it was then to support these groups. And, what kind of support exactly? What is needed are not requests for proposals that nearly prompt groups to apply for money, but rather funds for genuine projects grown out of grassroots understandings of political expediency. Turkish civil society groups should be encouraged to do more to work together, as women’s groups did in 2004, and even more importantly, engage political parties, the government, and the state (listed here in an ascending order of difficulty).

Support for strengthening political parties and institution-building has been enormously successful in Turkey, and to some extent, has resulted in the recent democratic turn by CHP we have seen of late, but without funding civil society to keep political parties in check and goad them to respond to democratic demands, little will get done.

And, the impact?

The AKP has accomplished tremendous feats in its time in power, but the party has grown too strong while civil society has lagged behind. Now confident that it is the voice of the majority, without an active, challenging, forward-looking civil society to remind it of its earlier liberal promises, the party will be doomed to failure—and, with it, Turkish democracy. It is no coincidence that civil society and liberalism emerged together in the history of other countries’ political development, and the two go together in Turkey as well.

If Turkish civil society, adequately funded and attended to, can take the mass protest movements we have seen in response to the government’s plans to pass draconian restrictions on Internet usage and round-up journalists and actually organize this anomic political mobilization into smart, organic political engagement with politicians, the result would prove not only beneficial to the longevity of Turkish democracy but also serve as an example to the Arab world.

Gulen Schools in Texas

The New York Times has an extended investigative piece on Gulen schools operating in my home state of Texas. The schools, known as "Harmony Schools," are owned by the Cosmos Foundation, which the paper reports was founded by a group of Turkish businessmen and professors. The piece centers on the ways the school uses public monies. The Cosmos Foundation operates 33 charter schools in Texas, more than any other charter school operator, and receive $100 million in taxpayer money. An excerpt:
Some of the schools’ operators and founders, and many of their suppliers, are followers of Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.

The growth of these “Turkish schools,” as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.
For more about earlier allegations as to the Gulen movement's abuse of the U.S. visa system (now the subject of an FBI investigation), click here. For more on the Gulen movement in Turkey, see past posts.

Monday, June 6, 2011

No Progress on the Human Rights Front . . .

Police beating a group of women assembling during Newroz festivities in Van in 2008.  PHOTO by Anonymous

As Prime Minister Erdogan spent his time this weekend denouncing The Economist's recent endorsement of the CHP, TESEV researcher and Radikal columnist Dilek Kurban writes (in Turkish) about the deterioration of human rights that has taken place since 2005 when Turkey's EU accession negotiations slowed down to a snail's speed.

Writing specifically on the issue of police brutality, torture, and the abuse of detained suspects, Kurban joins thousands of other liberal observers in drawing the conclusion that 2005 marked a turning point not only in Turkey's progress toward EU accession, but also its development toward a healthy, functioning liberal democracy. Kurban mentions two key legal changes that were pushed through with little domestic criticism but that nonetheless set back the significant progress Turkey had made in curtailing the power of the police.

In June 2006, Turkey joined many countries in the world in the wake of 9-11 to pass comprehensive anti-terror legislation. Under Turkey's revamped Anti-Terrorism Law (TMYK),  suspects in terrorism-related cases were allowed to be detained up to 24 hours without access to their attorney. The law also led soon to a rapid increase in the number of journalists, activists, and politicians facing jail time for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda.

In June 2007, amendments to the Police Duties and Authority Law (PVSK) have police the power to conduct searches without warrants and inspect the IDs of people on the streets. Police were also given the authority to open fire on citizens who refused to abide by police orders. The effect of the police law was to essentially reinforce a culture of already existing impunity in regard to human rights violations committed by police and other security officials.

Since both these laws went into force, Turkey has seen a drastic increase in police-related violence, a phenomenon well-documented by Human Rights Watch's end of 2008 report on the issue (for my reflections on the issue at the time, see Dec. 9, 2008 post). The past two years have seen little progress on the issue. In fact, despite a supposed "zero tolerance" policy on torture, Turkey is still grappling with the problem. According to the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT), Turkish citizens still suffer from "numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations concerning the use of torture, particularly in unofficial places of detention."

Kurban concurs with the UNCAT, and noting an increase in the number of torture cases, also points attention to the promotions of police officials with questionable human rights records.

Kurban highlights that a year before The Economist endorsed the AKP in the country's troubled 2007 parliamentary elections, which took place in a period of intense political pressure and interference from the Turkish Armed forces, the AKP had already begun to lose its liberal credentials. However, at the time, there was no mainline party with anything better to offer. The CHP was still holding true to the strong nationalist posture it had taken since re-emerging as the chief opposition party in the early 2000s, and the hopes for a more liberal, more human rights-oriented government justifiably rested with the AKP.

Now, as The Economist duly recognizes, times have changed. The lack of progress, and in some cases, outright regression, is no longer acceptable. Not only has the AKP failed to take advantage of critical opportunities to move the country further afield in terms of human rights, a course which it did a terrific job of steering from 2002 to 2005, the past six years of inaction if now endangering Turkey's progress toward accession. Most unacceptably, the party has done little in recent years, and in stark contrast in earlier efforts, to ensure that Turkish citizens are secure in their personal rights and liberties.

For more on the practice of detention under the Anti-Terrorism Law, which has spiked in recent months given the violence in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast, see this post from earlier last month.

Even MHP Recognizes the Kurdish Problem

PHOTO from Radikal

Even the ultra-nationalist MHP seems to recognize the Kurdish problem. In the party's first campaign rally in the mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir yesterday, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli went a step ahead of Erdogan in recognizing the persistence of the Kurdish problem (for story, in Turkish, click here).

In Diyarbakir last Wednesday, Prime Minister Erdogan declared the Kurdish problem "solved," seemingly closing the peace initiative his government announced in July 2009. In contrast, Bahceli said, "I know you have a problem, but the solution is not street protests." Bahceli, like Erdogan, called for more economic development in the region while arguing that amending the constitution to end prohibitions on education in mother tongue, a long-time and principal demand of many Kurds, will not "fill your stomach."

In the past, the MHP has taken the most hawkish position on the Kurdish issue. An ultra-nationalist Turkey party with historical roots to gangs that target leftists and nationalist Kurds, the party has little hope of being competitive in the region. At the same time, it is significant that even it felt the need to hold a campaign rally in Diyarbakir.

In his speech, Bahceli said Kurds are regarded as equal to Turks, stressing that they too are members of the Turkish "nation," a claim many more nationalist Kurds adamantly reject. While many Kurds are fine being Turkish citizens, the claim that they are Turks due to their bonds of citizenship with the Turkish state (a claim stipulated in Article 66 of the Turkish constitution) raises the ire of more than a small number.

The CHP has proposed amending the constitution to eliminate the controversial article so that Turkish citizenship will not longer beat an ethnic definition, a move which has been denounced by both the AKP and the MHP. It was the first mainline Turkish party in the history of the Turkish republic to do so.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Come Again??

AA PHOTO from Hurriyet Daily News

Campaigning over the weekend, Prime Minister Erdogan said the recent op-ed in The Economist endorsing the CHP was the work of "international gangs" and linked the magazine's support of the CHP to the opposition party's policy supposedly more friendly policy toward Israel. In an interview with the TRGT news channel on Saturday evening, the prime minister said, "This international media, as they are supported by Israel, would not be happy with the continuation of the AKP government. . . . Of course, they have their hands on Turkey nowadays." Is it a Zionist conspiracy? Or, is it that the prime minister simply cannot endure criticism or dissenting opinions?

In all fairness, emotional outbursts are common in Turkish politics, especially less than two weeks away from an election. At the same time, if the prime minister is looking to counter criticisms that he is thin-skinned, authoritarian, and intolerant of dissent, such baseless and strongly accusatory remarks are not winning him or his party any points.

Fellow party cadres Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and EU Chief Negotiator Egeman Bagis have also chimed in. According to Davutoglu, The Economist "violated media ethics" in printing the op-ed. From Bagis's point of view, the op-ed is mere "rubbish" and must have been ordered by "dark powers" inside Turkey (see Radikal columnist Cuneyt Ozdemir (in Turkish)). Okay . . . so not the work on international gangs . . . Ergenekon?

For more in English, see this story from Hurriyet Daily News.

Syrian Opposition Plans a Second Meeting after Elections

Syrian opposition figures are planning another meeting in Turkey after the elections on June 12. Opposition spokesman Khaled Khoja told Turkish press the opposition did not want to create problems for the Turkish government before elections, but that the next meeting will be larger than the one held in Antalya last week and draw on the opposition in Syria who were not able to attend the earlier meeting. However, whether the opposition will be able to cross the border given Syrian security remains to be seen.

The opposition is also hoping for more support and facilitation from the Turkish government, which at this time, is still in regular contact with President Assad. Anonymous Turkish diplomatic officials are telling Turkish press that the Turkish government has given Assad an ultimatum: reform or be prepared for a withdrawal of Turkish support. From Hurriyet Daily News:
In a televised interview over the weekend, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his government would place much focus on the developments in the Middle East and North Africa after the elections.

“We cannot repeat our previous performance during the election time. I am actually quite interested in Syria at this time … I talked on the phone with Mr. Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

The Syrian president is misinforming the Turkish government, according to the Syrian opposition.

“Al-Assad is sending some messages to satisfy the Turkish government that he is going on with new reforms but we don’t believe it at all. This is just to satisfy the public opinion in Turkey and in the international community,” Khoja said.

Asked if they had any contacts within the Turkish government, he said: “At the low level we have some contacts but at the high level, no.”

The planned meeting after the Turkish elections will be more important than the Antalya meeting “because a lot of committees from Syria will gather here,” Khoja said.

“Now they are preparing in Syria to send representatives, some of whom are from Damascus. This will represent the real movement in Syria,” he added. “The opposition outside Syria can only support the movement inside Syria but since the movement in Syria will represent itself at that upcoming meeting, it will be more important.”

Khoja said the group chose Turkey as a venue for its meetings “because Turkey is in the middle of the active countries and it’s so easy to gather here without any visas.” Turkey and Syria abolished visa requirements for travel in 2009.
For an English-language translation of the declaration drafted at the conclusion of the conference on Friday, see Joshua Landis's excellent blog, Syria Comment. Human rights groups are reporting that security forces killed 35 demonstrators over the weekend.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Falling Out of Love

Signalling that the Western media is falling out of love with the AKP, The Economist has endorsed the CHP ahead of the June 12 elections. In 2007, and in the midst of seriously high tensions with the Turkish military over the election of President Gul, the magazine endorsed Erdogan. Now it seems the magazine has turned an about-face. An excerpt:
That Turkish voters are poised to return Mr Erdogan to power in the general election on June 12th is thus not surprising. It is, however, worrying. Mr Erdogan is riding sufficiently high in the polls to get quite close to the two-thirds parliamentary majority that he craves because it would allow him unilaterally to rewrite the constitution. That would be bad for Turkey.

This judgment is not based on the canard that a theocracy is being built. Nine years ago Istanbul’s secular establishment fretted about AK’s Islamist roots—and some early squabbles over religious schools and allowing women to wear the Muslim headscarf at university were indeed troubling. But since then the pious Mr Erdogan and his party have been pragmatic. No matter what the army and too many Israelis (and Americans) whisper, there is scant evidence that AK is trying to turn a broadly tolerant Turkey into the next intolerant Iran.

The real worry about the AK party’s untrammelled rule concerns democracy, not religion. Ever since Mr Erdogan won his battles with the army and the judiciary, he has faced few checks or balances. That has freed him to indulge his natural intolerance of criticism and fed his autocratic instincts. Corruption seems to be on the rise. Press freedom is under attack: more journalists are in jail in Turkey than in China. And a worrying number of Mr Erdogan’s critics and enemies, including a hatful of former army officers, are under investigation, in some cases on overblown conspiracy charges.

On top of this, on the campaign trail Mr Erdogan has begun to take a more stridently nationalist tone: he and his party are no longer making serious overtures to the Kurds, Turkey’s biggest and most disgruntled minority. Mr Erdogan has hinted that if he wins a two-thirds majority next week, he will change the constitution to create a powerful French-style presidency, presumably to be occupied by himself. In a country that is already excessively centralised, that would be a mistake.

It would be better if a new AK government were to take a more broadly inclusive approach. Turkey’s constitution does indeed need a makeover, but it should be rewritten in consultation with other political parties and interest groups, and not as an AK project. The best way to make sure this happens would be to push up the vote for the main opposition party, the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). Assuming that two smaller parties also get into the grand national assembly, that should be enough to deny AK its two-thirds majority.

As it happens, the newish CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (nicknamed Gandhi for his ascetic ways), has been a huge improvement on his dinosaur of a predecessor, Deniz Baykal. He has weeded out much of the party’s old guard, shown himself intolerant of corruption and shifted the party away from its instinctive sympathy for the army’s role in politics. Even more remarkably, Mr Kilicdaroglu has been attracting more supporters than Mr Erdogan to election rallies in the mainly Kurdish south-east, where the CHP has long been weak, by talking more openly of giving all of Turkey’s 81 provinces greater autonomy (it probably helps that he is from the Alevi Muslim minority and that he may have Kurdish forebears).

The AK party is all but certain to form the next government. But we would recommend that Turks vote for the CHP. A stronger showing by Mr Kilicdaroglu’s party would both reduce the risks of unilateral changes that would make the constitution worse and give the opposition a fair chance of winning a future election. That would be by far the best guarantee of Turkey’s democracy.
The Economist has a Turkish-print edition and the endorsement matters. There are already items in the Turkish press that the prime minister is denouncing the magazine, a move that will likely earn him only more scorn. For the story that ran with the op-ed, click here.

In addition to The Economist, Erdogan has also caught the attention of the New York Times, which, while not endorsing the CHP, expresses many of the same concerns about the prime minister's ironclad rule. From the Times:
Turkey does need a new, more democratic constitution. But if the AKP gains 330 of the 550 seats, it will be able to push through a constitutional draft without support from the opposition and put it straight to a referendum. (If the AKP gained 367 seats, it could even to adopt the constitution in a parliamentary vote.) A “one-party” constitution would lead to further divisions in Turkey’s already-polarized political system. The opposition parties, together representing half of Turkey’s electorate, might well boycott a constitutional process dominated by the AKP.

Even among AKP supporters there might not be much debate: Erdogan has single-handedly struck 220 of the current 334 AKP MPs off the candidates’ list and replaced them with little-known loyalists. In a party that was once proud of its local roots, the top-down sweep has left many members cross.

Many observers suspect that Erdogan’s main objective in the new constitution is to move Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system along French lines. Already, the AKP has amended the current Constitution so that future presidents will no longer be elected by Parliament but by the people. The new constitution would presumably give the presidency bigger powers, commensurate with its popular mandate.

Most Turks expect that Erdogan himself will want to become president when Abdullah Gul’s term expires.

In Turkey’s already highly centralized system, a move toward a presidential system does not look like a good idea. It could lead either to rivalry and paralysis between a strengthened president and a traditionally powerful prime minister, both backed by a popular mandate. Or it could further erode checks and balances and reinforce autocratic tendencies.
For my own thoughts, along similar lines, see past posts on the AKP's simple majoritarian conception of democracy and burgeoning authoritarian tendencies. What Turkey is faced with should the AKP continue on its current trajectory is illiberal democracy, or perhaps better (worse?) put, electoral authoritarianism.

I laid much of this out in March 2009 when the AKP first introduced the major constitutional overhaul it pushed through in last September's referendum.