Monthly Archives: October 2015

Turkey’s Election Turmoil

Turkey’s Election Turmoil

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 18, 2015

 

As Turkey gears up for one of the most important elections in its recent history, the country appears, as one analyst noted, to be coming apart at the “seams”:

 

*Longstanding tensions with the country’s Kurdish population have broken out into open war.

 

*A Kurdish-led left political party is under siege by rightwing nationalists and the terrorist organization, the Islamic Front.

 

*Independent journalists have been attacked by mobs led by leading members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 

*Erdogan, his family, and leading figures in the AKP have been entangled in several major corruption schemes.

 

*The economy has stalled, inflation is on the rise, unemployment is at a five year high, tourism is tanking, and the Turkish lira is plunging, driving up the national debt.

 

All Turkey lacks these days is a rain of frogs and rivers of blood, but there is still time before Nov. 1 election.

 

Some of these plagues are long standing, but most are the direct result of Erdogan’s determination to reverse the outcome of last June’s election that saw the AKP lose control of the parliament, and the President’s grand plan for an all-powerful executive—run by him—died aborning.

 

In the June 7 election, Erdogan’s AKP lost its absolute majority in the legislature. The defeat was mainly due to a breakthrough by the Kurdish-led, leftist, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) that took 13.1 percent of the vote and won 80 seats, seats that in the past usually went to the AKP.

 

Almost before the final tallies were announced, Erdogan moved to prevent the formation of a government and force another election. Key to this has been an all-out campaign to suppress the HDP and prevent the party from getting at least 10 percent of the vote, the required threshold for representation

 

And in true Old Testament fashion, he has unleashed the furies.

 

First, he ended negotiations and a two-year old ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and began bombing Kurds in Syria and Iraq. He also charged that the HDP was a front for the PKK and demanded that the HDP’s dynamic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, be charged with supporting terrorism. HDP offices have been targeted by rightwing nationalist mobs from the AKP and the extreme rightist National Action Party.

 

Several anti-Erdogan newspapers and magazines were also set upon, attacks that the government either ignored or belatedly condemned.

 

The kind of suicide bombings that plague much of the Middle East have made an appearance. Some 32 leftist Kurdish activists were killed July 20 in the border town of Suruc, and on Oct. 10 a peace demonstration in Ankara organized by the HDP was bombed, killing more than 100 people and wounding hundreds more.

 

While the culprit in both cases was likely the Islamic State, paranoia is running rampant these days. Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu blamed the PKK—extremely improbable, given that the rally was protesting the war against the Kurds—and HDP leader Demirtas blamed the government. Others charge it was the work of the National Action Party’s “Gray Wolves,” a shadowy death squad that killed thousands of Kurds and leftists in the 1980s and ‘90s.

 

Not only did the government remain silent for several days after the massacre, Turkish security forces broke up memorial demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul.

 

A decade ago, Turkey was at peace with its neighbors, its economy was humming, democracy was flowering, the country’s coup-minded military relegated to the barracks, and the 40-year war with its Kurdish population appeared to be over. Turkey, with its efforts to find a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis with Iran, had also become an international player.

 

Today, Turkey is engaged in an unpopular war in Syria, its economy is troubled, its people are polarized, its relationships with Egypt and Israel are hostile, the Kurdish peace is shattered, and democracy is under siege. It has alienated Russia, Iraq and Iran, and even failed to get re-elected to the UN Security Council.

 

What happened?

 

Much of it goes back to the man who has dominated Turkish politics these past 12 years, and who would like to run the country for another decade, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He bears limited responsibility for some of this. For instance, the economy is bad, but so are most economies worldwide. But much of what has happened in Turkey—for good and bad—is in large part due to his creation of a moderate Islamic regime that curbed the power of the military and the secular elites who had dominated Turkish politics since the nation’s foundation in 1923.

 

Erdogan and his allies—allies he has since fallen out with—reined in a military that had carried out four coups since 1960. He also made peace with the Kurds, ending a war that took 40,000 lives and cost $1.2 trillion. A side benefit for that was that many rural and religious Kurds migrated into the AKP, giving it a significant edge over all other parties in the parliament.

 

But things began to go off the rails in 2010, when the Arab Spring took the Middle East by storm and Turkey made two fateful steps: backing insurgents trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The first step trapped Ankara in a quagmire, wrecking its relations with Russia, Iraq and Iran, and the second was a bad bet: the Egyptian military, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, overthrew the Brotherhood in 2013.

 

It is all this sturm und drang that makes these elections so critical for the AKP, and Erdogan in particular. A failure to win an outright majority will be seen as a repudiation of the Kurdish war, Ankara’s Syria policy, and may resurrect the corruption changes that the AKP has managed to dodge so far. “For him, this is existential,” one former Turkish official told the Financial Times. “There is still accountability in this country and he knows it.”

 

This “existential” nature of the Nov. 1 vote is the reason why Erdogan has pulled out all the stops, but polls show that the outcome is likely to be much like last June’s election. The AKP may pick up a percentage point or two, but it will fall far short of the majority it requires to push through its constitutional changes and create an all-powerful presidency.

 

The polls also show that Erdogan’s major pre-election target, the HDP, may do slightly better this time around, in part because he has totally alienated the Kurdish community. The Kurds make up 20 percent of the population and about 17 to 18 percent of the voting population.

 

If the polls are correct, Turkey will have a divided government, and that will create its own dangers.

 

First, there are the President’s increasingly authoritarian stratagy.

 

Erdogan, for instance, says he is no longer bound by the constitution because he is the first directly elected president in Turkish history. He won that post with 52 percent of the vote in 2014. Presidents are normally appointed by the parliament and are supposed to be non-partisan. Abdurrahim Boynukalin, the leader of the AKP’s youth wing and a deputy in the parliament, said recently that, “Whatever the results of the election on November 1, we will make him [Erdogan] the leader.”

 

Second, the AKP may form an alliance with the ultra-rightwing National Action Party, which would almost certainly mean an escalation of the war against the Kurds and put into positions of power an organization that celebrates violence and is openly contemptuous of democracy. While the merger would still not give the AKP the 400 seat super majority it needs to amend the constitution, it would have a chilling effect on political activity.

 

There is also the possibility of a “grand coalition” government with the secular People’s Republican Party, the second largest in the parliament. But that would require sharing power, not one of Erdogan’s strong suits.

 

There are, however, strong counter-trends.

 

In spite of Erdogan’s flirtation with authoritarian rule, Turkey is still a democracy, and its military shows no interest in intervening in civil affairs. Indeed, there is some unrest in the military over the Kurdish war, and the government has been denounced at several military funerals. The military has also made it quite clear that they have no interest in getting involved in the Syrian civil war.

 

Erdogan calculated that re-igniting the Kurdish war would unite the country behind him, but it has not turned out that way, and his international allies are lukewarm about the whole endeavor. While saying that Turkey had the right to defend itself, The Europeans and the U.S. call for a “proportional” response, not the massive bombing Ankara has launched on Kurds in Northern Iraq and Syria.

 

Of course, the allies discomfort is a reflection of the fact that while the AKP government draws no distinction between the Islamic State (IS), the PKK, and the latter’s Syrian offshoot, the Kurdish Democratic Union, the allies consider the Kurds their most reliable and effective forces against the IS. The Turks recently complained to Russia and the U.S. about their arming of Syrian Kurds, a complaint that neither country is likely to pay much attention to.

 

The Syria war has been a disaster for Erdogan. Some 63 percent of Turks oppose the AKP’s Syria policy, and only 20 percent back overthrowing Assad. Over 65 percent oppose one of Erdogan’s fixations, the formation of a buffer zone inside Syria.

 

And, while in the past the AKP can say it delivered on the economic front that is a hard sell these days.

 

The next few weeks will be fraught with danger. The AKP and the ultra-nationalists will try to suppress the vote, particular in Istanbul and the Kurdish east and south. The PKK declared a ceasefire for the election, but the Turkish government has ignored it. Will Erdogan use the war as an excuse to cancel the election in the Kurdish regions?

 

Erdogan may even refuse to accept the results of the election if the AKP does poorly, and he has already demonstrated his willingness to use violence. His brutal crushing of the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations is a case in point.

 

But Erdogan can no longer claim the support of a majority of the Turks, and what he does internally will be watched closely by the international community, focused as it is on the refugee crisis that the Syrian war has generated.

 

In less than two weeks, the Turks will vote in an election that will have major regional and international implications. Its outcome may decide whether the Middle East slides deeper into war and chaos, or begins to move in the direction that the Arab Spring originally envisioned.

 

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Portugal: European Left Batting 1,000

Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 7, 2015

 

In spite of a well-financed scare campaign, and a not very subtle effort by the European Union (EU) to load the dice in the Oct. 4 Portuguese elections, the ruling rightwing Forward Portugal coalition lost its majority in the parliament, Left parties garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, and the austerity policies that have paralyzed the country for four years took a major hit.

 

Along with last month’s Greek election, it was two in a row for the European Left.

 

While most the mainstream media touted the election as a victory for Prime Minister Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party/Popular Party coalition, the rightist alliance dropped from 50.4 percent in the 2011 election to 38.4 percent, losing 28 seats. In contrast, the center-left Socialist Party picked up 11 seats, the Communist/Green alliance 1 seat, and the Left Bloc 13 seats. All in all, the Left went from 40 percent of the vote in 2011 to a little over 50 percent in 2015.

 

There are still four seats to be determined by the votes of expatriates, but even if all four went to Forward Portugal, it would still be short of a majority. And given that a flood of young, mostly professional, Portuguese fled the austerity regime inflicted on the country by the “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission—those votes may well end up in the Left’s column.

 

The parliament has 230 seats. The Right now controls 104 and the left 121. A majority is 116 seats.

 

The surprise in the election was that the Left Bloc more than doubled its representation in spite of the fact that there were three Left parties vying for voters.

 

The Right ran endless images of poor Greek pensioners lining up at banks, and warned voters that voting for the Left could result in the kinds draconian measures the EU took out on Greece, but the scare tactics didn’t work.

 

The Troika also eased up on Portugal prior to the election, exactly the opposite approach it took in Greece, even though Portugal’s debt is still high and its growth is anemic—1.6 percent this year. Unemployment has come down from a high of 17 percent, but it is still 12 percent, and over 30 percent among youth—those that haven’t emigrated. Out of a population of 10.4 million, some 485,000 young people emigrated from 2011 to 2014.

 

In what one leftwing party member told the Financial Times was an “unseemly interference” in the election, Standard & Poor’s upgraded Portugal’s credit rating just two weeks before the election. S&P has long been accused of politicizing its credit ratings.

 

Forward Portugal is already backing away from some of its more bombastic attacks on the Left, and Coelho says his coalition would enter into “necessary agreements” with the Socialists in the future. Most commentators think the new parliamentary alignment is too unstable to last long.

 

The question now is, can the Left unite to roll back the four years of austerity that has impoverished the country? One in five Portuguese are below the poverty line of $5,589 income a year, and the minimum wage is $584 a month. Portugal has one of the greatest income disparities in Europe—the top 20 percent earn six times more than the bottom 20 percent—and education levels are among the lowest in the EU.

 

But much of the Left is not on the same page. Indeed, it did surprising well in the election considering its message was hardly consistent.

 

The Socialist Party is still saddled with the fact that it instituted the austerity policies in 2011 when financial speculators in the rest of Europe drove up interest rates on borrowing. Contrary to the Right’s charge, the debt was due to financial speculation, not spending. The Socialists also had a corruption problem, so voters turned to the Right in the 2011 election.

 

With an absolute majority in the parliament, the rightist alliance slashed wages, cut back pensions, privatized public property and raised taxes. One of the few checks on the slash-and-burn assault was the Portuguese Constitutional Court, which blocked some of the more onerous austerity measures.

 

In this election the Socialists ran against the austerity policies, but the message voters got was mixed: roll back austerity, but abide by EU rules. However, given that it was the EU rules that brought on the austerity, it was a message that voters found hard to decipher. The Socialists were also silent on the debt, a large part of which is of a questionable nature.

 

A study by the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt found that most debt was not due to government spending, but massive tax cuts and rising interest rates. The Committee concluded that as much as 50 percent to 60 percent of most countries debts were “illegitimate.”

 

The Left Bloc—which is close to Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party—not only opposed the austerity, it demanded debt reduction. Indeed, without debt reduction—a so-called “haircut”—it is unlikely that small countries, like Greece, Portugal or Ireland, can ever emerge from their current economic crises. After years of austerity, Portugal’s debt is still among the highest in Europe.

 

The Communist/Green alliance did marginally better than 2011, although the Left Bloc passed if for the first time. The Communist Party has a strong reservoir of respect in Portugal because of its long resistance to the 48-year military dictatorship. It has been a consistent opponent of the austerity policies, but so far it has shown little interest in working with the Socialists, which its leaders say is Forward Portugal light. The Party calls for an exit from the Eurozone, the 19 countries in the 28-member European Union that use the Euro. While some on the Left also want to leave the Eurozone, the Socialist Party is committed to the common currency.

 

However, there is agreement scross the Left around privatizations and cuts, and that the crisis in housing, education, and daily life—including food and medical care—has to be addressed. Without a majority, the Right will have to back away from more austerity and plans to privatize some schools and public pensions.

 

Does this election have reverberations outside of Portugal? The Wall Street Journal’s headline on the outcome was that it was “a cause for concern” for Spain’s rightwing government, which goes before the voters in about 10 weeks.

 

But if there is one thing that the recent election in Greece made obvious, it is that small countries cannot take on the power of the EU by themselves. The European Union is now the single most powerful alliance of capital on the planet, and it is not a bit shy about crushing anything it sees as a potential threat. However, the Troika’s efforts to scare—and bribe—Portugal failed.

 

So, what is to be done?

 

In the long run, a common currency was a bad idea for everyone but Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the banks, but a quick exit would be like pulling a spear out of your leg—without careful preparations you are likely to hemorrhage to death. While the ultimate goal should be to move away from the euro, the process may take awhile.

 

One thing the European Union is vulnerable on is democracy. Being in the EU essentially means abandoning sovereignty. The recently signed agreement between the Troika and Greece says that the former can veto any policy it does not agree with, including anti-corruption legislation aimed at tax scofflaws. Essentially, democracy has become dispensible.

 

Syriza and the Portuguese Left successfully made this an issue in their campaigns, and it has great potential to become a pan-European issue. At the same time, there is potential danger with the issue of sovereignty, and the Left must clearly distinguish itself from the xenophobic European Right’s opportunistic adoption of the issue.

 

Ronan Burtenshaw, vice-chair of the Irish Congress of Trade Union Youth Committee and Coordinator of the Greek Solidarity Committee in Ireland, has proposed that the European Left look to Latin America for a model.

 

Mercosur, the huge Latin American trading block, is the third largest on the planet, but it doesn’t dictate economic policy to its members. The Bolivarian Alliance, ALBA, draws progressive countries into a political and economic union, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States has replaced the U.S. dominated Organization of American States. The Bank of the South offers development loans without the rigid strictures of the IMF and the World Bank.

 

Latin America is a counter to the European mantra that “there is no alternative” to economic crisis and debt but austerity. Each country in the region developed its own way of turning away from the market-driven, austerity laden “Washington consensus” that blitzed economies from Brasilia to Santiago during the 1980s and ‘90s. And the Left played an important role in establishing continent-wide political and economic connections, specifically in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia.

 

There are, of course, differences. Many in the European Left contrast Argentina’s successful replacement of the dollar with the peso and its refusal to service its debt with Syriza’s acceptance of the Troika’s demands.

 

But Argentina is a big, powerful country, self-sufficient in energy and food. Greece—or Portugal or Ireland—is neither. And while Argentina had support from other countries in the region, Greece stood alone, even from parties like the French Socialists and the German Social Democrats.

 

Somehow the Left will have to chart a perilous passage between resisting austerity on one hand, and not committing suicide on the other—or rather, allowing the Troika to impoverish its base even more than it currently has. How that will happen is hardly clear, but solidarity is its essential ingredient, along with a willingness to work with others.

 

The Left will have to persuade or pressure center-left forces to abandon their romance with the euro and confront the social crisis created by austerity. Social democratic parties should take note that moving to the right does not translate into political power. Syriza smoked the center forces in Greece, and the Left Bloc made the biggest gains in Portugal.

 

To a certain extent, this process is underway with the election of long-time leftist Jeremy Corbyn to head the British Labor Party.

 

In his speech at the Fete de la Rose this past summer, former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, told the Socialist Party gathering that what the Left in Greece had done was to give Europeans “a sense that democracy can change things.” Portugal was another step on that path, with Spain due up in December and Ireland in April.

 

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