Monthly Archives: February 2019

Turkish Leader’s Election Woes

Turkey’s Leader’s Election Woes

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 12, 2019

 

“Democracy is like a tram; you get off when you have reached your destination.” The comment by Recep Tayyip Erdogan—made more than 20 years ago when he was first elected mayor of Istanbul—sums up the Machiavellian cynicism of Turkey’s authoritarian president. As Turkey gears up for municipal elections March 31, it is a prophecy Erdogan has more than fulfilled: the prisons filled with the opposition, the media largely silenced, the courts intimidated, the bureaucracy tamed, and more than 150,000 people fired.

 

But for all that, there are dark clouds on the horizon, much of them largely of the President’s own making. And since it is traditional for the Turkish electorate to use local elections to send a message, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be in for a setback.

 

For one thing, the AKP’s bread and butter issue, the economy, is in trouble, and maybe very serious trouble. Industrial production has fallen 6 percent and retail sales 7 percent, and overall growth has dropped from 7.4 percent in 2017 to a projected 2 percent in 2019. Inflation is at 20.3 percent and unemployment is accelerating. The most recent figures show that more than 11 percent are out of work, with almost twice that for young people age 15 to 24, who constitute some 20 percent of Turkey’s population.

 

In the past “terrorism” was the major concern for voters, but recent polls indicate that the economy is the number one issue, followed by unemployment and Syrian refugees.

 

Erdogan constructed his election juggernaut on economic growth that lifted a considerable section of the population out of poverty and fueled a major growth of the middle class. Much of that economy was centered on the construction industry and mega-projects like shopping malls, bridges and the largest airport in the world.

 

For Erdogan an economy built around massive projects was a win-win formula: the AKP handed out lucrative contracts to big construction firms, which, in turn, filled the electoral coffers of a party that went from the margins of the political spectrum to at one point winning almost 50 percent of the electorate.

 

But growth fell to an anemic 1.6 percent in the third quarter of last year, and the construction industry is in a recession, with large layoffs almost certain. The crisis of the building trades has had a domino effect on allied industries in cement, steel and ceramics. And the combination of the lira’s fall in value, coupled with the economic insecurity people are feeling, has depressed sales in the automotive industry, electronics and appliances,

 

The Turkish economy has long been reliant on foreign capital—so-called “hot money”— to keep the factories humming and living standards rising. But hot money is drying up and the bills are coming due. Since much of Turkey’s debt is in foreign currency, it is harder to pay off those debts with a depressed lira. Ankara has opened talks with the International Monetary Fund to explore a bailout, but IMF bailouts come with a price tag: austerity, not exactly a winning electoral program.

 

While much of Erdogan’s political opposition has been jailed or sidelined, it has not been cowed. In spite of nine parliamentary deputies from the Kurdish-based left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) being imprisoned, that party still managed to get enough votes in the last election to hold their spot as the third largest party in the parliament. A hunger strike by imprisoned Kurdish activists has also generated sympathy for the HDP, and for the first time in Turkish history many of the Kurdish parties have formed a united front.

 

The HDP has also decided not to run candidates for the mayoralties of the big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, in order to help elect candidates from the secular center-right Republican People’s Party (CHP). In short, anyone but the AKP.

 

The AKP used to get a substantial number of Kurdish votes, particularly from conservative rural areas. But when Erdogan launched a crackdown on the Kurds in an effort to marginalize the HDP, he lost many of those voters. While not all of them have migrated to the left party, they have shifted their votes to other Kurdish parties, now united under the Kurdistani Election Alliance.

 

There is a certain amount of irony here. In an effort to make sure the AKP’s ally, the extreme rightwing National Action Party (MHP) made it into Parliament, Erdogan rammed through a law that allows parties form electoral alliances. Even if a party doesn’t reach the 10 percent threshold required to enter parliament, it will still win seats if it is allied with a bigger party.

 

But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

 

The CHP has formed an alliance with the nationalist Iti (“Good”) Party, and most of the Kurdish parties are under one umbrella. It is likely that those alliances will end up winning seats that they wouldn’t have under the old rules.

 

Besides domestic woes, Erdogan’s foreign policy is hardly a major success. The Turkish occupation of northern Syria has failed to scatter the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces, and it looks increasingly like Ankara has stumbled into a quagmire. Erdogan’s plan was to drive the Kurds out and re-populate the area with Syrian refugees. Instead he is in a standoff with the Russians and the Americans, and, to protect themselves, the Kurds appear to be cutting a deal with the government of Bashar al-Assad.

 

There is a strong streak of nationalism among the Turks, and Erdogan may yet harvest it by pressing the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Iraq and Syria. But the Turkish army is overextended and still reeling from the purge of officers and rank and file that followed the failed 2016 coup. And there are credible reports that the military is not overly happy with occupying part of Syria.

 

The Turkish President did score points in his battle with Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as with his support for Kuwait and Qatar in their dispute with the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis. His willingness to resist US sanctions against Iran is also popular, because it means trade and a lift for Turkey’s ailing economy.

 

However, the March vote is not likely to turn on foreign policy, but rather on pocket book issues like unemployment and the wobbling economy. Erdogan is doing his best to head off any unrest over the economy by handing out low-interest loans and giveaways, like paying electrical bills for economically stressed families.

 

The opposition also claims that the AKP alliance is stuffing the rolls with non-existent voters. HDP investigators found that one house in Hakkari in the Kurdish southeast has 1,108 registered voters.

 

But Turkish agriculture is a mess, and construction and manufacturing are staggering under an enormous debt load. Erdogan has used the power of the state to hobble his opposition, but the state of emergency is alienating foreign investors and many Turks are increasingly weary of it.

 

In the 2017 referendum that bestowed almost unlimited executive powers on Erdogan, he lost Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s largest cities. A recent poll showed support for the AKP had dropped from 42.5 percent the Party got in the 2018 election to 35 percent today.

 

After 17 years of power, after using every device he could—including stuffing ballot boxes—to build a powerful executive system orbiting around him, it is hard to imagine Erdogan suffering a set back. But tossing people in prison and intimidating opposition has had little effect on repairing the economy or raising living standards. And many Turks may be souring on the “destination” that Erdogan has brought them to, and they could well decide to send that message on March 31.

 

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Iran: The Drift Toward War

Edging Toward War With Iran?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 1, 2019

 

 

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea—one day, friends, another day, foes. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

 

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning. Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he has long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Teheran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of US sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

 

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

 

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

 

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project, told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

 

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never when they are imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the US. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

 

This time around, the US is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the US trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

 

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

 

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Teheran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal would not do much to dissuade the US, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Teheran’s most implacable enemies.

 

It is not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

 

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the US and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

 

Of course, if the US and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

 

Such a war would be unpopular in the US. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and by a margin of more than two to one, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war—37 percent strongly so—only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

 

The year 2020 is also the next round of US elections where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The US would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most American’s favorite allies.

 

And it is not even a certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the US is not involved.

 

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

 

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles, you just blow a lot of things up.

 

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than it is Iran, and with good reason.

 

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

 

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

 

Lebanese legal scholar, Ali Mourad, told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

 

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

 

Would—or could—Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

 

So is US National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran? Possibly, but it is a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word. The US will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Teheran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

 

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their long time goal. If they pull it off, the US will ignite yet another forever war.

 

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