Saturday, July 9, 2016

An Arrogant Incumbent Who Got It All Wrong

There are problems with folks staying in office too long, even in elected democracies. Cult figure-leaders, with or without a little election “engineering,” rely on a grateful nation to put them in office, term-after-term. Vladimir Putin ran into consecutive “term limits” under the Russian constitution, so he moved from “president” to “prime minister” for a term before he could run for president again. Nothing changed. The power of the presidency stayed with Putin even as he was the prime minister. We see the “forever” legacy “presidents” in Africa, even when elections with multiple candidates are even allowed.

But when someone has had the kind of power and autonomy that goes with seemingly “forever” presidencies, people learn pretty quickly not to contradict a power player who likely will be their boss for the foreseeable future. Thus in so many of these countries, tilting against that long-term power-broker can get you imprisoned… or worse. Hence they tend to surround themselves with “yes”-men, never getting the objective advice that they need to avoid unnecessary risks.
When the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of World War I, and as the victors carved up the empire as their spoils of conquest, the core of that empire, Turkey, became a new secular nation under aegis of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a military officer who became that nation’s first president. “[He] led the Turkish National Movement in the Turkish War of Independence. Having established a provisional government in Ankara, he defeated the forces sent by the Allies, eventually leading to victory in the Turkish War of Independence. Atatürk then embarked upon a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms, seeking to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a modern and secular nation-state. Under his leadership, thousands of new schools were built, primary education was made free and compulsory, and women were given equal civil and political rights, while the burden of taxation on peasants was reduced.” Wikipedia.
While the Ottoman’s had seen themselves as the “protectors of (Sunni) Islam,” Atatürk saw the meshing of government and religion as one of the many reasons the Ottomans could not compete in a modern world. And for most of a century, Turkish leaders have followed that secular path, making Turkey one of the most prosperous and modern nations in the Islamic world. But the lure of conservative values, in a nation with exceptional literacy and educational standards, has roiled more than one modern democracy in recent years. It was clear, however, that certain elements of Turkish society would remain intact even with a lurch to the right; women could still work and get educations, and international trade and economic prosperity were unlikely to reverse.
Enter Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, born in the mid-fifties and determined to reintroduce old world Sunni religious values back into his government. He’s been in power for a while. He has been 12th President of Turkey since 2014, but he “previously served as the Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and as the Mayor of İstanbul from 1994 to 1998. He founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and led it to three general election victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011 before standing down as leader upon his election as President in 2014. Originating from an Islamist political background and as a self-described conservative democrat, his administration has overseen social conservative and liberal economic policies.” Wikipedia.
Although much of the economy has been focused on construction, always a dangerous value without a clear, continuing and sustainable use for all that commercial real estate, he has enjoyed solid popularity with an older constituency because of the prosperity that has defined Turkey under his rule. Younger, better-educated (mostly urban) voters were aghast at this drift into religious conservatism at the expense of what they had come to believe was a committed secular country. Their protests turned ugly, but Erdoğan clamped down… hard. Erdoğan has spent the last few years feeling his oats. He and his son slid by a pretty strong accusation of corruption over a recorded phone call, and many suspect he was feeling pretty invulnerable, particularly given the rise of the AKP in the last election.
That ISIS represented Sunni fundamentalism apparently gave Erdoğan comfort that some form of accommodation could be worked out between fellow Sunnis. Strange since ISIS has championed their establishment of a “caliphate” (like the Ottomans) under Sharia law, which clearly contradicted most political realities in Turkey… a nation that was clearly intended to be absorbed by that caliphate.
You just have to look at the above map (on the left) to see how precarious this NATO member this “almost a member of the European Union” (3% of Turkey is in Europe) nation really is. Not only is it squarely on the border with the massive territorial gains made by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but it also right smack dab on one of the most obvious refugee/migrants routes from the ISIS war zone to Western Europe. Further, as ISIS has garnered holdings in neighboring countries, among the most successful counter forces have come from Kurdish fighters, but Erdoğan has also come down hard on Kurdish factions who, on and off over the years, have engaged in armed rebellion seeking independence. The map above right shows the distribution of Kurds in the region. Erdoğan considers many of these Kurds themselves to be terrorists.
But the good president’s intentions seem to be unraveling fast. “Mr. Erdogan, who long professed a foreign policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ now seems to be mired in disputes with just about everybody and just about everywhere. Kurdish and Islamic State militants have struck Turkey 14 times in the past year, killing 280 people and sowing new fears. The economy has suffered, too, as the violence frightens away tourists.
“At the same time, Mr. Erdogan has become increasingly isolated, frustrating old allies like the United States by refusing for years to take firm measures against the Islamic State [although Kurdish militia from Turkey has fought diligently]. He has recently gotten serious about the militant [ISIS] group, but that appears to have brought new problems: Turkish officials say they believe that the Islamic State was responsible for the suicide attack that killed 44 people on Tuesday in Istanbul’s main airport, a major artery of Turkey’s strained economy.
“He has helped reignite war with Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast, and hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting, which began last summer. He alienated Moscow last fall when Turkish forces shot down a fighter jet that he said had strayed into Turkish airspace.
“He had grown so alone that this past week he moved to make peace deals with Russia over the jet’s downing and with Israel over its killing of several Turkish activists on a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010, after railing against both countries to voters.” New York Times, July 4th. Erdoğan political future hinges heavily on (1) containing terrorism within Turkey, but his policies may just not be reversible, and (2) maintaining the stable-growth economy that is probably the basis for his remaining in power. Foreign investment has lost confidence in Turkey, and the numbers are going the wrong way. Not to mention some dark practices that are clearly undemocratic.
“Where Mr. Erdogan once held up Turkey as a model of Muslim democracy, he now frequently attacks democratic institutions. The editor in chief of Turkey’s largest daily has fled the country, and another is on trial on charges of revealing state secrets. The president has grown intolerant of criticism, purging his oldest allies from his inner circle and replacing them with yes men and, in some cases, relatives. (His son-in-law is the energy minister.)
“Mr. Erdogan hints darkly in near-daily speeches on Turkish television that foreign powers are plotting to destroy him, and he has moved from a modest house in central Ankara to a grandiose, Persian Gulf-style palace on the edge of the city. Brown and pink buildings for his staff dot meticulously landscaped grounds so enormous that staff members are driven around in minibuses.
“Now he has set his sights on a new target: transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system of government into a presidential one, a change his critics say could soon open the door to his seizing the title of president for life. On the night of the airport bombing, the Parliament, which his party controls, worked until 5:45 a.m. to pass sweeping legislation that will help pave the way by purging hundreds of judges from Turkey’s top two courts… ‘The ship is going very fast toward the rocks,’ said Ergun Ozbudun, a liberal constitutional expert who once defended Mr. Erdogan. ‘Pray for us.’…
“Today, many say Mr. Erdogan has simply adopted the bad habits of former Turkish leaders he came to power to defeat. He needs allies, so he has struck an alliance with the military — the chief of staff was a witness at his daughter’s wedding — and extreme nationalists are now resurgent. That is deeply troubling to human rights advocates who have documented the missing-person case of a Kurdish politician from Sirnak, Hursit Kulter, the first such disappearance since 2001.” NY Times.
Has Erdoğan finally stepped beyond what he can control? Will his core constituency of older voters – now fearing for their lives as the economy turns downward – remember what he gave them earlier? Or are we watching the twilight of his political career?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the lessons of history are forgotten the longer an incumbent remains in power.

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