Monday, June 20, 2011

Event: A Year after the First Gaza Flotilla

I will be part of a panel discussion this Friday in Washington that take a look at last year's Gaza flotilla and its impact on the region. Here are the details:
The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. presents

The New Middle East:
A Year after the First Flotilla

Friday, June 24, 2011
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Noura Erakat
Human Rights Attorney and Activist

Yigal Schleifer
Independent Journalist

Nuh Yilmaz
Director, The SETA Foundation

Moderator: Kilic Kanat, Syracuse University

More than a year after the first flotilla, a second humanitarian aid flotilla is scheduled to set sail for Gaza on June 25, 2011. As civilian initiatives, flotillas had political and diplomatic repercussions for the regional dynamics. What kind of an impact did the first flotilla have on the region as a whole? Given the new regional dynamics after the Arab Spring, in what ways is the second flotilla different? Does the limited opening of the Rafah border by Egypt have a bearing on the rationale of the second flotilla? What are the implications for the Palestinian problem? Our panelists will seek answers these questions and discuss the New Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring a year after the first flotilla.

For more details, click here. [UPDATE: You can find a video and photos of the event here.]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Democracy Agenda

I have a new policy briefing out for the Project on Middle East Democracy that looks at Turkey's recent elections and what the results mean for the country's ongoing democratization project. From the briefing:
Turkey’s free and fair parliamentary elections on June 12 were yet another important achievement for a country that over the decades has seen four military coups and various other interventions in its democratic process. The poll was also a historic milestone for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won its third straight election and which again managed to increase its share of the national vote, this time reaching close to 50 percent.
But the AKP may have little time to celebrate its victory. While the party has broken significant political and economic ground over its nine years in power, the upcoming period might prove to be the most difficult yet. In the coming weeks and months, the AKP will have to address an overheating economy, turmoil in next-door Syria, escalating tension over the Kurdish issue, as well as questions about how it intends to push ahead on its plans to introduce a new constitution and to revive the stalled European Union (EU) membership process. At the same time, the AKP and, in particular, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are likely to continue facing charges both at home and abroad that Erdogan’s leadership style has become increasingly autocratic and that some of the democratic gains made in Turkey—particularly regarding freedom of the press and freedom of expression—are under threat.
How Erdogan and the AKP respond to these issues will have profound implications for the continuing development of Turkey’s democracy and will also require close monitoring by the United States. While policymakers and pundits alike have focused almost exclusively on Turkey’s possible “drift away from the West,” it is the internal drift from the path of domestic reform that should be the major cause for concern. Washington should coordinate closely with Ankara on the international front—particularly regarding events in the Middle East—but it must also keep a close eye on domestic developments in Turkey and be prepared to put Ankara on notice for any backsliding on the democracy front.
You can read the full piece here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Turkish Elections 2011: The Post-Mortem

The results of today’s parliamentary elections in Turkey are a bit deceptive. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), of course, can claim to be the day’s big winner, but the three other parties that made it into parliament can also claim something of a victory. That said, the victory parties shouldn’t last that long. Each party – the AKP included – comes out of this election facing some significant questions about what the future holds for it.

Some thoughts regarding each party and its performance:

According to current results, the AKP won the election with nearly 50 percent of vote, an increase of some 3.5 points over the last election and the party’s third consecutive victory at the polls. At the same time, because of Turkey’s parliamentary arithmetic, the party’s seats dropped from 341 to 326. In that sense, the AKP’s victory should be tempered by the fact that it failed to achieve its goal of winning at least 330 seats in this election, something which would have then allowed the party to pass a new constitution and then send it off to a national referendum, which it would have likely won.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an effort to get above 330 seats, ran a blistering campaign that saw the AKP turn up the nationalist rhetoric in order to woo the voters of the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and keep that party from reaching the 10 percent threshold necessary to enter parliament. In the end, the MHP still managed to pass the threshold, the AKP didn’t get the 330 seats it so desperately wanted, and Turkey is left with a Kurdish population that feels like it was badly burned by the PM in this election (the AKP lost quite a bit of ground in the Kurdish southeast region in this election) and a MHP that believes it was the government that was behind the “sex tape” scandal that seemed designed to bring the party to its knees. Obviously, this is not a good recipe for creating the kind of atmosphere needed to get the different parties in parliament to work together on drafting a new constitution, which is what Erdogan promised he would try to do in his victory speech. With its win, does the AKP use the occasion to further consolidate their power, or does the party work towards uniting what has become an increasingly fractured nation? After his party’s decisive win in the 2007 elections, Erdogan also promised to lead a government that represents all of Turkey, but that sense of inclusiveness soon fell to the wayside.

The election also leaves the AKP with unanswered questions about Erdogan’s future. Heading into the elections, the party’s forward plan revolved around introducing a new constitution that created a strong presidential system, with Erdogan moving into the president’s office after what would be his last term as PM. But its not clear if the AKP can get the other parties to agree to a new constitution that has the presidential system change in it (many in the AKP, especially current President Abdullah Gul, are apparently also not fond of the system change idea). The question then is what does Erdogan do after this term as PM, which is supposed to be his last according to his party’s bylaws? Does he become president under the current system, taking over a less-powerful position that would require him to play the role of non-partisan national paterfamilias? Does the AKP, which could very well find itself adrift without Erdogan at the helm, revise its bylaws to allow him to run again?

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) saw its share of the vote increase from 20 percent in 2007 to just over 25 percent, while its number of seats in parliament rose from 112 to 135. Again, party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu can claim a kind of victory, but the party’s showing falls short of the 30 percent of the vote that it had hoped for. Despite barnstorming the country and riding on what seemed to be a wave of increased enthusiasm for the CHP, Kilicdaroglu still only managed to do well in Turkey’s western Aegean region, a long-time CHP stronghold, and in the eastern province of Tunceli, where he was born. In that sense, the CHP failed to break out in this election, and even fell back in some areas that had previously supported it.

For the CHP, the election raises questions about what are the natural limits of what a left-leaning, social democratic party can achieve in electoral terms in Turkey and just how the party can realistically manage to return to power some day. For Kilicdaroglu, today’s vote was also a referendum on his position as leader of the CHP. He can claim that he has led the party to its most successful showing since the early 1980’s, gaining some 3.5 million new voters. But there will be voices within the party that will accuse him of having failed to capitalize on an opportunity to gain even more votes and get close to the 30 percent mark and that will blame this failure on the party's departure from the the strict vision of Kemalism that it had espoused under its previous leadership. This will leave the party, which must find a way to update and modernize its Kemalist vision, again susceptible to the kind of infighting that Kilicdaroglu had to deal with when he first became party leader.

Since the MHP was in danger of being shut out of this parliament because of the “sex tapes” scandal that plagued it, by getting over the 10 percent threshold and winning 53 seats (as compared to 71 in 2007), the nationalist party can also claim victory. But the party comes out these elections an undeniably diminished one, failing to make a significant showing in any part of the country that counts and with mounting questions about its relevance and future direction. Just what does it mean to be a “nationalist” party in 2011 and does Turkey really need one? If the party wants to survive, does it do so by (dangerously) doubling down on the nationalism or by rebranding itself as a more traditional center-right party? Like the CHP, the MHP also has to come to terms with the built-in limits on how many votes it can obtain and what that means for its future viability on the national level. And, like the CHP, it is likely to see an internal leadership struggle emerge in the coming weeks or months.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), could be seen as one of Sunday’s big winners, gaining an expected 36 seats, up from 2007’s 22 (the party, in order to avoid the threshold question, runs all its candidates as independents). With its tight focus on the Kurdish issue and with its base of support mostly limited to the southeast region, the BDP will remain an identity-based party whose role in parliament is to advocate on behalf of a set of issues that have a limited ethnic and regional appeal, a kind of Turkish Bloq Quebecois. Clearly, the party has benefitted from Erdogan’s backsliding on the Kurdish issue, but getting that issue back on track will require the BDP to deal with the AKP, which is promising to get back to working on its “Kurdish opening” after the elections. Can the BDP and the AKP work together after this bruising campaign, or will Erdogan once again ignore it and render it ineffective? Can the party step back from the more provocative statements made by some of its more militant members and step out from under the shadow of the PKK, which would enable it to become a more “mainstream,” but possibly more effective, member of Turkish political life? Either way, it’s clear that any serious movement on the Kurdish issue will not be possible without the inclusion of the BDP and its parliamentary group.

Collectively, this election – which failed to give the AKP the ability to determine Turkey’s political future on its own terms – represents a potential “growing up” moment for the four parties that made it into parliament. Can they move beyond the political polarization that has increasingly characterized Turkish politics for the last decade and work together on drafting a new constitution and a new political climate that can take Turkey forward? Can the parties envision a shared sense of Turkish national identity that they can all work towards building and strengthening? If Erdogan can preside over and guide such a process, then his position in the pantheon of great Turkish leaders would be truly sealed. On the other hand, if he helps create an atmosphere that brings out the worst in his rivals, his legacy will be tainted.

(photo: Inside the AKP's Diyarbakir headquarters. By Yigal Schleifer)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Turkish Elections 2011: The Blog View

With the Turkish elections set for Sunday, I've asked Aengus Collins, the man behind the very intelligent and informative "Istanbul Notes" blog to answer some questions about the vote's significance. His answers are posted below. In return, he sent me a series of questions about the election, and has posted my answers over on his blog. You can find those answers here.

1. Although this election's results have been more or less preordained, how significant is this year's parliamentary election in Turkey? What's at stake?

One of the things that makes this election potentially very significant is the simple fact that we're able to talk about its result as if it were almost a foregone conclusion. Nine years since the AKP first came to power, the chances of it being replaced by an alternative government are basically nil. In part that reflects the ineffectiveness of the political opposition, but it's also a reflection of the AKP's ruthless efficiency at consolidating its grip on power during its period in office. The AKP is now the natural party of government in Turkey. That won't always be the case, and there are tentative signs of progress within the CHP, but for the moment the AKP is the only game in town when it comes to winning elections.

That kind of electoral dominance is always a worry, because a prerequisite of healthy democratic politics is the realistic prospect of power changing hands. But the AKP's predominance takes on new significance in Sunday's election because of what's likely to follow in subsequent months and years. The most obvious consideration is the promised drafting of a new constitution. Ideally this would be thrashed out between the various parties and groupings that make up Turkey's deeply polarised public sphere. Instead, depending on the election result it's possible that AKP will get to write the constitution unilaterally. In a country that's not known for its traditions of political self-restraint this would be an unambiguously negative development.

In more general terms, there's a growing sense that years of uninterrupted success have started to go to the head of the AKP and of the prime minister, Mr Erdogan, in particular. The party's second term in office has been characterised by a prime ministerial swagger that has become uglier as the years have ticked by. There is a risk that this will simply be exacerbated once the party wins its third term. Of particular concern are persistent suggestions that Mr Erdogan hankers after a presidential system. This would formalise his personal dominance of the political scene. Again, this would be an unambiguously negative development. Countries with patchy democratic histories fare better with parliamentary institutions. Presidential systems offer too much leeway to leaders who wish to centralise power and sidestep as many checks and balances as possible.

2. If you look back at the last few years of AKP rule, what do you think a victory in these elections means for the democratization process in Turkey and the AKP's future role in it?

I think it's important to clarify what we mean by Turkey's democratisation process, because in a sense there are two of them. First, there's the actual, objective evolution of the country's democratic institutions and practices. I'm not sure that an AKP victory would make a huge difference to that process. It is certainly true that the government has been playing increasingly fast and loose with some key democratic principles, notably the separation of powers and the freedom of the press. This is of real concern, and one has to worry that more of the same would ensue if the AKP wins again. But if we take a step back and look at the broader sweep of events, these current failings don't necessarily represent a massive break with Turkey's deeply imperfect democratic traditions. Unfortunately, democratic abuses are nothing new here.

What is new, however, is the context in which these abuses are occurring. And this is where we come to the second democratisation process. This is a different beast entirely, reflecting not what's actually happening on the ground, but the way in which what's happening is spun to the electorate. Since 2007/08, the AKP seems to have twigged that in a country with a history like Turkey's, the rhetoric of democracy is a potent electoral tool. Since then, the party has relentlessly positioned itself as a democratising force. Given the AKP failings mentioned above, this has been a breathtakingly cynical exercise. But it has worked. In last September's constitutional referendum, the government basically managed to recast the poll as a choice between AKP democracy and the coup-mongering of the party's opponents. This would be laughable in its crudeness if it hadn't succeeded in playing a part in rewriting elements of the constitution.

It's on this second democratisation process, the spin-heavy AKP one, that I'd be more worried following Sunday's election. Because there must be a strong likelihood that the strategy that worked in September's referendum will be rolled out again in defence of the new constitution that will be drafted in the months ahead. Which leaves us with the risk that the AKP will write a constitution that serves its own interests and then sell it to the electorate as a democratic watershed for the country. The unfortunate truth is that the Turkish electorate may not be sufficiently democratically engaged to see through that kind of ruse. And more worrying still is the fact that the AKP's political opponents don't appear to have realised yet that they need to start contesting the AKP's colonisation of democratic rhetoric. Until that happens, the AKP will remain the driving force in Turkey's ambiguous process of democratisation.

3. It has been frequently said that Turkey's main political problem has been the lack of a credible opposition. Did Turkey overcome that problem in this campaign? How would you rate the CHP's performance, in particular?

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but Turkish politics seems to have no such qualms -- it is truly remarkable that it has taken so long for signs of life to stir in the opposition. The lack of a credible opposition has had a debilitating effect on Turkish public life since the AKP came to power. Granted, there are institutional factors that tend to militate against change -- for example, the ten per cent electoral threshold is a major barrier to entry for new and smaller political parties. But there is really no excuse for the shamefully slow progress the CHP in particular has made.

It's difficult to know how to gauge the campaign performance of the CHP under Kemal Kilicdaroglu. If we compare Mr Kilicdaroglu's CHP to that of his predecessor, Deniz Baykal, then the party has at least lifted itself off the floor. Jettisoning the incapable Mr Baykal was always going to be a necessary condition for competing with the AKP. But it's not a sufficient condition, and the CHP has yet to produce an electoral platform that might form the basis of a really serious push for power. In that sense, the party continues to disappoint. It has not found a way to encourage enough semi-attached voters to peel away from the AKP and vote for a new government.

The process of rebuilding the CHP will take time. This election was always going to be too soon for Mr Kilicdaroglu to turn his party around. We should cut him some slack -- this campaign, like last September's referendum campaign, should give CHP supporters grounds for (very) cautious optimism. It is hard to conceive of Mr Kilicdaroglu ever becoming Turkey's leader, but he appears to grasp that the CHP needs to change very significantly. Despite a worrying lack of decisiveness, Mr Kilicadaroglu has made interesting noises on key litmus test issues like the Kurdish and headscarf questions. He has also wisely invested time and political capital trying to spread the CHP's reach into regions where it has traditionally been weak. These developments look like the long-overdue stirrings of a party that understands the need to broaden its appeal out to a potentially election-winning constituency rather than staying in the comfort zone of core-vote strategising.

4. At a time when Turkey is being vaunted by some as a model for democracy in the Middle East, but is simultaneously coming under increasing criticism for its failures vis a vis EU democratic norms, what does this election tell us about the quality of democracy in Turkey?

There's been an interesting shift recently in the backdrop against which Turkish democracy gets assessed, with the European Union fading and the nascent democratic movements of the Middle East moving to the fore. To a large extent this shift is down to analytical laziness, with commentators following the depressingly usual pattern of hitching Turkey to whatever bandwagon is flavour of the month. But there is some substance to it, and it has the potential to affect Turkey's democratic development in real ways.

To my mind, the diminution of the EU's soft power in relation to democracy in Turkey is significant and alarming. The EU bears much of the responsibility for the deterioration in relations -- through its strategic short-sightedness (for example, on Cyprus's accession), more recently through its much more understandable inward-looking focus on preventing a meltdown of the euro zone's monetary union.

But this stepping back by the EU has been greeted by something close to hubris on the Turkish side. All too often one hears the view trotted out that the EU needs Turkey more than vice versa, and that the country might be better off on its own. Frequently, this assessment rests on nothing more solid than a lazy comparison of current headline GDP growth rates. In terms of what Turkish democracy needs, this complacency in relation to the EU is wildly off the mark. For all the problems of the EU-Turkey relationship, it has been one that has constantly pushed Turkey to improve itself.

The same can't be said of this new 'democratic model' narrative that has arisen in response to the Arab spring. On the contrary, there's risk is that it will encourage a sense of complacency on the Turkish side by allowing the country to consider itself a democratic leader rather than a laggard as it has always been in the EU context. In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

The reality is that Turkey's democracy remains deeply deficient by European standards. One can disagree strongly with many aspects of the EU's conduct towards Turkey, but it would be a real pity if the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. Being anchored in the European democratic mainstream should be of the highest strategic priority for Turkey's leaders. It would be a real worry if they take their eyes of that prize for any significant length of time.

5. Everyone agrees Turkey needs a new constitution, but is simply changing the constitution enough? What do you think needs to accompany the constitution writing process in order to improve the quality of democracy in Turkey?

No, a constitution alone isn't enough. Even the most democratic of constitutions can't sustain a healthy democracy alone. It's just one element in a constellation of factors that needs to be present. Unfortunately, Turkey has already fallen at the first hurdle by paying too little attention so far to the mechanics of drafting the new constitution. Ideally, a broad cross-section of society should be given this task, both to ensure that no significant interests are excluded from the deliberations, and, to lend society-wide legitimacy to the resulting document. In Turkey however, it's not yet clear how the new constitution will be drafted. It seems likely that the process will involve only the small subset of political parties that make it over the undemocratic ten per cent threshold into parliament. It is even possible that the process will only involve the AKP.

So even before it has begun, we can mark down this constitution-drafting process as a missed opportunity.

Not that a well-crafted and legitimate constitution would be enough either. Creating a healthy democracy means ensuring that the democratic principles set down in a constitution are faithfully, consistently and forcefully implemented and defended. At a minimum, that requires effective legislators as well as a commitment to uphold the rule of law. But neither of these can be relied upon in Turkey. My favourite example from the current constitution is its declaration of gender equality. To say that implementation of this provision hasn't had the full weight of the state behind it would be an understatement of the highest order.

So until Turkey's politicians internalise some key democratic norms, we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for major democratic step changes in the country, regardless of what ends up going in the new constitution. The country may have most of the electoral basics down, but there's a steep learning curve ahead in terms of trying to bed down a more sophisticated democratic culture. Ultimately, it will require real political vision and leadership to move Turkey's democracy forward. That kind of leadership doesn't appear to be on offer in Sunday's election.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Kurdish (Cultural) Opening

The New York Times (which seems to have discovered Turkey in recent days) has a good piece out about some of the interesting changes taking place on the Kurdish cultural front -- a move towards "cultural autonomy" as the article puts it. From the article:
A BALEFUL love song wafted from the Vizyon Muzik Market. Not so long ago playing Kurdish music over a loudspeaker into the streets here might have provoked the Turkish police. Just speaking the names of certain Kurdish singers at one time could have landed a Kurd in prison.

These days hundreds of CDs featuring Kurdish pop singers fill one of the long walls in the small, shoebox-shaped Vizyon Muzik. The discs face a few

dozen Turkish ones. Abdulvahap Ciftci, the 25-year-old Kurd who runs the place, told me one sunny morning not long ago that customers buy some 250 Kurdish albums a week. “And maybe I sell one Turkish album,” he calculated, wagging a single finger, slowly. “Maybe.”

Turkey is holding elections in a few days. For months pro-Kurdish activists have been staging rallies that during recent weeks have increasingly turned into violent confrontations with the police in this heavily Kurdish region of the southeast. Capitalizing on the Arab Spring and the general state of turmoil in that part of the world, as well as on Turkey’s vocal support for Egyptian reformers, the Kurds here have been looking toward elections to press longstanding claims for broader parliamentary representation and more freedoms, political and cultural.
(The full piece can be found here.)

The article hits upon an interesting paradox that I wrote about previously on this blog (see this post), which is that while on the political front Turkey's "Kurdish opening" has mostly fallen flat on its face, developments in the realm of culture have been much more encouraging. In terms of film, theater, music and books, Kurdish culture is becoming a much more visible and natural part the cultural landscape in Turkey, particularly in places like Istanbul, where this wasn't the case even a few years ago.

The question now, it would appear, is at what point does a move towards "cultural autonomy" start impacting or strengthening what is also a call in southeast Turkey for some kind of "political autonomy," mostly through the decentralization of the Turkish state, and how will the government respond to that?

(photo - poster for "Min Dit," a Kurdish-language film recently shown in Istanbul. By Yigal Schleifer)