Thursday, November 5, 2015

Davutoglu’s Juggling Act: Can Turkey’s Re-elected PM Offer a More Moderate Future?*

This week, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s interim prime minister and the head of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (the AK Party), scored an astounding victory at the polls, sweeping almost 50 percent of the vote. 

Few could have imagined that the not-so-charismatic professor turned politician would be able to salvage his party from its poor standing in the June election, when his party received 40.7 percent of the vote, ending the party’s three term, 13-year, sole-rule of the country.  

As for the three other parties, the mostly secular main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) faired about the same as it did in June, receiving about 25 percent of the vote. 
The real story of the night, however, was the sharp drop in support for the National Action Party (MHP), which fell over 4 points, coming in with only about 12 percent of the vote. The mostly Kurdish leftist party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (or HDP), which in June shocked all by crossing the ten-percent threshold with 13.7 percent of the vote, this time barely crossed it, with just under 11 percent of the vote. Needless to say, the election results came as a major blow to those voters of the CHP and the HDP, in addition to independent citizens, worried about Turkey’s future as a democracy. 

Furthermore, the initial shock was compounded by the failure of the vast majority of polls to predict that the AKP would repeat its election victory of 2011; the slight upward turn in the pre-election polls turned out to be a major understatement. Indeed, for many in the opposition, the election results were literally a slap in the face. So what happened? How is it that within five months the country’s politics have returned to a very similar place to where it was last June, with both the AKP and CHP having almost the same number of seats in the parliament that they had had before? 

First and foremost, credit for this "regressive triumph" must go to Davutoglu, who led a focused campaign, and understood that Erdogan’s intense campaigning in the months leading up to the previous, June elections did more harm than good. Erdogan then had deliberately overshadowed Davutoglu, undermining his role, and in his usual polarizing way, created a great deal of unnecessary controversy. 

This second round of elections was in effect forced on Davutoglu by Erdogan. After the last elections, which didn't produce the supermajority that the AKP sought, Erdogan pressured the prime minister not to enter a coalition government with the CHP, forcing Davutoglu to take his chances with a new popularity test at the polls. 

But it is Davutoglu who has now created an important balance between the two leaders. On the one hand, Davutoglu provided Erdogan with his due respect as the “leader,” by never short-changing or challenging Erdogan’s quest for extended presidential powers; in return, Erdogan remained “presidential” and more or less above party politics. This agreement seems to have been reached this September, at the AKP convention, when more and more disgruntled voices were emerged in the party, growing impatient with Erdogan’s often irrational behavior.  

The AKP’s gain can also be attributed to the other parties’ lack of ability in retaining their votes or gaining more electoral traction. Firstly, the AKP successfully pulled votes away from the MHP through its message that the AKP held the key to stability, as fighting between the PKK and the Turkish security forces entered a dangerous new round following the collapse of the peace process. Further, the poor political maneuvering of the MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, was edged out by the AKP’s hyped-up nationalist rhetoric.  

As for the CHP, even if Kemal Kilicdaroglu, its leader, has consolidated the party’s powerbase, he has not been able to transform the party into one that embraces more conservative voices: He is not much of a coalition-builder and is not a particularly charismatic leader, whose 25 percent seems to be an election ceiling for the party 

The Kurdish-associated HDP, and the other opposition parties for that fact, can breathe a sigh of relief that it was able to cross the threshold for a second time; if it had not, the AKP could easily have reached the 367 seats needed to allot new powers to Erdogan, which would have set the stage for Turkey’s descent into a more authoritarian state than it has already become. 

However, the HDP's image has been badly dented. The HDP was able to create a special dynamic of change and hope for the Kurdish issue in the lead-up to the June elections, but afterwards, once the peace process began to break down, its inability to persuade the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (the PKK) to halt its violence highlighted a major weakness of the party, which led more conservative Kurdish voters to return back to the ranks of the AKP.

At the same time, the attacks against HDP offices and affiliated businesses, even as the police turned a blind eye, coupled with the rampant state of violence in the majority-Kurdish cities, which have been subjected to extended curfews, did not provide the HDP with a chance to relive its impressive pre-June campaign, as it was preoccupied with the daily struggles of its constituency, not to mention the two ISIS-led suicide attacks on HDP-affiliated political gatherings.  

While it is too early to understand the greater trends of these elections, it is clear that the AKP’s winning 317 seats in parliament (a number that is subject to change with later electoral adjustments) returns the party to a very similar bind to the one it was in before. It is still short of the 330 seats needed to bring constitutional changes via a referendum, or the much higher 367 needed for the party to pass constitutional changes without putting them to a popular vote. 

In other words, this election was no more of a landslide victory than past AKP wins. However, only time will be able to answer the pressing question of whether Davutoglu will be able to balance the various factions in parliament and create a new atmosphere of change. He has shown some talent for difficult juggling acts – not least, he has just managed Erdogan's pressures on him and with the electoral need to minimize Erdogan's presence in the election campaign. 

With the increasing polarization of the electorate, the continued clamp-down on the press and personal freedoms, the timing for change could not better. 

*This article appeared in Haaretz on November 3, 2015. Click here for article 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

An Election Primer: One Week to go until Turkey's Snap Elections (Turkey November 2015 election, part 2)

In just one week from today, Turkish citizens will return to the ballot box in a snap-election. In the previous election update blog post, I outlined the background of the election, and why the AKP opted to return the polls, in place of working to form a coalition government (after 13 years of single-party rule). Basically, as I stated before, the formation of an AKP led-coalition government seemed like an impossible feat, with the three other parties (CHP, MHP, and HDP) staunchly opposing its plan to transfer new powers to the nation's president (and its former party leader and prime minister), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, essentially creating a super-presidency for him.  

Unfortunately, on October 10, a little over a week after writing the election update, a massive twin suicide bombing attack went off in Ankara, killing 102 people, taking place at a peace rally, which was sponsored by labor unions, heavily attended by the mostly Kurdish left HDP party, and joined by a symbolic representation from the main opposition party, the CHP. The alleged perpetrators were ISIS sympathizers who were known by the state's internal security, highlighting its failure to prevent the attack.  

Just days later, I explained in an article for Haaretz, entitled Bombs, Bans, and the Ballot Box*, why the attack had not come as a surprise: 

Over the course of the last few months, the mostly Kurdish HDP has been the target of violent attacks, including a deadly bomb attack at their election rally just two days before the June 7 parliamentary elections, and an ISIS linked-suicide attack targeting a socialist youth group affiliated with the HDP on July 20, killing 33. These major security breaches made it clear to all that another attack was highly likely. Last month, HDP offices around Turkey were vandalized and burnt to the ground in racist attacks, with the police remaining largely indifferent.

and the following:

Sadly, the Ankara bombing victims make up just part of Turkey’s rampant death toll during the last few months. Since the June elections, over 600 Turkish citizens have been killed, whether in terrorist attacks, or Turkish security forces by the PKK, or in operations carried out by the Turkish army in the southeast of the country which is under partial military curfew, or PKK fighters (who are also Turkish citizens) killed by the army. Indeed, during the elections Erdogan insisted that only an absolute AKP majority would ensure Turkey’s “peaceful” transition to a new presidential system, leaving many to believe that he was actually threatening the electorate, and that things could get messy if it did not give the AKP a clear majority. Regardless of what he actually meant, his prediction seems to have been right on.

The bombings left Turkey in a state of shock, leaving the country more polarized than ever. 

So, now, what is in store for next week?

Since the summer, most polls have predicted more-or-less the same results as the June 7 elections, with it most likely leaving the AKP, and the other parties, in a similar dilemma. Nevertheless, here are my impressions of the election campaign and what we might learn from the last few months:

1. For the current election, despite still clearly in control of the party, Erdogan has learned that the electorate has become tired of his polarizing politics, and thus took a step back in attempt to look more "presidential." However, the problem is that without Erdogan, it seems Davutoglu is not the best candidate to energize the masses, and he seems to have better luck in his normal role as a professor in the classroom, or a politician working behind the scenes. In fact, in a recent poll, when asked which leader do you think is most successful, Davutoglu got a measly 4%, with Erdogan getting the highest, with his numbers showing a decline as well.

2. Lately, Davutoglu also seems to be taking the route of polarizing politics, which certainly will not bring new votes in-especially the Kurdish voters who flocked in masses to the HDP. First, he showed a great amount of insensitivity towards the victims and families of the Ankara bombing, stating just over a week after the bombings that the AKP had seen a surge in the polls following the attack. 

If this was not enough, Davutoglu also recently commented that if the AKP is unseated, the Southeastern Kurdish regions could see the return of "white Toros" brand cars back on the streets. This has been interpreted by many as a threat since that automobile model was notorious in the 1990s of being used by gangs believed to be undercover security forces, who caused havoc on the civilian population, while whisking away people, often never to be seen again. Whether a threat or not, just the mention of it brings back dark memories for many Kurds. 

3. For the reasons stated above, it seems hard to imagine that the AKP will gain votes, with common sense pointing to it actually losing support. However, if it does gain votes, this will be attributed to the fact that many Turkish people simply see that stability trumps the chaos experienced in the last few months, and will not be attributed to Davutoglu's campaign.

4. Over the last few violent months, the opposition CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has emerged as an experienced politician, showing a great amount of leadership. With the mounting attacks and deaths of the Turkish security forces on the one hand, and the attacks on Turkey's Kurdish population on the other, Kilicdaroglu has served as an important stabilizing factor, trying his best to keep Turkey from going completely off the rails. This fact alone could bring new votes to the CHP, and has created a since of momentum, which could attract some young voters back who voted for HDP in the last round. However, the party still needs to take serious steps at implementing reforms if it wishes to become a party that is able one day to surpass 30% of the overall vote (having consolidated CHP support at around 25%). Of course, a young dynamic leader would be the way to start this. However, that is easier said than done.  

5. Due to the election process, despite getting 16.3% of the vote, the MHP ended up with the same number of seats in the parliament as the HDP, which recieved 13.1 % (following the defection of one of their candidates to the AKP). Therefore, it is clear that this elections could deal a fatal blow to the MHP, if its numbers drop and the HDP votes surge, which would make it the smallest party in the parliament. For now, its leader, Devlet Bahceli is holding the party's reins tight, even after having Tugrul Turkes (the son of the iconic party founder, Alparslan Turkes) defect to the AKP. However, if its numbers drop, it is hard to imagine that Bahceli will be able to hold on to the party much longer. In the meantime, any extra votes to the MHP will hit at the AKP chances of gaining new votes.

6. The million-dollar question in this election is if the HDP can maintain, or even increase its votes, in this election. It was this party's crossing the 10% threshold that shook the Turkish politics at its core. It seems safe to say it will cross the 10% threshold again (if it does not this will increase fears of election fraud). However, with violence and military curfews being enforced over many of the Kurdish regions, election observers need to be diligent in making sure the vote is transparent and voters are able without hindrance to cast their votes.

The HDP, under the numerous attacks, which in addition to the bombings included the looting and burning down of their offices throughout the country, obviously could not put on the dynamic campaign it did leading up to the June elections. However, its charismatic co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas has demonstrated his dedication to keep the party on track, and has proven his ability to be a major player in Turkish political system for a long time coming. If the party loses votes, this could be attributed to its lack of influence in getting the PKK to stop attacks against the Turkish military (regardless if this is a realistic claim or not). However, this could be offset by a new group of silent voters who have been influenced by the party's motivation to run a clean campaign that still offers a genuine voice to Turkey's minorities and its dedication to change the "old system" of Turkey once and for all. 

While a coalition government following the next elections seems likely, we will need to wait until then to discuss the possibilities! Let us hope that whatever the outcome, Turkey will see brighter days in the near future.  

*The article is also featured on my blog

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Netanyahu's Blame Game: Forget the Nazis, its the Palestinians

For years, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has compared the Iranian regime to that of the Nazis. Earlier of this year, on the Israeli Memorial day for Holocaust Survivors, he tweeted the below tweets, in reference to the US negotiations with Iran, concerning its nuclear program: 

The same day, Netanyahu stated in a speech at Israeli's Holocaust museum, Yad VaShem, the following: "Democracies cannot turn their eyes away from the dictatorships of the world that seek to spread their influence."; and went on to say, "ahead of World War II, the world attempted to appease the Nazis. They wanted quite at any price, and the terrible price did come."

In that speech, Netanyahu was aiming to undermine US-Iranian progress concerning Iran's nuclear program, which was eventually signed in July, marking a major diplomatic success for Obama; true, even if the Islamic Republic of Iran has threatened to annihilate the Jewish state, Netanyahu's comparing the US to the European powers who appeased Hitler, certainly hit a low. 

Well, if you could not get lower, this morning I awoke to the following headline in Haaretz: 

What, did I read this correctly? Did Netanyahu actually just say that the Palestinian Mufti Hajj al-Amin Al-Husseini is the one who convinced Hitler to embark on the mass genocide of Jews? Unfortunately, I did; and even worse he said this just 24-hours before an official visit to Berlin. The exact quote, which was said in a speech to the World Zionist Congress, started off by explaining that the Mufti had a central role in fomenting the Final Solution. Then, Netanyahu explained:    

"He (the Mufti) flew to Berlin...Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews and Hajj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here; so what should I do with them, he (Hitler) asks; he (the Mufti) said Burn them!" 

In Israel, and in Europe, Netanyahu's words have been criticized by historians and politicians alike. Germany's Chancellor  Angela Merkel even issued a statement reconfirming Germany's crime against the Jewish people: 

"All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust,”…and continues, “this is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten. And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own."

These words are wrong on so many levels that it is hard to figure out where to start. Historically this is nothing short of a blatant lie, with the mass killing of Jews happening months before their meeting. True, the Palestinian Mufti took refuge in Berlin, supported the Axis powers, and embarked on propaganda campaigns on their behalf. However, he only met with Hitler once, which at the time was reported that "Hitler was sympathetic, but declined to give al-Husayni (Husseini) the public declaration of support that he sought." In short, there is no record of such a conversation even existing!

According to the United States Holocaust Museum, on its webpage about the Mufti, it states, "even after he realized that the Germans would not give him what he sought and intended to use his Muslim recruits without regard to his advice, al-Husayni continued to work with both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany until 1945." Clearly, from these words, we see that the Mufti was not ever considered a major card for the Nazi regime.

In addition, it needs to be noted that Netanyahu's twisting of the historical narrative are a disgrace to the memory of all the Jews killed in the Holocaust, whether it were those who were killed even before Hitler had met with al-Husseini, or those after; not to mention, it being highly offensive to the families of the victims.    

For educators, Netanyahu's statement is no less damning. How are educators suppose to combat conspiracy theories concerning the Holocaust, if the Israeli Prime Minister so nonchalantly  manipulates the simplest of narratives for his own political gains? True, politicizing genocide is not new, however, now Netanyahu has offered a prime example of its disgusting nature.     

While Netanyahu has since issued a clarification, stating, "I had absolutely no intention of absolving Hitler of his diabolical responsibility for the extermination of Europe's Jews," it is clear that his comments have once again uncovered how far he is willing to go to incite hatred towards Palestinians-so much so that he inadvertently cleared Hitler, while blaming a Palestinian as devising the plan to kill Jews. 

Sadly, for the Palestinians who are working towards teaching their society about the Holocaust, their work has become all the harder. Further, for the Palestinians who long gave up on the Prime Minister as simply racist (let us not forget his racist comments directed towards Palestinian citizens of Israel during the last elections), this only reconfirms that it is the Palestinians who do not have a partner for peace.

Perhaps, the only good thing that might come out of this is the massive backlash this has had against Netanyahu. Clearly, most Israelis did not buy this cheap shot of his, and both in Israel and in Europe this will prove to be a major embarrassment. 

Perhaps, in place of passing the buck on Palestinians, Netanyahu should leave history behind for now and recognize how his bad policies are continuing to lead Israel on a mode of self-destruct.