Turkey elections: Elections, Rappers, Media, Micro-Party, Rigging, Iraq

The Turkish State’s War On Rap

The election campaign has not slowed down the Erdoğanist state in its efforts to punish anyone who deviates from Erdoğan’s ideal of obedient, socially conservative, and conformist citizens. One of the best known Turkish rappers, Ezhel, with very leftist and counter culture lyrics, has been arrested recently for ‘encouraging drug use’. A prosecutor ordered his detention, which was implemented after he voluntarily went to the police station to answer a ‘complaint’, with no warning about detention. Onur Dinç (known as Khontkar), and Young Bego have also been detained. They can all be found on Spotify and YouTube. Listening on Spotify generates a little income for people who deserve a bit of solidarity at the moment.

İnce’s Presidential Campaign

An interview on HaberTürk TV with the leading opposition candidate for President of Turkey, Muharrem İnce (from the secularist, centre-left Republican People’s Party), has gone down very well. The interviewers let İnce express his views and had a selfie with him afterwards. HaberTürk TV is a private channel but, like all commercial private channels, accepts (and has no real choice) the biases and silences imposed by the Erdoğanist-AKP regime.

It is normal for Erdoğan himself to phone media groups and complain about coverage, demanding firings of journalists, where the bias is not as complete as he requires. So how long are these journalists, and the responsible manager, going to survive? A manager on another private channel was fired (officially ‘left for personal reasons’, ha ha ha) after allowing a very brief segment on the second most popular opposition, and more right wing, candidate, Meral Akşener. Will these HaberTürk people survive until the election? Are they more willing to push the limits because the opposition is doing better than expected?

On recent polls (leaving aside companies who enjoy close relations with the Erdoğanists) only rigging (or some extreme situation) can now stop 1. the opposition winning a majority in the National Assembly (could be stopped on current polling by stealing/losing about 2/3% points from HDP, a Kurdish rights-leftist party which appears to be between 1 and 3% points above the 10% election threshold). The main left-right opposition list seems to be about 3 points behind the right wing government list 2. the presidential election going to a second round, i.e. Erdoğan cannot get 50%+ of the vote in a several-candidate field (except by rigging at least 7% points of votes cast) and might lose in the run off.

I can only presume the interviewers of İnce will be out of a job if Erdoğan and the AKP-dominated electoral list do win by some means, and HaberTürk will suffer other penalties. Yes, polls can be wrong and they don’t all show the same thing, but those most favourable to the government tend to be run by cronies and there is widespread suspicion that in the current atmosphere in Turkey, some voters would prefer not to tell a stranger they are voting for an opposition party, particularly HDP. This is confirmed by the relation between opinion polls and the final result in last year’s referendum on moving to a presidential system (in which the final result itself may have been affected by losing and faking ballots, and by the difficulty that many voters in the Kurdish southeast had with getting to polling stations, a tactic the regime is setting up for this time as well).

The AKP-Erdoğanist Media Strategy: Why Turkish Media promotes an ex-terrorist micro-party.

Presenting the Opposition

Following on from the above, though İnce gets a lot less coverage on all media, including state media which is legally required to provide balanced coverage, than Erdoğan for the Presidential campaign, he gets far more than the more nationalist-conservative opposition candidate Meral Akşener (who would be the first female President of the Republic). She is polling behind İnce, but mostly by a moderate margin. She receives almost no coverage, her campaign is in fact a completely banned subject in the Erdoğan-controlled media (that is all state media and all the major private media groups).

Clearly the Erdoğan strategy (and we can be sure that he dictates it, without any delegation of overall strategy to campaign organisers) is to promote İnce as the only opposition candidate, in the belief that Akşener is a more of a threat to conservative support for himself. I used to believe this, but as far as we can tell from polls, İnce is leading in the first round and would do as well as Akşener in a second round play-off, both going down to very narrow defeat. This strategy has a high chance of backfiring by enabling someone further from Erdoğan in politics to become President.

The media manipulations may not make much difference since people open to voting for the opposition are going to treat the Erdoğanist media with scepticism and seek other news sources, but it is at least worth noting what the strategy is. It might be that the main aim is to make electors forget that Akşener’s party İYİ (Good) exists, on a common list with İnce’s party, but voters for the list can choose between them. It is unlikely that many voters are unaware of Akşener, the İYİ party, and the common list, and those that are unaware must be hardcore Erdoğanists who will not switch support to anyone in this election for any reason.

Promoting a Micro-Party

The most bizarre aspect of Erdoğanist coverage of the elections is that Hür Dava Partisi receives a great deal more coverage than İYİ. Hür Dava Partisi means Free Cause Party and the Turkish name is usually contracted to Hürda Partisi or Hüda Par. It was founded by people who had supported the Kurdish religious terrorist group Hizbollah. This is nothing to do with Hizbollah in Lebanon, which is a Shi’a group. Hizbollah in Turkey is defunct and was Sunni Muslim, as is Hüda Par.

It advocates religious law in Turkey and operates only in southeastern provinces where ethnic Kurds are in a majority, and has no more than 5% support in any individual province, giving it overall less than 5% in the whole region and less than 1% in the whole country. For it to receive much election coverage is of course absurd. The reason this happens is in the hope that the more religious Kurdish voters who are dissatisfied with the AKP after voting for it in the past (AKP is the second party in the region) will vote for Hüda Par instead of the secular-leftist HDP, which is the leading party in the region. The aim is to keep the HDP vote below 10% nationally, the electoral threshold for the National Assembly.

I don’t think it is possible that Hüda Par can soak up those votes sufficiently, but from the Erdoğanist point of view, it is worth trying and might just keep HDP below 10% in conjunction with electoral trickery such as moving polling stations away from HDP areas to make it less easy for them to vote and the possibility of outright electoral fraud, particularly in those polling stations where opposition observers may not turn up, in remote very pro-AKP areas. Electoral law has been changed recently to make removal of ballot boxes by the police easier and to legalise the illegal decision of the Supreme Election Council to count unstamped ballot papers in last year’s referendum.

On current polling, the opposition electoral list is a few percentage points behind the Erdoğanist list, so keeping the HDP out of the National Assembly would give his list an overall majority. This is why a micro-party of extreme religious conservative Kurds gets a high level of coverage in the Turkish media compared with conservative nationalists in İYİ who oppose Erdoğan and have created the third largest party in Turkey in terms of opinion polling.

Resisting Electoral Fraud

The possibility of electoral fraud and the use of fraud to keep HDP out of the National Assembly to the advantage of the Erdoğanists has of course been noted by the opposition and they are co-operating to work against this. The electoral list which comprises the second, third, and fourth parties in Turkey (secular centre-left CHP, nationalist conservative İP, and religious conservative SP) is cooperating with the HDP in a platform to ensure a fair and accurate count of votes. That the more nationalist parts of the opposition list and the Kurdish autonomy leftist people are able to work together on this is itself a good sign. There are no guarantees that the platform can prevent decisive fraud, but at least it will make fraud more difficult and shows there is unity in a very diverse opposition against the AKP-Erdoğan abuse of power.

Iraq Surprise?

I’ve seen a report that Turkish army units in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq, which have been stationed in a mountainous border part of the region for some years by ‘invitation’ (or possibly in reality extreme pressure), are moving closer to the PKK (Kurdish separatist and extreme left terrorists of Turkey) base in Kandil. Kandil is in the mountains and provides obvious difficulties for an army aiming to destroy the PKK. It is inherently difficult to observe, fire on, occupy, and completely control a mountainous region. It is a certainty that the PKK has contingency plans to move its base through the mountain, dispersing it if necessary.

I cannot predict if the Turkish Armed Forces will attack the Kandil base soon, or if it can succeed in a mixture of eradication and control. The PKK is a dangerous terrorist organisation and should be eliminated, but whether it can be eliminated in practice, without lessening the reasons some Turkish Kurds want to fight for it (very misguided people in my view) is another matter.

What I can say at the moment is I won’t be surprised if there is an offensive against Kandil before the election on June 24th, particularly if polling shifts against Erdoğan and his electoral list, or if the Turkish lira resumes its decline against foreign currencies. The consequences, militarily and political, are not matters I can think through at present.

Latest thoughts on Brexit: Its Decay, Italy (and Ireland), Cars, and Giving up British Citizenship

The slow decay of Brexit: a Rule-Taking Country

I don’t mean that the UK will stay in the EU. I fully expect it to formally depart next year. If the poor performance of the UK economy compared with the Eurozone continues, I also expect the UK to rejoin in a few decades, when the growth divergence is not just in figures, but felt in everyday life, such as when people find it too expensive to travel in Europe or buy goods from Europe; if they do travel they notice that everything seems expensive and there are more nice things abroad than at home, while European tourists will seem to have huge amounts of money to throw around.

It might or might not work out like that, but the point here is that the UK, behind headlines about soft versus hard Brexit, is moving towards an ‘alignment’ with the single market and the customs union: not formal membership but keeping nearly all the rules. The short term losses in trade from leaving both the single market and the customs union, along with the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, have combined to make de facto membership of the single market and the customs union inevitable. Hardening the border at all between the two parts of the island of Ireland is economically disruptive and very threatening to a Northern Ireland peace settlement, in which the Irish nationalist-republican side in NI can live with being part of the UK as long as the North and the Republic are unified via the EU and associated commercial agreements.

This is what I get from following Eurosceptic sources when they get round to proper conversation and analysis, rather than fighting the remain-leave battle. Brexit outbursts of premature triumphalism over Italy, or demands to abolish the upper House of Parliament because the Lords uses its constitutional rights to pass amendments they don’t agree with back to the Commons for the final decision, are a distraction from the collapse of full Brexit.

The idea of a ‘no deal’ walk-away from the EU has been abandoned and inevitably the UK will accept single market/customs union rules while the government makes a show of leaving everything. Because the UK very probably will not be a formal member of the single market (though there is a possibility of joining the EEA which would mean formally staying in the single market), it will be able to reduce migration from the EU (not a great thing to my mind), which will bring joy to a large part of the population (particularly the Brexit-voting part). No doubt the reality of moving to what Jacob Rees-Mogg (a well known, hard-Brexit Conservative MP) calls ‘vassal state’ status will be covered over with that issue, but the reality is the UK will accept rules for customs and economic regulation made by the EU indefinitely.

‘Indefinitely’ means ‘permanent’ though this is being covered up by talk of ‘transitional periods’. Alternatives to this have collapsed with the failure of ‘no deal’. The New Hard Brexit is to accept aligned rules on goods, but not on services, with the UK’s exceptional role in financial services in mind. However, there is no indication that the EU will give this kind of deal, despite the Brexiteer posturing about the UK being too powerful to push around, which has clearly been shown as empty by negotiations so far.

Over-excited Brexiteers getting Italy wrong (and Ireland)

So a new government formed without anti-Euro currency finance minister. 5 Star and the League (the coalition partners) are not impeaching President Sergio Mattarella. The idea they would is a bit of a joke anyway, as it would require the agreement of the Supreme Court and a vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament to achieve an impeachment. The issue behind the non-impeachment was that Mattarella had vetoed an anti-Euro candidate for finance minister: Paolo Savona (who now has another post in the government).

Some relevant facts here. 1. Italian presidents have the constitutional right to veto ministerial nominations and have frequently done so before 2. Recent Italian opinion polls show support for the Euro at over 60% 3. Neither coalition party ran on an anti-Euro manifesto.

Claims that Mattarella is some pathetic weak instrument of the European institutions who ordered him to keep Savona out are themselves absurd. 1. There is a shared preference of Mattarella, the Italian public, and European institutions for staying in the Euro 2. Mattarella is from a political family in Sicily, which went anti-mafia and Sergio Materall’s brother, Piersanti, who was head of the regional government, was assassinated by the mafia as a result. I think we can say Sergio is a character of substance to stay in politics after that.

Regarding constitutions and democracy, constitutions establish limits on the power of temporary majorities through rules and institutions designed to embed basic rules about rights and the use of power. This is why democracy of a kind worth having is referred to as ‘constitutional liberal democracy’. You cannot both be in favour of constitutional democracy and complain when constitutional constraints express themselves in the action that Mattarella took, which is well within his formal powers and previous precedent.

Many of the triumphalist Brexiteers in the UK, who were shouting about Mattarella as an enemy of democracy who was about to be punished, are admirers of the US ‘constitutional conservatism’ which, on the face of it, advocates very strict restraints on the actions of elected bodies according to the supposed original meaning of the constitution. You can’t have it both ways. And even if you think democracy means the unrestrained right of a majority, there is no majority support for leaving the Euro in Italy and no manifesto mandate for the coalition to leave the Euro.

You could argue that Mattarella made a mistake about perceptions and had been outplayed, that had some plausibility for a few days but does not look so correct now. Mattarella has got what he wanted and will not be impeached. It’s true that the League has strongly increased its support since the election in opinion polls, but that mostly precedes the ministerial crisis. Brexiteers are still clinging to an attempted triumphalism over Italy. The Italians are standing up to Brussels, which supposedly is a lesson to Britain to be tougher in Brexit negotiations. Well it is a bit soon to say whether the Coalition in Italy represents Eurosceptic triumph and hard to see what this has to do with Brexit negotiations.

What loud mouthed Brexiteers in the UK say about Italy is in some ways not very important, but what is important is the presumption to know more than they do and circulate false assumptions about European politics in the UK, which in turn distorts our debates and assumptions, and which can then pop up amongst Proper centre-right journalists and commentators Who Should Know Better.

Something similar has emerged with Brexiteer attitudes towards Ireland’s attempts to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. Manipulated by the EU institutions with naive and incompetent leaders (rather reminiscent of old prejudices about the Irish being stupid) has been standard opinion, and then there was the claim by a senior Conservative politician, Iain Duncan-Smith, that the Irish position is to do with a forthcoming presidential election. 1. The Irish president has no political powers whatsoever 2. There may not be an election, since no one has announced a wish to run against the incumbent so far and it may suit the major parties in Ireland to leave it like that. Funnily enough all those stupid naive Irish leaders manipulated by the EU have given Ireland much greater economic growth than the UK. What an economic miracle there would be in Ireland if they were as clever as Brexiteers!

It’s difficult to stop Brexiteers from 1. using simplistic rhetoric about majorities and Will of the People to suit their immediate anti-EU goals without concern for consistency and the values of liberal democracy 2. Living in an imagined world where European politicians they disagree with are stupid and/or slaves of the European Commission, conspiring against democracy. These views should be challenged and left with the true believers, away from informed debate.

Brexiteers and German car companies

UK enthusiasts for leaving the EU have a strange obsession with German car makers. They export so many cars to the UK, they will MAKE the German government which will MAKE the European Commission give us the exit deal we want. This has been going on from all kinds of people ever since the Leave Referendum (maybe during the campaign as well, but I missed that). It is an expectation that has obviously been falsified by the course of negotiations in which the EU has got 10s of billions of Euros from the UK to even start negotiations (though the UK tries to pretend otherwise) and has refused the kind of market access the Brexiteer enthusiasts assumed they would get automatically thanks to Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes (!).

Even today, listening to the Telegraph Brexit podcast, I heard Christopher Hope (the highly affable and mostly reasonable chair) keep on about how German carmakers were going to make Brussels gives the UK what it wants. The guests, pro-Brexit people from the Telegraph, were clearly bemused as they had been explaining how the UK was going to remain ‘aligned’ with the single market. Clearly if the UK is already de facto accepting the ‘indefinite’ (i.e. permanent) application of single market rules, German car makers have no incentive to MAKE Merkel give the UK another deal preferable to hardcore Brexiteers.

Of course the saddest expression of this muddled thinking came from Boris Johnson (the notoriously attention seeking and inconsistent foreign minister) when he claimed Italian prosecco wine manufacturers would make Rome/Brussels give the UK a Brexiteer-friendly trade deal. It turns out demand for prosecco in Italy is greater than supply and the makers can easily live with reduced demand in the UK.

The German car industry is of course much larger and not dependent on the supply of a particular kind of grape. Still, just one seventh of German cars are sold in the UK. Now obviously it would be very bad news to lose one seventh of the market, but there are no circumstances in which German manufacturers would sell no cars in the UK, the drop would never be as great as one seventh. Sales of German cars are already declining in the UK and given weak UK economic performance compared with Germany, the decline is likely to continue. Anyway, it should now just be really bloody obvious that German car manufacturers have not united to force Berlin/Brussels to accept a hardcore Brexit agenda! There is clearly a very big stream of reality distorting national self-obsession amongst Brexiteers who believe this kind of thing. Well it has now been shown to be thoroughly incorrect, let go now!

Brexit Bureaucracy and Renouncing UK Citizenship

UK nationals living outside the UK in the EU are applying for citizenship abroad to retain rights they lose after Brexit. Some of these countries forbid dual citizenship so UK citizens are renouncing UK citizenship. The Home Office takes the opportunity to raise fees for renouncing citizenship, though evidently its revenue is already increasing because of charges for renouncing citizenship. Didn’t Brexiteers tell us Brexit would reduce state bureaucracy?

More on the Turkish Elections

This is a sequel to my recent post Turkish Elections: Some Hope, so is best read after reading its predecessor.

In the last post, I covered the National Assembly elections on the 24th June. The first round of the presidential elections will take place on the same day and there will be a run-off between the two main candidates on the 8th July, if no candidate gets more than 50% on the first round.

As by far the strongest personality in Turkish politics over the last 15 years, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan was no doubt expecting to win in the first round easily. He did so in 2014 when he was first elected to the presidency at a time when the president’s powers were much smaller. The two largest opposition parties of the time (CHP and MHP) put up a joint presidential candidate little known to the public and who did become much better known during the campaign. The campaign was in fact a surrender to Erdoğan who went on to ignore the constitutional limits on the presidency and push through plans for a presidential republic with little of the checks and balances known in other presidential republics, at least those in established democracies.

This presidential campaign has been an unpleasant surprise for Erdoğan. He has turned the MHP into a satellite party which supports him for the presidency. The cost of that, however, is that he has tied himself to a declining party in an attempt to compensate for a weakening of AKP (Erdoğan’s party) support since the days when it got 50% and over of the electorate.

The opposition has now found an energy unprecedented during the Erdoğan-AKP years (since 2002). It has turned the first round of the presidential election into a run-off to decide who will face Erdoğan in the second round, maximising opposition strength as its candidates enthuse different sectors of Turkish society against the current regime. It now looks impossible for Erdoğan to win the first round (without the help of rigging which is a real danger).

Some thought the opposition had already failed the presidential election when Abdullah Gül, who was President before Erdoğan, declined to run as a candidate of the small opposition religious conservative party SP. The idea around was that the two main opposition parties would accept him as a joint candidate. It is not clear this would have ever happened, and anyway Gül declined to run. He had been a founder of the AKP, but has not re-joined since leaving the office of President in 2014. At that time the President was required to resign from any political party. Gül has made indirect criticisms of the AKP under Erdoğan, but is a non-confrontational politician who has not put himself in clear opposition to Erdoğan and few expected he ever would. Some had the attitude that Gül was the only chance of the opposition winning the presidential election. I was never convinced myself. Adopting an AKP politician central to the AKP’s colonisation of the state and parts of civil society, particularly the main media companies, would have been a defeatist gesture, particularly given Gül’s own lack of energy in very stark contrast with Erdoğan.

The four largest opposition parties will all run presidential candidates, though three of these parties have formed a joint list for the National Assembly elections. Two of these candidates have a real chance to win. That is Meral Akşener and Muharrem İnce. Akşener is the leader of the second opposition party, İYİ, which broke away from the MHP. It has overtaken the MHP as the largest nationalist party. Though it has a clearly nationalist orientation, mixing Atatürk republicanism with nostalgia for the Ottomans and pre-Ottoman Turkish leaders, it has a a milder version of this than the MHP. İnce is a centre-left secularist CHP politician who previously tried to replace Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as leader of the CHP.

Kılıçdaroğlu is not a strong public personality and has often been dismissed even by CHP sympathisers. However, he did a good job of keeping the CHP relevant in the period after the coup attempt of July 2016, when Erdoğan seemed to be achieving even more complete domination of Turkish public life. Kılıçdaroglu most famously led a Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul last summer, usefully turning his anti-charisma reputation into an image of quiet decency and endurance, marching for many days under a hot Turkish sun, though he is in his late 60s and there were constant fears of state promoted violence against the march.

Kılıçdaroğlu was again dismissed as too passive at the time Gül declined to run, and Kılicdaroğlu ruled himself out of the Presidential contest. It has turned out that he has maximised his strengths and weaknesses, by showing the inner self-confidence to allow his rival İnce to run for the most powerful office in Turkey. İnce has been a great campaigner so far and is doing better than I expected.

I thought Akşener would easily be the strongest opposition candidate, and she is doing well, but is very close to İnce, both for getting through to the second round and defeating Erdoğan. The latest opinion polls suggest Erdoğan would beat both but by a very small margin, meaning that a strong campaign by İnce or Akşener could win in the end, particularly if supporters of rival parties turn out in a spirit of unity for change.

The general thinking in Turkey now is that the opposition is likely to win the National Assembly but not the Presidency. Nevertheless the presidential contest is going far better than expected for the opposition and Erdoğan could look very diminished running in the second round after the AKP-MHP electoral list loses the National Assembly (where it currently has a two-thirds majority). İnce represents the most leftist and most nationalist element of the CHP. This combination is not unusual in Turkey, though left-nationalists prefer to identify themselves through the Turkish word for patriot rather than nationalist. I thought this would be a problem for İnce, in that he might be a negative both for Kurdish and centrist voters, but he has shown a capacity to reach out and make gestures to these sectors. Since the CHP National Assembly list has reduced the number of left-nationalists, his presidency would not be the unconstrained triumph of that particular point of view.

Turkish Elections: Some Hope

What with being rather exhausted by an accumulation of projects in recent months, I have been extremely absent from Notes On Liberty. Teaching is over for the summer and I hope to make up for lost ground across a few areas, but first I must address the current situation in Turkey.

There will be early elections on 24th June for the National Assembly and the Presidency. If no candidates win an overall majority for the presidency, there will be a run off between the two leading candidates on 8th July. The National Assembly is elected through proportional representation (d’Hondt system, if you’re interested in the details). The elections were scheduled for November next year, so they are very early. The reason offered by the government is the need to complete the transition to a strongly presidential system in view of supposed administrative uncertainty interfering with government until the last stage of the constitutional change, which is triggered by the next election after last year’s constitutional referendum, and the supposed need for ‘strong’ presidential government to deal with the present situation in Syria and Iraq.

However, anyone who is not a hopelessly naive follower of regime publicity knows that the real reasons are the decline in the economy and the rise of a right-wing party opposed to the current regime, which could erode the regime’s electoral base. I use the term ‘regime’ deliberately to refer to the fusion of the AKP (dominant political power), the personalised power of President Erdoğan and the state apparatus, including the judiciary. There is no state independent of a party power which itself has become subordinate to the will of one man. The police, judiciary, and prosecution service are quite obviously biased towards the government. Civil society has not escaped the hegemonising pressure. All the main media companies are controlled by cronies of Erdoğan and the AKP. Both state media and the main commercial media present a government point of view with little coverage of the opposition. Private media companies are of course entitled to push their own opinions, but these opinions are in reality dictated by Erdoğan, with the calculated intention of excluding opposition points of view except in highly parodic and manipulated terms. The construction industry is forced to support Erdoğan in order to obtain contracts for the endless pubic projects and projects officially or de facto guaranteed by the tax payer. This instrument of political control is enhanced through endless, often grandiose projects regardless of the state of public and private debt. In this politics, interest rates are artificially low with the consequence that inflation is rising and the currency is constantly devalued in international markets.

A lot of the above will be already understood by readers, but particularly after a long break in writing I think it is important to set the scene for the elections. Whatever the AKP says in public about economic performance, officials have admitted in private that they are worried about an economic crisis before the regular date for the elections. It is also clear that the AKP hoped to keep the new right-wing party IYI (Good) out of the elections because of the complex registration process to participate in elections, amongst other things requiring registration of a minimum number of provincial branches. IYI is a break away from the well established Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and is already larger in members with more opinion poll support, so its exclusion would be particularly absurd.

The IYI Party’s problems with registration were resolved in ways that are part of the hope that does exist in this election. The main opposition party (and oldest party in Turkey), the leadership of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has a left-wing and secularist identity, allowed (or maybe insisted) that enough of its deputies in the National Assembly join the small group of IYI defectors from the MHP to guarantee an automatic right to electoral participation.

President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan was only able to change the constitution to make it a very strongly presidential system, rather than a parliamentary system as it had been, because the MHP changed its position after years of critcising Erdoğan. The pretext was ‘unity’ after the attempted coup of 2016, though it was clear the whole country was against it anyway. The real reason was that the MHP has been losing support under a leader who has become unpopular and the only hope of staying in the National Assembly, given a 10% threshold, was an electoral deal with the AKP (which stands for Justice and Development Party). The election law was changed so that parties can form joint electoral lists in which voters can choose between parties in the list when voting, and the party concerned can have deputies so long as the votes within the list allow at least one to get into the National Assembly. In effect, the percentage threshold to enter the National Assembly has been reduced to less than 1%. This seemed to the AKP to be a great achievement allowing them to compensate for declining support of both AKP and MHP by joining them in one list and bringing in another small nationalist party.

However, the opposition has moved to make more use of the new rules. The CHP and IYI have formed a joint list, which also include SP (Felicity Party), a religious conservative party which has common roots with the AKP and is the sixth party in Turkey in support (about 2.5 % in recent polls). A small centre right party has candidates on the IYI list within the joint list. The Liberal Democrat Party, which is classical liberal and libertarian in orientation, but is very small, has a candidate who used to be LDP leader on the CHP list within the list. This is a bit complicated, but the success of putting this complex alliance together shows there is hope of various forces opposed to the authoritarian slide for various reasons uniting around common goals of a more restrained state, rule of law, less personalisation of power and a more consensual institutionally constrained style of government.

The other important force is HDP (People’s Democratic party), itself an alliance of small leftist groups with a Kurdish identity and leftist party which has strong support in the southeast. The HDP promotes peace in the southeast through negotiation between the state and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ party) armed insurgent/terrorist group. There is no organic link I can see between the HDP and the PKK, but the overlapping aims of the PKK and HDP for Kurdish autonomy and political recognition of the PKK has always made it easy to label the HDP as terrorist. It is simply not possible in these circumstances to include it in a broad opposition list, particularly given the attempts of the regime to block the HDP from any political activity: labeling it “terrorist,” arresting its leaders and many mayors leading to central government take over of HDP municipalities in the southeast. However, the opposition on current poll ratings needs the HDP to get past the 10% threshold to deprive the AKP-MHP list of a majority in the National Assembly. The main list might do it on its own, but this is less than certain. There is a risk of electoral rigging influencing the result, particularly in the southeast which is under even more authoritarian security state conditions than the rest of the country. It is therefore important for the HDP to get clearly more than 10% and to get votes from people who might otherwise vote CHP, outside the southeast to get pass any dirty tricks.

This is already long so I will stop and return to the Turkish elections soon. I hope readers have got to the end of this and have a reasonable background now for future posts.

Turkey’s Referendum: Authoritarianism and Electoral Fixes

As previously indicated I will be posting an appendix to my posts on Coup and Counter-Coup in Turkey, referring to Ottomanism, Kemalist republicanism and related issues. The sixteenth of April referendum does require a response of a more immediate kind. The referendum was on amendments to the Constitution largely concerned with transforming Turkey from a parliamentary republic, which it has been at least in principle since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Recep Tayıp Erdoğan had already been breaking the Constitution since 2014 when he was elected President of Turkey after more than a decade as Prime Minister. On becoming President he transferred the chief executive power to the presidential palace (which has more than 1000 rooms and was built on Erdoğan’s orders using executive privilege to override court bans on building on the land concerned). This in itself tells you everything you need to know about the decay of Turkish democracy, from a starting point which was itself not a shining beacon to the world of purist constitutional democracy.

Erdoğan’s ambitions for an executive presidency in Turkey precede his elevation to that role. The shift from a President elected by the National Assembly to a President elected by popular vote came from a referendum of 2007, though Erdoğan is the first President of Turkey to take the office in this way. Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938) and then İsmet İnönü (1938-1950) were powerful presidents in a parliamentary system. This paradox arose because Turkey was a de facto one-party state in which only the Republican People’s Party had seats in the National Assembly from 1923 to 1943, though the Free Republican Party won seats in local elections. The elections of 1946 resulted in an opposition party and some independent deputies entering the National Assembly. In 1950 İnönü became the first Turkish (or Ottoman) leader to give up power peacefully as the result of elections and the Republican People’s Party became the first political party to give up power in this manner. During the one party period, the President was the dominant figure in the Republican People’s Party and therefore acted as the head of government, though with a Prime Minister and some genuine divisions of responsibilities.

Not only did Erdoğan start using powers he had not been given in the constitution in 2014, the whole evolution towards a presidential system has been done in a way to benefit him personally. He was Prime Minister over three terms from 2002 to 2014, an office to be abolished in 2019 as a result of the recent referendum, and was the head of government. He has acted as effective head of government since 2014, regardless of the Prime Minister having this role. The office of Prime Minister will still exist until 2019 and most of the constitutional changes as a result of the referendum will not come into force until then. Erdoğan can then have the two terms of executive presidency in addition to the term he is currently serving which will still constitutionally limit his powers in ways that mean the Prime Minister should be head of government. In this sense, the system is working as in the days of the one party system. So Erdoğan can serve as head of government in Turkey from 2003 until 2029. Furthermore he may be able to add another term if the National Assembly goes to an early election during his second term.

The President will have the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and this could easily happen simply because the President wishes to have a third term. The amended constitution at least restricts the President to two five-year terms plus most of a third term in special conditions. So the possibility exists of Erdoğan running the Turkish government from 2003 to 2034, a highly unusual situation in any democracy and one likely to undermine the democracy in question, particularly as the powers of the President now include control of appointment of senior judges, senior civil servants, senior bureaucrats, the right to issue decrees as laws, the right to appoint all cabinet ministers without National Assembly approval, and the right to appoint two vice-presidents without National Assembly approval. Theses figures will not be required to answer questions in the National Assembly and, like the President, will benefit from lifetime immunity with regard to alleged crimes committed in office. That is to say, the President and his associates will have immunity for life unless the National Assembly votes to suspend the immunity, with a high enough majority required to make this unlikely unless there is a massive collapse in the number of AKP deputies, or of Erdoğan’s control of the AKP.

We cannot even say that these changes designed to produce a President above normal democratic constitutional checks and balances, dominating the whole governmental process and state machinery in a way unprecedented in Turkey’s multi-party history, have been agreed to by a genuine majority vote. The referendum was held in state of emergency conditions, which still prevails. A state of emergency in which opposition journalists have been detained in large numbers on flimsy charges as ‘terrorists’, opposition deputies (from Kurdish rights-leftist HDP) have been detained on a similar basis. State media and most private media groups operate as media organs of the AKP. The state of emergency has been applied in a particularly harsh way in the southeast (Kurdish majority) part of the country where elected local government has been replaced by central government appointees. There are 500,000 displaced persons in the southeast resulting from PKK terror and the state security reaction which led to military bombardment of whole towns and urban districts until they were reduced to rubble. It was clearly not easy for them to vote and it looks like a large number did not vote. Extreme intimidation of No campaigners was the norm in the southeast where large numbers of HDP election observers were denied access to polling booths. Intimidation of the No campaign took place elsewhere if in a less extreme way and public spaces were dominated by Yes publicity.

The count was itself full of flagrant irregularities. The number of polling stations recording a 100% vote for Yes was far greater than the number recording 100% AKP votes in recent elections. There was another party campaigning for the Yes, the hardline nationalistic MHP, but the party split over the leader’s support for Yes and all the evidence is that overwhelmingly most MHP voters did not vote Yes. Given that some AKP voters defected from Yes, not many but no less than 5%, there was no reason to expect an increased number of polling stations with a 100% vote and of course suspicion is in order about polling stations which recorded such results in the past.

An AKP politician who is a member of the national electoral board (itself packed with AKP appointees) requested that all ballot papers used to vote, but not carrying a stamp to show they have been authorised for that polling station by an official, should be counted. This is illegal but the request was granted. AKP apologists were quick to say that opposition requests in the past for counting such ballots (because maybe they were stuck together when the official was stamping papers) were granted in the past. Small illegality does not excuse large illegality and the scale of counting of such ballot papers was much larger than previously.

During the count the state news agency was announcing results before they were released by the electoral board. A strange and suspicious situation. The international media, following the state news agency, failed to see the discrepancy also confusing the percentage of ballot boxes opened with votes cast, giving a very misleading impression of a big lead amongst most votes cast early in the evening. The election board results then went off line and were not shared with the opposition. When results came back online they showed a very different pattern than before the break in service, more in line with the state news agency announcements.

Given the close (51.4% for Yes) nature of the official result, there are a number of reasons to think that No won in votes cast, and even if we ignore the voting irregularities, there is reason to think that in a less intimidating atmosphere, particularly in the southeast, more Yes voters would have cast a vote. In these circumstances I suggest that even on a very cautious reckoning, the number of votes cast for No was at least 51% and that with a less intimidating and disruptive atmosphere, another 2% would have gone to No. To say on this basis that 53% voted No is I believe a very cautious estimate. There is very probably a clear majority of Turkish voters against the new presidential system, at least 55%.

The narrow result clearly caused embarrassment to Erdoğan and the AKP who had predicted a very big victory for Yes. They have gone quieter since then, but with no let up in authoritarian measures. Just two days ago Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey, several thousand state employees were dismissed using emergency powers and a number of NGOs were closed in a similar way. The context of the supposed Yes victory gives hope that there is opposition to the Erdoğan/AKP destruction of liberal democracy, but recent measures suggest they are as determined as ever to use the tools of state to obliterate opposition, or just any sense of independence from the party-state machine.

Coup and Counter Coup VI: Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey

(Previous posts here, here, here, here and here). The state of emergency proclaimed by President Erdoğan in Turkey on 20th July last year, in response to the coup attempt of five days before, is not a situation that will come to an end in a return to normality. It is the model for the presidential system that Erdoğan has been pushing for since 2007, when he was still admired by many liberal minded people inside Turkey (though not me) and abroad. One of the key provisions of the state of emergency is that the President can issue decrees with the force of law. There are doubts about the constitutionality of this form of ‘law making’ but two members of the Constitutional Court were arrested after the coup attempt and the chances of the court starting up to executive power are now extremely remote. Judges and prosecutors have been demoted and even arrested after making the ‘wrong’ decision during the state of emergency and I do not think Erdoğan and his associates would have any scruples at all about further arrests of judges in the Constitutional Court.

The Presidential system, or one person rule system, which Turks will vote on, will retain the decrees as law powers of the Presidency. There are some limits on the decrees issued, but as the President will control the appointment of most of the senior judiciary there are serious questions about whether the Constitutional Court will put any effective break on these powers to legislate through decree. There is no sign of the state of emergency ending, though at least now everyone can see the deception in the original decision to declare a state of emergency for three months only instead of the six months maximum allowed in the Constitution. The state of emergency is renewed every three months with no debate and no indication of when it will come to an end. Does Erdoğan have any intention of ending the state of emergency before he becomes a President elected with the new powers? In principle these powers should only be implemented after the next presidential election in 2019, coinciding with elections to the National Assembly. Erdoğan may wish to bring these elections forward, particularly for the National Assembly if he loses the referendum. While it may seem outrageous for the Council of Ministers to keep prolonging the state of emergency until 2019, the AKP government has been doing more and more previously outrageous and even unimaginable things now for some years, particularly since the Gezi protests of 2013.

What the state of emergency also means is that suspects can be held without charge and access to lawyers if charged with ‘terrorism’, which is defined in absurdly broad ways to cover any kind of contact with the Gülenists or sympathy for the Kurdish autonomy movement. Torture has been making a return in Turkey after becoming relatively unusual since the PKK terror campaign began again in 2015. The state of emergency conditions have now normalised it completely and though the government denies torture charges, in the normal manner of authoritarian regimes, claiming the charges are terrorist propaganda, you have to wonder how seriously they expect anyone to take the denials. Photographs of the alleged coup plotters immediately after the coup attempt showed they had been badly beaten, though of course this is explained away as the result of ‘resisting arrest’, another time-honoured evasion. Consistent reports suggest prisoners are denied food, placed in stress positions for long periods of time, beaten and sexually assaulted. In the more moderate cases, the prison officials merely restrict prisoners to a diet of bread and bad quality tap water in conditions of psychological abuse. There is amongst everything else in Turkey a growing problem of mental and emotion health problems amongst the survivors of these ordeals, which are of course excluded from the mainstream media.

The rhetoric and abuse used by police ‘special teams’ invading the media and political offices of ‘terrorist’, that is Kurdish autonomy and other leftist groups, involve extreme nationalism and Ottomanism. Kurds are insulted as covert Armenians. Actual Armenians are told that the Ottomans destroyed the Armenians and that Turks are the masters of Armenian. A particularly disgusting reference to the massacre of 1 500 000 Armenians during World War One. These are not aberrations, this behaviour reflects the deep ideology of the AKP, mixing extreme nationalism and Ottomanism, of course ignoring the tensions between these positions. The torture and abuse is legitimated in the minds of perpetrators by a political rhetoric and government measures which present opponents as terrorist and part of international conspiracies against the ‘innocent’ Turks who are so good they are naive. This I am afraid is no exaggeration of the political discourse of the moment.

There is no reason to think the abuse and political extremism will end, though of course we should hope it does. If all Gülenists – real and imagined – and all sympathisers with Kurdish autonomy or the far left are targeted, then there are essentially endless opportunities for authoritarianism, polarising dehumanising rhetoric and abuse. I can only presume the current atmosphere will last indefinitely, as Erdoğan has found it a successful strategy for staying in power and increasing his power.

It is of course not just a question of his own political power. There is the question of how his family occupy places of privilege in large Muslims NGOs (at the same time as non-AKP oriented NGOs come under increasing pressure) with huge budgets and sit on the boards of major companies in Turkey. Erdoğan does not envisage any situation in which these activities are placed under mainstream media examination, and even less legal investigation. The issue of legal immunity is a huge one in Turkish politics. The amended constitution would allow the President to appoint anyone to two vice presidential positions and to the cabinet. Like the President all these people would have lifetime immunity from prosecution for activities undertaken while in office. Though the National Assembly would have the power to send the President to the Constitutional Court, this requires a very high threshold, clearly designed to protect Erdoğan even if the AKP loses a large part of its support.

As mentioned above, there is an expectation that Erdoğan will call an early National Assembly election if he loses the referendum. It seems likely on current polling that two out of the three opposition parties currently in the National Assembly would fail to meet the electoral thresh hold of 10%. This means the National Action Party, which has split over the referendum, and the Kurdish radicals who have lost some of their more moderate support since the revival of PKK violence. In such a National Assembly, the AKP could certainly put any constitutional proposal to referendum and very possibly could have enough votes to amend the constitution without referendum. So even if Erdoğan loses the election, he could get the same measures, or close enough, through other means.

(Last post in the current series, though I will post an appendix on Ottomanist and Atatürkist legacies in Turkey, along with comments on related political thought.)

Coup and Counter Coup V: Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey

Previous posts here, here, here and here. The post coup atmosphere created the impression of an invincible block of the AKP and the MHP, backed by some parts of Kemalist (Jacobinism alla turca) opinion, which would provide a massive majority for the Presidential republic desired by Erdoğan. The MHP did provide the votes in the National Assembly, for the super majority necessary to trigger a constitutional referendum. This was a complete turn about from the MHP’s previous position.

The background to this turn is partly in the state-PKK polarisation, but also in an internal female challenge to the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli from Meral Aksaner. She is very popular with the Grey Wolf community and would have probably won a leadership election if a special party congress had been called. This became an issue in the courts, which did not in the end force the MHP leadership to act in accordance with an interpretation of laws on political parties (which are very prescriptive in Turkey), which in turn would require a congress. That Bahçeli was so resistant to calling a special congress tells its own story. He lost support within the MHP after their votes went down in the second general election of 2015, presumably also reflecting some previous accumulating weariness with his leadership. The whole story has raised suspicion of AKP supporting judges who twist the law in order to promote a MHP-AKP partnership, but there is no proof of this.

It can at least be said that Bahçeli hopes for some kind of deal in which the AKP-dominated media (that is a very large majority of the media, though not necessarily reflecting the inner views of journalists) treats the MHP gently, the AKP does not campaign against it, and the MHP can continue to get the minimum ten percent of votes necessary for a party list to have deputies in the National Assembly. He may also be hoping that in the Presidential system which Turks are voting on in the 16th April referendum, he or one of his surrogates will get one of the two vice-presidential positions and that the MHP has cabinet seats (which will all be appointed by the President, like the Vice-Presidential positions, with no parliamentary vote or scrutiny).

Meanwhile there is less of a story to tell about the Kemalists, who anyway do not have a clear leader or party. The CHP is their natural home but may be perceived as not pure enough. The bizarre character Doğu Perinçek provides a point of reference, but used to be pro-PKK and is generally just too strange and marginal. In any case, Perinçek has now recently and very publicly withdrawn his support from Erdoğan in reaction to Turkish support for the missile attack on a Syrian air force base. In general, the hardcore Kemalists have drifted back to opposing Erdoğan and supporting the CHP’s ‘No’ campaign. In at least some cases, there may have been second thoughts about how far exactly the government has gone in persecuting Gülenists, real and imagined, along with Kurdish movement politicians and activists; and a feeling that defending the Republic might also mean defending proper legal standards. Perinçek is at a vanguardist extreme where this is not an issue, but for those more influenced by foreign centre left parties and the wish for robust international standard rule of law, there has been a reaction, and a recollection of earlier objections to Erdoğan and his ambitions.

The Kurdish autonomy movement, the Grey Wolves, and the Kemalists will not disappear in Turkey. Positive developments in rule of law, constitutional democracy, individual liberties, and tolerant political culture require evolution in these movements. No government can come to power in Turkey which does not appeal to the concerns of at least one of these groups, and probably two. Erdoğan has never managed to completely absorb or eliminate any of them, though he has to some degree succeeded in keeping some appeal to both nationalist Turks and identity-oriented Kurds, particularly religious and socially conservative Kurds who may regard both CHP and HDP with suspicion. When the MHP and the Kemalist hardcore seemed to be behind Erdoğan after the coup, it seemed he might get more than 60% in the referendum. The MHP has now split in practice, and may well formally split after the referendum. Aksaner is the most popular MHP politician in Turkey and is campaigning for now. The CHP, and those most motivated by the CHP’s Kemalist roots, is solidly behind ‘No’. Right now, though ‘Yes’ may well win, it seems highly unlikely it will win with 60% plus and most expect a very tight vote. (to be continued)