No “Hero of Haarlem” in Ankara

With Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, the English-speaking world took to heart the tale of a Dutch boy who saves his beloved homeland from certain flood by plugging a leaky dike.  Briefly: Happening home as dark approached, the lad espied a leak in one of Haarlem’s many dikes. Grasping the potential calamity, the boy stemmed the flow with his finger, suffering cold and solitude through the night until the townspeople discover him and mend the leak. The boy becomes a hero, having saved Haarlem from deluge.

The boy-cum-hero was more than brave. He demonstrated prescient awareness, grasping the potential magnitude of the situation. He responded with appropriate measure, running for help or stuffing the dike with soil would have left the danger unguarded. The boy then readily called for help at first chance.

The analogy to Ankara?  With Turkey’s economy threatened by turbulent waters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to pose as his country’s indispensable protector. However,  he shows poorly in comparison to Haarlem’s little savior. The president’s most recent maneuver to keep the country’s economic ship aright—an enormous transfer of state-owned corporate shares to Turkey’s first sovereign wealth fund—will fail to achieve its intended aims. Any dissenting counsel to this undertaking will be prone to the president’s usual dismissal.  

The republic’s economy will instead likely worsen. As growth slows and consequent discontent rises, Erdogan will not retreat from his autocratic drive to direct the economy himself. For now, Turkey’s once-emerging democracy will instead continue to deconsolidate as Erdogan adds further economic power to his already dominant political role.

The Economy:  Red Sky at Morning

On February 6, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s privatization administration announced the transfer of billions of dollars worth of  government-owned shares into a new sovereign wealth fund (SWF). These involve several of Turkey’s best performing companies and banks, including Turkish Airlines  and Halkbank with a combined value of $3 billion, in which the state has 49.1 and 59.1 percent of the shares, respectively. Also included in the mass transfer were the Borsa stock exchange and BOTAS—the state-owned natural gas pipeline operator. The stated purpose of this asset transfer is to reassure foreign lenders whose confidence in Turkey has steeply declined.

Why will this move fail? Turkey’s SWF is a sharp departure from the international norm. SWFs are commonly funded out of revenue generated by a country’s natural resources or foreign exchange reserves and established when there exists a significant budgetary surplus.  Moreover, SWFs typically invest globally. In contrast, the assets transferred this month come from domestic banks and firms, not from commodity revenues or reserves.  Although Turkey’s budget deficit is currently somewhere between 1-2%, 2016 saw a marked increase in budget expenditures on health, welfare, and pensions; and none are poised to abate. Furthermore, the AKP government is likely to use the SWF as leverage to borrow for mega-infrastructure projects at home, rather than pursue investment opportunities abroad. Such a build-up of debt is likely to decrease rather than increase investor confidence in the Turkish economy.

There are few indicators suggesting that the Turkish economy will resume the robust growth that propelled it to become the world’s 17th largest economy. The attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and its aftermath greatly shook investors and creditors alike. In the third quarter of 2016, Turkey’s economy contracted for the first time in several years to levels lower than predicted. Last September, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Turkey’s sovereign credit rating to junk status.  The Turkish lira has dramatically declined against the dollar, falling 23.73 percent between September 2016 and February 2017.

Not all of Turkey’s current economic woes are linked to July 15th fallout. Turkey continues to struggle with a growing current account deficit. It is forecasted at $34.3 billion for 2016 (an increase of $2.1 billion from the previous year). This is nothing new—Turkey has been struggling to keep its current account out of a deep red since 2010.  And due to Russian boycotts and terror attacks, Turkey’s tourism industry was already suffering mightily before the attempted coup. Tourism’s contribution to GDP dropped from  twelve percent in 2014 to 4.5 percent in 2015. Employing eight percent of the country’s workforce, this industry’s shrinkage is being felt.  

Governance: Bad Crescent Moon Rising

The sweeping shift of wealth into Turkey’s SWF is the latest step in Erdogan’s drive to centralize authority under his own personal executive control. Should he win April’s referendum on the expansion of Turkey’s presidential powers, authority over the SWF would no doubt transfer to him, since the position of its current overseer, the prime minister, would be abolished. This is especially dangerous, as SWF transactions will be unaccountable to either parliament or Turkey’s High Court of Auditors, thereby giving a uniquely dominating president tremendous sway over the use of state funds.  

This would conform with a consistent pattern of incremental power consolidation, in economic affairs as well as in the political realm. The AKP party has unrelentingly relied on the crony issuance of tenders for unnecessary infrastructure projects as a key means of securing political influence; Turkey’s SWF is simply another chapter. Furthermore, AKP’s leader regularly disregards sound economic counsel in favor of political expediency. For example, Erdogan has for years shouted down top economic advisors seeking to stem inflation by increasing interest rates, a widely accepted remedy. The Gulenist witch hunt following the July 15 coup attempt provides a further example of damaging market interference. By executive order under a state of emergency, hundreds of businesses were shuttered, eliminating in many cases competitors of AKP-aligned enterprises and banks.

Given the breadth of Turkey’s current economic challenges, Erdogan’s continued reliance on his tried playbook will turn up insufficient. The demographic bulge that fueled Turkey’s post-2002 Wirtschaftswunder is coming to a close. Of Turkey’s top ten export destinations, six are presently European Union member states, a trade zone whose “outlook is surrounded by higher-than-usual uncertainty” and moderate recovery remains nascent. Nor will the resumption of trade with Russia via the recent rapprochement do much. At best, the countries may return to the same steady levels that preceded the crisis-provoking downing of a Russian jet in November 2015. And don’t expect a return of Russia’s tourist masses as long as ISIS and PKK terror attacks continue. This insecurity and Turkey’s noteworthy political risk are especially damaging to prospects of foreign direct investment at a time when multinational corporations appear on a full-fledged retreat worldwide.

Despite Turkey’s autocratic regression over the past several years of AKP rule, Erdogan and his party could become vulnerable. When polled, Turks regularly assign their greatest concerns to security and the economy. Although the AKP won 40.9 and 49.5 percent in the last two multiparty parliamentary elections, there is now no end in sight to the current fighting with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). If, added to this, there is a severe contraction of Turkey’s economy, it could cost AKP and the president dearly at the ballot box.

In sum Erdogan’s “finger in the dike” does not seem likely to bar the flood. And, absent an uncharacteristic change of tack—such as a willingness to better heed sound economic counsel or greater inclusion of private sector actors unsupportive of his political agenda—the dyke could well give way.

Unfortunately, Erdogan’s reliance on political charisma and personal power-projection tends to preclude rethinking or retreat, particularly before the looming mid-April referendum. Unfortunately for our Turkish friends, it may thus be a long time before they see a red sky on the evening’s horizon.           

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Turkey’s Parliamentary System has a Presidential Stage-Manager

In the summer of 2015, I wrote a profile of Turkey’s electoral system and noted the following:

“In essence, the [June] 2015 election was not only a high stakes gamble for the Kurds, it was also a referendum on Erdoğan himself and his ability to affect the structure of the Turkish electoral system.”

Nearly a year later, on May 5th of 2016, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was pressured by strongman Erdoğan to resign from his position, and on May 22nd the seemingly more pliable Binali Yildirim was elected in his place as the leader of the AKP and new prime minister of Turkey.

Ancient World Map of Turkey

Meanwhile, on May 20th, Turkey’s parliament voted in favor of a law that will lift the legislative immunity of 138 parliamentarians, allowing them to be prosecuted for outstanding offenses, whereas before they were protected. While the parliamentarians who will now be subject to prosecution are not all from one party, the law is clearly meant to target members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose two co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, both face potential prosecution.

The international community is not blind to the connection between these two developments or to the concerning tendencies of the man pulling the strings behind them both: Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.

For some time now, it has been apparent that Erdoğan has harbored aspirations to increase the executive power of the president in Turkey. Yet, in response to the obstacles he has encountered in his quest to formally—that is, constitutionally—change Turkey’s government structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan’s tactics have become increasingly varied and unconventional.

Until he is able to obtain the political capital to overhaul the parliamentary system completely, Erdoğan has busied himself by slowly chipping away at it from within by increasing his own de facto power, ignoring rules meant to ensure a separation of powers, and manipulating the political landscape to set the stage for a constitutional referendum.

Erodgan’s plan for the June 2015 elections was for the AKP (the party which he had formerly led and of which he is still the unofficial leader, despite the fact that the Turkish president is, by law, not allowed to be affiliated with any political party) to win enough seats in the parliament to constitutionally transform Turkey into a presidential system. In terms of numbers, this means that he was hoping for the AKP to win 367 out of 500 parliamentary seats to unilaterally pass the measure. Or, in a more likely scenario, he hoped to garner the support of 330 out of the 500 parliamentary votes in favor of changing the constitution in order to send the measure to the Turkish people in a public referendum.

Yet last summer Erdoğan fell well short of his goal in large part due to an aspect unique to Turkey’s electoral system: the country’s extremely high electoral threshold.

At 10%, Turkey’s electoral threshold is the highest in the world, meaning that a party must win a minimum of 10% of the total vote in order to earn any seats in the parliament. In most countries with a threshold, that number is closer to 5%. This excludes smaller-sized parties from participating in the parliament while over-representing larger parties.

In the June 2015 election, Kurdish candidates who had previously run as independent candidates out of fear of not reaching the 10% threshold should they have run as a party, decided to run for the first time as the HDP. The Kurds won 13.1% of the vote, securing 80 seats in parliament, while the AKP only managed to win 258 seats.

A snap election was held in November of 2015 after a summer of violent clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists as well as coalition talks that failed to lead to the formation of a functional government. The November election led to results more favorable for Erdoğan, but still not sufficient for amending the constitution. The AKP won 317 seats (still short of the 330 needed for a public referendum), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 134 seats and 40 seats respectively, and the Kurdish HDP won 59 seats after just surpassing the electoral threshold with 10.7% of the vote.


Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s newest pawn, has not been subtle about his intentions in the position. Just after he assumed office, he gave a speech in which he stated:

“The most important mission we have today is to legalize the de facto situation, to bring to an end this confusion by changing the constitution…The new constitution will be on an executive presidential system.”

It is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey has a parliamentary system on paper but has become a presidential state in practice. Turkey is not the only country masquerading as something that it is not. Brazil has a presidential system that, because of the high number of operational parties, acts as a de facto parliamentary system. As Brazil experiences its own political controversies, this has raised some interesting questions about how to oust an unpopular leader within this convoluted political system.

The biggest problem with Turkey is that its de facto presidential system seems to be teetering on the edge of authoritarianism and nobody is sure quite how far Erdoğan will go in his quest for power.

There is no doubt that a referendum and constitutional change is the strongest and longest-lasting method for changing the Turkish system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. This still seems to be Erdoğan’s goal, yet the developments of the past month show that there are other political tools that Erdoğan is using to slowly change the way the Turkish government operates and, more troublingly, to concentrate his own political power.

Last June I thought the success of the HDP had quelled Erdoğan’s presidential aspirations, at least in the short-term; today, I feel there is little that will stop him.

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Is Turkey’s Military Reentering Politics?

Hulusi Akar, the recently selected chief of Turkey’s military, confronts a very tense, if not perilous environment. His August appointment occurred amid political uncertainty and increased security concerns. The Turkish government has been at a virtual standstill since last June’s general election, unable to forge a viable coalition based on the results. Shortly thereafter, after a 2 ½ year ceasefire, fighting renewed between Ankara and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement, reigniting a bloody struggle which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives over the past thirty years. Economic uncertainty adds to the nation’s anxiety, along with neighboring Syria’s strategic and humanitarian dilemmas. Another national vote is scheduled for November 1, but recent polling shows little if any change per voter sentiments.

In the past, such circumstances would have prompted the Turkish military to express serious concerns as to how the country was being managed. If civilian authority didn’t heed these warnings, a coup d’etat would usually ensue.  The last thirteen years of Islamist rule has effectively ended the military’s political interventions, albeit by questionable means.  Then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a series of investigations that accused the armed forces and alleged civilian cohorts of plotting to overthrow their duly elected government.  These probes are riddled with controversy, begetting trials which have purged large swaths of senior officers from the various branches. The overall result has subjugated the Turkish military to non-political status, ostensibly creating a new generation of leadership that respects civilian governance by not meddling in it.

General Akar represents this changing of the guard. His philosophical bearings noticeably differ from his predecessors, especially concerning Islamist politics. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, religious activism was a red flag for the officer corps.  There are several episodes in Turkey’s political history where the military deemed Islamist-based organizations to be threatening the nation’s secularist precepts and subsequently were disbanded. A decade plus of the AKP’s governance has effectively chastened the armed forces disposition on this matter.

A more pressing topic for the military these days is national unity.   The renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while there’s political impasse raises various questions and concerns throughout Turkish society. Heightening the uncertainty is the increased presence of homegrown radical jihadist networks within Turkey. Much of their material and financial support comes via next-door Syria as well as Iraq, denoting lax, if not compromised border security. (A similar observation can be made about the massive outflow of Syrian refugees from Turkey’s Aegean provinces towards Europe.) Together, the Kurdish and border issues convey an overall impression of teetering state authority.

Another indication of growing restiveness recently appeared at several funerals for soldiers and policemen killed in the latest round of battling the PKK. Their burials have become an outlet for voicing discontent with the current state of affairs. Much of the disgruntling has been directed at Mr. Erdogan, whom mourners accuse of deliberately instigating combat for his own political purposes. The most prominent case occurred at an August funeral ceremony when a uniformed Lieutenant Colonel accused Erdogan of being responsible for his younger brother’s death. It was a widely televised incident, yet pro-government media outlets avoided reporting the officer’s protest and overall clamor. In order to avoid further embarrassment, Ankara subsequently restricted access to these interments, thereby curbing journalistic coverage. Additional methods have been employed to offset the protests via government-friendly social media networks (who accused the Lieutenant General of being a “terrorist” and “PKK sympathizer”) and indictments.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the funeral demonstrations is that they are happening in areas soundly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s policies. While the AKP effectively represent these citizen’s interests, many questions have arisen about the ceasefire’s collapse and the underlying motives which caused it.

There’s a broad consensus that Mr. Erdogan created the present atmosphere in order to avenge last June’s election results. The  Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) foiled plans that would have allowed Erdogan greater executive authority.  The HDP’s higher than expected vote tally came at the expense of Erdogan’s AKP, ending the latter’s one party dominance since 2003. Adding insult to injury, the HDP is a Kurdish-oriented party that serves as the PKK’s political representative. When Mr. Erdogan was Prime Minister, he took an enlightened stance towards the HDP/PKK arrangement. As President Erdogan, it’s been a complete reversal. The HDP is no longer viewed as an emissary seeking a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish situation, but a political opponent whose eighty parliamentary seats block the path to an autocratic presidency.

A campaign to discredit HDP is underway which aims at exploiting its PKK connection. There are indications that the PKK wasn’t surprised by recent events and were readily prepared for a new round of warfare.  Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Erdogan is taking a huge gamble that will result in a  Pyrrhic victory. The military recognizes what’s at stake and has so far refrained from overstepping boundaries that have been established during the AKP’s reign.  This could change however, depending upon the November 1st election results.


The horrific bombing which recently occurred in Ankara has further heightened pre-election tensions. Indications point to Islamic extremists being responsible for the attack, namely as a warning about Turkey’s Syria policy. The incident has also widened AKP/HDP hostilities. There is a general consensus that the government didn’t adequately safeguard the largely Kurdish gathering. The claim has become politicized with both the HDP and AKP accusing each other of complicity with the operation. Instead of a nation uniting over this tragedy, societal polarization prevails.

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Resisting the Impossible: The Popular Resentment Behind the Gezi Park Protests

What is unfolding in Turkey is not a “Turkish Spring,” as many abroad have been calling it. Nor it is the result of a long-lasting struggle between secularists and Islamists. Instead, the Gezi Park protests are simply the long-muted, suppressed voice of Turkey’s diverse population having grown tired of the increasingly authoritarian grip of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).

“I feel like I finally belong somewhere,” said one a young protester from Istanbul as I joined many of the people gathering at a neighborhood park in Istanbul’s Cihangir neighborhood. This was not the first time I have heard this reaction. Many people I spoke to during the Gezi Park protests repeated this view-–with some adding that people have been quiet for far too long. 

From Gezi Park to the Neighborhood

Back at the Cihangir’s park, the crowd is diverse. Many who appear at the protests are local residents. Cihangir is a trendy area of Istanbul, known for its stately homes and a vibrant restaurant, café, and bar scene. For many of the people at the protests, it is the first time they have been driven to become involed in a public demonstration. People congregate not only to demonstrate, but to discuss their experiences and talk about what can be done in the future. In many ways, it’s as much a neighborhood forum as it is a protest.

But Cihangir is not the only neighborhood where such public forums are taking place these past two weeks. All across Istanbul, residents share meeting times for these new forums on Twitter, with 9pm being the widely agreed-upon time. Attendees are welcome to bring guests, food, and their children. There is a list of volunteer speakers and an allocated time for each person who takes the microphone.

From Environmentalist Plea to Mass Protests

The story actually began in October of last year when the government virtually shut down tourist-hotspot Taksim Square as part of its controversial Taksim pedestrian project. The roads were shut, the digging began, and locals’ patience was tested.  A month later, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas announced plans for re-development of Gezi Park, where a mall was to be built. In a global metropolis with a famously undersized share of public green space, a park for a mall.

On May 27, a group of environmentalists and activists from a group called Taksim Solidarity gathered at Gezi Park as bulldozers were brought in to demolish the trees. Taksim Solidarity has been trying to prevent the local government from demolishing the park for some time now. They have been unsuccessful. The next day, it was a member of the Istanbul Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Sirri Sureyya Onder, who boldly blocked the path of an excavator to prevent it from cutting more trees. Later that day, police moved into the park and began dispersing the crowd using tear gas. Yet this time, a woman in a red dress (who later became one of the icons of the protests) stood bravely in front of the police officers as they sprayed her directly in the face. That image quickly went viral on social networks, which PM Erdogan later referred to as a “menace.” It is hard to say whether this was the trigger of what followed. Certainly, it was a spark.

The next day, May 29, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was resolute, adding, “whatever they do, we have made up our minds and we will do it!” This was a warning. The next day, during the early morning hours, police stormed the park and set protesters’ tents on fire. But this only prompted renewed calls on social media to gather at Gezi.

May 31. Yet another dawn operation by the police dispersed the few hundred protesters and set up a barricade around the park. But by 8pm, major streets leading to Taksim Square were occupied by tens of thousands of protesters. Tear gas and water cannons were employed liberally. Even the metro at Taksim was before it was shut down, stranding evening commuters. Soon,other cities and neighborhoods joined in the protests. At around 4am, hundreds of residents walked over from the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Those who couldn’t join protestors in the streets banged pots and pans from their homes in support.

The clashes continued but so did the Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric towards the protesters. Erdogan referred to the protesters as riffraff, hooligans, and at times even terrorists. Instead of restraining police forces and preventing excessive violence, the PM showed little interest. Not even once did he apologize for the crackdown. Police received plaudits and were patted on their backs for the great job that they did.

It has been a month now. On the surface, nothing seems to have changed. No one in government has resigned. Most of the protests have been dispersed. And the AKP’s majoritarianism remains intact. However, there is a sense in the air that the mood has shifted. People feel stronger; there is a hidden smile on everyone’s’ face. There is hope. Turkey’s youth, frequently lambasted for their perceived political apathy, revealed themselves to be as energetic and politically savvy as anyone. These days, not a day goes by without friends and families speaking of Gezi Park; sharing their stories of being gassed and firehosed and what’s next for the Park, the people, and Turkey.

In the meantime, Turkey’s Prime Minister reveals more of the same. He blames outside countries and nefarious interests “plotting” against Turkey. He even went as far as to hold these very same “foreign influences” responsible for Brazil’s outbreak of protests. 

From Protests to Elections — Whats Next?

We are all waiting to see what the future holds for Gezi Park. A court decision, followed by a city-wide referendum is a possibility. But will it be successful? It is hard to predict the honesty of the ruling party, given the past several weeks of protests and the government’s reaction. Surely, things could have been very different had the Prime Minister restrained the police and let people protest in the early days of the Gezi Park protests.

There are local elections coming up in January of next year–a point that was often used by the ruling party in the past month. “Let the people decide in the polls,” has been the general AKP refrain, dismissing the calls by protesters for the Prime Minister to resign.

But the winds might be changing in Turkey after all. Though Erdogan was brought to power through democratic elections, his authoritarian grip on power, a series of conservative reforms sweeping the country, and his polarizing influence has been undermined. Even if no serious political changes occur, there is a genuine understanding that the people will not remain silent forever.

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