Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Twenty-Four Hours that changed Turkey…

…on the twenty-fifth of December. While perhaps it is still early to make such a bombastic statement, however there is no doubt that what we saw on this day is an historic turning point. For the first time, Turkish citizens and analysts alike are starting to imagine a Turkey without the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  
Turkey's opposition paper: Earthquake

The arrests on December 17 (see former blog) have thrown Turkey into a state of chaos, culminating in the resignation of three government Ministers on December 25. The first two resigning ministers have sons under arrest, linked to the probe; the powerful Interior Minister, M. Guler, and the Minister of Economic Affairs, Z. Caglayan, who is also accused of receiving a $350,000 watch as bribe. However, it was the resignation of Environment Minister, E. Bayraktar, that set off a massive political earthquake. Bayraktar, angry at the allegations and for being pressured to resign, called upon Erdogan to resign, stating that “because a big part of the zoning plans that are in the investigation file and were confirmed were made with approval from Mr. Prime Minister.”

Pro-goverment paper blames US, Israel, and Gulen group
Just hours after the resignations came the second political earthquake: news came in that a “Second Wave” arrests was about to take place. However, no time at all passed before rumors spread throughout the media and twitter waves that the police were refusing to carry out the prosecutor’s orders, which included the detainment of Erdogan’s son, Bilal, along with a whole list of key business figures.

The next day, late in the afternoon, news broke that the prosecutor of the “Second Wave,” had been removed from the case. According to the prosecutor, M. Akkas, “I learned that I was removed from my duty without any justification, while the search warrants, seizure [of materials] and arrest orders [were also taken from me]. The responsibility from now on falls with the Istanbul public prosecutor and his deputy. All of the public and my colleagues should know that my task as a prosecutor has been obstructed…”

Liberal Taraf paper claims "Second Wave" probe deals with
100 billion dollars
In the meantime, Erdogan, who just appointed a new cabinet in a "reshuffle" (a move planned ahead of probe in preparation of the March local elections and post-budget approval) has opted to stand strong against all accusations of corruption, blaming it on international conspiracy. Further, he even went so far to praise the main suspect of the “First Wave” of the corruption probe, Reza Zarrab, and is standing by the CEO of Halkank, who was allegedly found with shoe boxes of dollars stashed away in his home. In Erdogan’s words,“Zarrab exports gold and I know that he is involved in charity activities as well.” In others, if some thought he would throw Zarrab and his accused accomplices “under the bus,” at least for now that is far from the case.

In my last blog, I asked how long will AKP MPs be willing to put up with this circus; one major MP already resigned on December 25 (following the resignation of the ministers), Idris Naim Sahin; another MP, hinted to widespread corruption while handing over his post to the newly appointed minister after Erdogan relieved him from his position as minister in the “reshuffle.” Lastly, one AKP MP criticized the PM for appointing an Interior Minister who is not a MP. However, the fact that there is a stirring within the party, does not mean that we are anywhere near a group of AKP MPs abandoning Erdogan, in order to set up a new party within the parliament.

Nevertheless, if the state of affairs continue to deteriorate at the speed it has been during the last few days, it seems hard to imagine that his party members will remain silent. In the event they do not take matters into their hands, then Erdogan will need to face a growing chorus of opposition calling for his resignation, or at least, early elections, among the Turkish population at large.   For now, however, the ball is still in Erdogan's court, and he very well could come out on top if he plays his cards right.   

Monday, December 23, 2013

Erdoğan’s Greatest Challenge Yet: the Unfolding Corruption Probe (Turkey Local Election coverage 2014, 2)

A Turkish telenovela could not have had a better script: last Tuesday morning, police forces completed an early morning raid detaining some of the country’s top political, social, and business elite: An Iranian-Azeri businessmen, married to a famous pop-star; three government ministers’ sons; the CEO of a government bank; a multi-millionaire construction tycoon; and a local mayor of Istanbul’s Fatih district, a member of the ruling government. Within hours of the arrest, it was clear that this would be one of the greatest scandals in Turkish history, a graft probe that connected the lives of the rich and famous with the country’s top politicians.  
Reza Zarrab (left) with Turkish Minister Suat Kılıç (right)

Since news broke almost a week ago, we have learned that the raid was related to three different probes, and two of the big names, each belonging to a different probe, have been released awaiting trial: the construction mogul, Ali Agaoglu, and the mayor of Fatih municipality, Mustafa Demir. While these two probes are quite telling on their own accord, the graft probe that has shaken the Turkish political world to the core is related to the arrest of Reza Zarrab, the Iranian-Azeri businessman (married to the famous singer Ebru Gündes), who is accused of paying off millions of dollars to high-ranking personalities, such as, two government ministers’ sons, and the CEO of the state ran bank, Halkbank. Further, it is alleged that Egemen Bağış, the Turkish Minister of EU Affairs, was central in acquiring Turkish citizenship for Zarrab, and rumored that the Economic Minister, Zafer Cağlayan, whose son was arrested, received a $350,000 watch as a present from Zarrab.  

During the last week, Turkey's once believed-invincible Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been working hard to close the pandora’s box that has been opened: following the arrests, he sacked tens of high-ranking police officers involved in the trial, and is placing great pressures on the judicial system. Similar to his reaction during the Gezi Park protests, the Prime Minister, is trying to convince all that this is the work of secret forces; some pro-government newspaper outlets have placed blame on the US, while others on the likely candidate, Israel (surely it must be the Jews behind this). However, the gravity of this embarrassment is not the fact that his government is condoning rampant corruption, rather, more and more, it seems like it is an integral part of it.
Reza Zarrab in background steps away from Turkish Minister
Egemen Bağış (right)

Just days ago, numerous photos have hit the press showing Reza Zarrab at official state events and ceremonies, leading some to cynically suggest that Zarrab should be declared as an honorary member of the government. While there is no photo of him with the Prime Minister, he appears twice with the PM’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, together with Suat Kılıç, the up-and-coming favorite Minister of Erdoğan, in a photo with the previously mentioned Minister, Egemen Bagis, and with the wife of the Interior Minister, Muammer Güler, whose son was one of the ones arrested. In other words, from the photos it is apparent that Reza Zarrab had very close relations with many in the high-echelons of the governing AK party; further, his presence at official openings begs the question whether or not he or his wife, Gündeş, contributed illegal monies to public institutions.

Zarrab’s close relations is damning to the AK Party’s image that was elected as an anti-corruption party. During their eleven years in power, rumors of corruption have come-and-gone, and with over four-hundred billion dollars of foreign investment energizing Turkey’s economy, and the subsequent over-the-top construction boom, corruption seems almost unavoidable (something that is central to the two previous probes that were mentioned at the beginning of the article). However, most damaging to the party, is the fact that Erdoğan has decided to challenge the allegations head-on, risking a head-on collision with the Turkish electorate, which despite all his rallying, must simply be tired of the endless controversy; yes, some Turkish citizens might have not been the most sympathetic to the Gezi Park protests, but this too took a toll on them. Now, if Erdogan does not quickly take control (with no signs of this in the future), he is at risk of being left alone, with a much less (even if consolidated) numbered of die-hard supporters.

If this was not enough, with the Gülen Movement accused as being the perpetrators, uncovering of this scandal, it is hard to imagine that the party will be able to make up the votes lost due to the parting of this once staunch ally. Furthermore, even if it is too early to predict how this scandal will play out, it perhaps is time to ask how much longer members of Erdoğan’s party will put up with this circus; at what point will respectable members of his cabinet jump ship. Such as, Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who, despite criticism of his foreign policy, remains a serious politician that could lead a conservative agenda in Turkey. Lastly, it seems more likely than ever that Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, also will remain unscathed from these scandals, and this could be an opportunity to strengthen his hold over Turkish politics.

In the first article of my series on the upcoming Turkish local elections, I ended by saying that this season will be interesting to say the least, no one could have predicted such a major fallout. What is clear is that if there was any chance for opposition parties to make gains against the AK Party, the time is now. Also, if Erdoğan weathers this storm, he certainly he will hold up his reputation as being the political genius, as we all know him as; but the question remains, at what price. 

Whatever comes out of this political scandal, it is clear that the biggest loser from this graft probe will not be one politician or another, truly, it is the Turkish state's standing among its citizens, and in the world. They say in Turkish, yazık (it's a pity); simply put, this probe cannot be described in any other way. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Did someone say elections in Turkey? (Turkey Local Election coverage 2014, 1)*

At the end of March 2014, Turkey will once again head to the polls to vote in mayors for the country’s municipalities, marking five years since the previous ones, and almost three years since the 2011 national elections. While local elections do not always serve as an indicator for the general public’s confidence in a ruling party, there is no doubt that the upcoming elections in Turkey is quickly turning into a referendum for the ruling AK Party, which received almost fifty percent of the vote in the last national elections.  
Actually, it is not the opposition parties that are treating this as a referendum, who obviously know the stakes are high; rather, it is Turkey’s strong Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is pushing this stance. We have to remember that Erdogan is at his best during elections, and during the past few weeks he has been campaigning “full-steam ahead.” 
Ever since the Gezi Park protests, in fact, Erdogan has been on a non-stop campaign challenging his opponents, or anyone who has the potential to challenge his hegemony, one-by-one. Most recently, in an attempt to consolidate power within his own party, the Turkish prime minister opened a front against the Gülen movement, or what is known in Turkish as the Hizmet (Service) movement, or the Cemaat (the Society). However, it is still premature to see how the unfolding row will play out in the upcoming local elections. Clearly, the twitter wars between the two camps has showed us just how messy Turkish politics can become.  
What is clear is that Erdogan’s constant divisive “powerhouse” politics will most likely lead to a decline in his support, something I already claimed just two weeks before the Gezi protests. However, let us not lose sight, local elections can be misleading; it is important to remember that Erdoğan also treated the 2009 elections as a referendum and despite the opposition parties gaining some ground, just two years later, in the national elections, he swept the ballots, getting almost 50% of the general vote (see my former blogs on 2009 local election, and 2011 national elections). 
The key to any true success on behalf of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), will depend greatly on how dynamic their candidates are, and the party’s ability to open the door to communities they have shunned in this past. In Istanbul, and the other major cities, utilizing the space the Gezi Park protests created without exploiting it will be central; in other words, the party will need to capture the overall population’s imagination, heightening spirits that change is possible. 
During the next 3.5 months, I will be covering different aspects of the elections and focusing on how other parties, such as the newly formed Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) and how its candidate for Istanbul, the Gezi protester and MP, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, will influence the race. On the same token, I will be watching if CHP’s choice of Mustafa Sarıgul to run for mayor in Istanbul was a good or bad one (he will officially open his campaign this Thursday). Further, I will give a rundown of the other cities and regions, looking at which parties are most likely to make gains, or hold ground, such as the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) in the southeastern Kurdish regions, and the National Action Party (MHP), in the western regions and some cities in the interior.  Indeed, this election should be an exciting one! 
*The coverage will be indexed as seen above in title

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Keeping the Rage alive: The Prawer Plan and Attempts at Transfer

Protesters being dispersed by water cannons, see link to photos below
It has been a week since the “Day of Rage,” when thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest plans by the Israeli government to implement the Prawer-Begin plan, which aims at transferring tens-of-thousands of Bedouin Arabs living in “unrecognized” villages into established settlements, and making way for new Jewish towns in their place. The protesters, who were mostly Palestinian-Israelis (or known by the state as “Israeli-Arabs,”; those who live within the 1948 borders of the Israeli state and hold Israeli citizenship), together with leftist Jewish groups, sent a strong message to the Israeli government, and the Israeli population at large, that they will not remain oblivious to the oppressive plans of the Netanyahu government.  During the day of rage, protest took place in Hura, Haifa and Jaffa in Israel, and also in Palestinian parts of Jerusalem, and in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, in addition to places throughout the world.   

Despite the large protests, the Israeli government remains adamant to move forward with plans to transfer the population, and while it is still being discussed in the Knesset Internal Affairs committee, it should go to the floor for parliamentary approval in the winter session. Therefore, it is essential to spread the words in order to halt this racist plan and keep it on the agenda. I for one, if in Israel, or abroad, will continue to protest this plan. 

As an Israeli citizen, for me, this plan just reconfirms that Israel, in place of reconciling with its history and recognizing the Nakba, and other injustices done to almost 20% of the population, it continues a policy of transferring Palestinians to make way for Jewish settlements (in addition to expropriating lands). 

Protesters being dispersed in Hura, see link to photos below
To read on about the Prawer Plan, here are links to two organizations that are at the forefront of the struggle for justice on behalf of the Bedouins in the Negev: First, there is Adalah and its page with links about the Prawer Plan, and a position paper it sponsored; and then there is the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, with plenty of information. Also, if tweeting, look for the #hashtags: #برافر_لن_يمر #פראוורלאיעבור and #StopPrawerPlan  (choose the language!)

Lastly, the internet news site, 972Mag, has compiled a nice collection of images of the protests and the clashes that ensued, showing excessive police force, which used stun grenades, water-cannons, and teargas to disperse crowds.