Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Non-Victorious Victory: the AK Party’s Reality Check

Yesterday, local elections were held in Turkey and there certainly were a few surprises, showing Prime Minister Erdogan that his popularity has its limits. Certainly, the religiously conservative ruling AK party (AKP) has seen its greatest challenge since coming to power in the national elections of 2002. In comparison to the local election of 2004, when they received 42% of the vote, and to the national elections of 2007, when they boosted their support to 47%, their current victory of 39 % shows that their support for the first time has substantially decreased.

Even with the AKP’s huge victory, both the ideologically secular Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP-People’s Republican Party) and the ethnically Kurdish Demokrat Tomplusal Partisi (DTP-Social Democratic Party) demonstrated a great amount of momentum and threatened Erdogan’s hegemony, even if limited. Furthermore, the far-right wing Milli Hareket Partisi (MHP-National Action Party) has once again proven their ability to be a major-minor player, and their capability at capturing the AKP conservative base.

Now, someone not familiar to Turkish politics must be thinking why these elections are to some extent a watershed. First of all, over the last few months leading-up to the elections, Erdogan on numerous occasions made it clear this was some type of referendum on him and his party’s performance; moreover, many analysts suggested that any number under 40% would be sending a strong message to the ruling party. In addition, just days before the election, some polls placed Erdogan’s victory at over 50%. Therefore, when Erdogan held a press conference, even before all the polls had been counted, he reflected on the need to see where the party went wrong. This was not the same Erdogan who we are use to seeing. Tired from intensive campaigning, he was soft spoken with signs of defeat in his voice.

The CHP gains were impressive. They took the city of Antalya gaining almost 15% more votes than the previous local elections, and this despite the AKP’s major investments in the region. Izmir, CHP’s only major metropolis strong hold got even stronger climbing more than 6% and receiving more than 53% of the vote. Even if CHP did not take Istanbul or Ankara, they made serious headway, gaining almost 8% in Istanbul*, and capturing more of the local municipalities. While the AKP retained their base in Istanbul, in Ankara, they dropped a staggering 16%, with the CHP climbing almost 19%. This cannot be overlooked; the days of the secular republic’s capital returning to the hands of a secular party do not seem so far off if these elections are a sign of future sentiments.

One true winner in these elections was the DTP. A party made up mostly of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens in the Southeastern region of the Republic, and one that supports the expansion of Kurdish rights, made sweeping gains despite the AKP’s and Erdogan’s desperate attempts not only to retain their hold but also to do the unthinkable: to take the DTP’s stronghold of Diyarbakir. This attempt failed radically. They lost Van and Siirt; with other regional cities overwhelmingly voting for the DTP. Needless to say, the Diyarbakir “prize” went to the DTP, with over 65% of the vote, showing that Erdogan’s polemic of him wanting to “take” this city was a complete illusion. In Tunceli, where the AKP embarked on “appliance-politics,” passing out washing machines and other appliances in return for votes, the DTP remained in power. Lastly, the city of Igdir, home to a majority Turkish conservative right-wing constituency, will now be ruled by the opposing party, the DTP, with the two conservative AKP and MHP splitting the vote.

Lastly, the MHP, made especially nice gains, taking numerous municipalities such as Adana, which they won after gaining over 20% in popularity since the last municipal elections, and with the AKP losing 10% of their base support. Other gains were made in Balikesir, where they stomped out both the AKP and the CHP, gaining more than 31% since the previous elections. Further, they were able to retain previous strongholds such as the Anatolian city of Kastamonu.

Now, what are the lessons to be learned from all of this data? Clearly, Erdogan has seriously lost out by claiming that these elections were a referendum of sorts. He himself will need to ask why in the cities where the AKP invested in infrastructure and development, the people switched their votes. What are the implications of a strong DTP have concerning the ongoing Kurdish issue? How will the strengthening of the CHP and MHP, both nationalist in outlook, affect Turkey’s foreign policy. In the next few days, I will address some of these issues. For now, it is clear that democracy has punished a prime minister who until yesterday thought he was invincible.

Louis Fishman
March 30, 2009

* This gain is even without the Sisli local municipality, a stronghold of CHP whose mayor, M. Sarigul, broke away as the result of an internal spat with CHP leader Deniz Baykal.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Internal-Exile and the Gaza Campaign

The truth is I am happy that I started this blog after Israel’s recent Gaza invasion. When the invasion started I was beginning to come to terms with the fact that after 8 months on leave from my work in New York, I only had one more month left in Israel to enjoy. I arrived in Tel Aviv in July after a month in Turkey, and decided that I would spend the six months not being an activist or academic and dedicate time to myself, in a state of “internal-exile.” This would be time to spend with my beautiful daughter, with friends I knew from the past, and those that I had yet to meet.

In “the Bubble” of Tel Aviv, I worked hard to ignore what was going on outside of the city’s borders. The first thing I did was get cable TV with numerous Hebrew channels, but also Arabic and Turkish ones so that if I desired, I could land in Beirut or Istanbul for a few hours. During the following months, I drowned myself in Israeli reality shows. The continuing saga of Israel’s first “Big Brother” reality show did not only capture my attention but the country at large. Periodically, I watched the news but I knew that if anything really happened in Tel Aviv I would know about it in minutes. In the days of the suicide bombings, if one did not hear the bomb itself, the immediate blasting of sirens coming from ambulances and police cars made it clear. Then there was the immediate cell phone calls: Are you OK? Did you hear the blast? These are all cues for turning on the news.

Tel Aviv however has become quite insulated from the conflict and suicide bombings –and at least for now- they have become something of the past. However, walking the streets of Tel Aviv late at night in the hours before the sun arises, I often thought how much blood had been spilt on these streets. This feeling submerged once I caught glance of all the African workers closing the bars, washing windows, and at one time, some going home on their bicycles, while others on their way to work. Twenty years ago, I remember walking the same streets; however, then, it was not Darfur refugees cleaning the streets that were exchanging glances with me but rather Palestinians from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, who use to come in the hundreds of thousands to work in what its founders coined the first “Hebrew” city.

Months passed with me spending time on the beach, discovering a new love for Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture, strolling down Rothschild Avenue, or sitting in cafes. Yet, while trying to ignore reality, like a soldier called up to duty I took my daughter to the annual massive memorial for the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In addition to this, I also went to a protest demanding the Israeli government do more to secure the release of the soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by Hamas since June 2006.

And, now I come to Israel’s massive invasion of Gaza. During the months leading up to the conflict it was clear that a major conflict was in the making. News had been streaming for months from Israel’s southern city of Sderot and surrounding regions, where children for years have learned that you have 15-30 seconds to take cover from the rockets shot from the Gaza Strip. Parallel to this, Israel (and Egypt) was sending clear signals to Hamas that a major offensive was on the horizon.

On December 27, Israel’s massive bombardment started with Gaza being pounded like it never had before. For about three weeks Palestinians casualties continued to rise, reaching over 1200 deaths. For me personally, this had to have been one of the most surreal periods of my life. About thirty miles from my home a full-fledge war was underway, and it really had no affect on my daily routine. From Tel Aviv, I watched all the horrors of war on TV, and incredible amount of feelings of helplessness ensued. Flipping through channels, the Palestinian death toll climbed and the Israeli political triumvirate (PM Olmert-FM Livni-DM Barak) reiterated that there was no other way, and that the mission would continue until the army reached its goal; leaving everyone in the dark about what the mission was.

Needless to say, my six-months of internal exile had come to a crashing halt. I soon started to search for protests and for some means to express –at least my reservations- if not my outright opposition to the tactics of placing a whole population under siege in order to force Hamas’ political leadership to surrender, something everyone knew would not happen. On the other hand, I grew more and more frustrated with Hamas who were willing to put their people in such a position. The writing was on the wall and they did everything to provoke the Israelis to act. If this fact was not confusing enough, my heart also went out to all those in the southern parts of Israel. Yes, thousands of Israeli children suffered endured psychological pressures of war. Let us be open, the 13 Israelis killed is nothing compared to the Palestinian side but this is also due to the fact that Israelis have security protected rooms in their homes, bomb shelters, or took cover in stairwells. In any case, such use of numbers is banal and unethical since it just strengthens the claim that one killing justifies another.

One thing was clear to me: the Israeli Jewish-left leadership completely failed their constituency (and paid for this in the elections). The work was left solely to Hadash, the Jewish-Arab left front, which is made mostly up of members of the Israeli Communist party. Together Jews and Palestinians (Israeli citizens) protested in the middle of Tel Aviv, calling on both sides to end the violence and proving that Jews and Arabs can come together even in the most difficult of times. For me, the march was a bit nostalgic as I was able to meet up with old friends from university and members of co-existence organizations I had worked with in the past.

Now as reports from Israeli soldiers are coming out about excessive violence being used in the campaign, which lead to unnecessary death and destruction, the Jewish-Israeli left needs to do some serious soul searching and question how they failed not only the Israeli public at large but also the soldiers who were swept away with the overwhelming support, with no dissent being voiced among their politicians. Perhaps, Meretz and the Labor Party should ask themselves why they only received 16 seats in the Knesset. Certainly, there must have been a more sane way to go about this and they did not offer any real answer.

So the circle of violence continues. Sadly, both sides are becoming increasingly immune to violence, or at least they are much more tolerant of it. The Palestinians demonstrated this well during the age of suicide bombings. Hamas and Fatah have shown that even killing each other is sometimes more rewarding than killing Israelis. While rampant violence, once unacceptable to large parts of the Israeli society, now can be implemented with little dissent.

In two weeks, I will go back to Israel for the Passover holiday. The dust of the war has settled but not much has changed. Gilad Shalit is still being held in Gaza, rockets are still periodically shot over to Israel. Israelis are continuing with their periodic “targeted-killings,” and is keeping up with the blockade of the strip. Hamas and Fatah are still unable to reach an agreement to form a unity government. And, former mediators of the conflict have all but given up.

Together, Israelis and Palestinians need to ask themselves if all of this violence is really worth it.

Louis Fishman
March 21, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Turkey and the Warmth of the Spring

Perhaps, winter has taken its toll and we are all waiting for the spring to come. In Turkey, spring is always the period when things start to warm up. This spring will likely include the regular events, such as renewed clashes between the Turkish Armed Forces and the PKK, the tension which comes with the spring holiday of Newruz, and Istanbul’s urban clashes on May 1.

Every spring as the snow melts on the mountains of Turkey’s Southeast, the separatist outlawed members of the PKK come out of hibernation, and armed clashes between them and the Turkish Armed Forces strike up. This has been the norm since the nineties, except for a few years following the capture and sentencing of their leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. If things remain as they have during the last couple of years, this spring will also become victim to a new round of fighting which carries out through the summer months with casualties and death on both sides.

Then there is the tension related to March 21 holiday of Newruz (Nowroz). While this holiday is celebrated throughout Iran and Central Asia, marking the pre-Islamic Persian New Year, in Turkey, the day has transformed into a holiday in which large parts of Turkey’s Kurdish population, primarily in the Southeast, air their grievances against the Turkish State, with large demonstrations held in Diyarbakir and other regional cities. These events often lead to clashes between the police and demonstrators.

Next there is May 1, a day that for a great part of the world is now only studied in history books. The international workers day in Turkey has special significance as a day when all the groups ranging from the liberal to radical left join forces not only commemorate the international sense of the day, but also the 1977 Taksim Square event. On this day, 34 died after unknown gunmen opened fired on hundreds of thousands of protestors. Outlawed following the 1980 coup d’etat, it has continued to be a day of political strife. Last year, in efforts to prevent the masses from reaching the square, the police basically created a ring barricade around the center of the city, with clashes breaking out at the different barricades. Needless to say, the above events usually reawake a counter-nationalist movement, and lead to massive display of Turkish flags throughout Turkey

Over the next few months, I will be touching upon some of these events. However, this spring offers us a few more events to wait for. The Turkish economy, following world trends, is showing poorly. If it continues on its track, perhaps it will prove problematic for Turkey’s ruling party the AKP in the upcoming municipal elections. Yes, it is the day –March 29- which we will be watching. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that even an ailing economy will make a dent in the ruling party’s popularity; one that won 46% of the vote in the summer 2007 national elections.

And, in the backdrop of all of this, there is still the ongoing Ergenekon trial, with everyone waiting to see how long the arrests (and convictions) of suspected members of this underground organization will continue. Certainly, more details concerning those who were planning to overthrow the AK party-led-Turkish government in a coup d’etat will come to light in the spring.

Then there is of course US President Obama’s upcoming historic visit to Turkey, which will take place sometime in April. This was announced last week during Secretary of State Clinton’s short trip to Turkey (which I am sure was a breath of fresh air for her Turkish counterparts who have had to deal with years of former President Bush’s failed policies). The fact that Obama has chosen to visit Turkey, following his different meetings in Europe, is a strong sign that Washington realizes the mass importance of having Ankara back on its good side. Yet, we know that before April 24, the day commemorating the Armenian Genocide, Obama will need to decide how he will define the event, and what he plans to do about it. This being with the full knowledge that as a Presidential candidate he stated:

The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.*

Therefore, there is no doubt that this will be on everyone’s mind and that certainly President Obama will raise this issue in Turkey, perhaps preparing them for the inevitable. Or, perhaps he will take notes on what Turkey’s limits are concerning this and try to reach some sort of compromise with Ankara, who has made it clear that there will be serious repercussions if the US officially recognizes the Armenian Genocide. Truthfully speaking, if anyone can “make both sides happy,” it is Obama, so we will just need to wait and see. Furthermore, this “repercussion” mentality might have worked when Bush was in office, but with America’s possible thawing of relations with Iran, Turkey cannot afford to implement their threats of “what will happen if…”, in any case. They would have too much to lose at this point in the game.

Yes, for Turkey the spring is quickly approaching. I for one will be happy once it warms up outside. However, let us hope that politically things do not get too hot, leaving all of us a little burnt.

Louis Fishman
March 11, 2009