As close observers of Turkey already know, the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was very much tied with the economic performance of the country. The 2001 economic crisis was a significant factor for the electoral success of Erdogan and the AKP in 2002. Their ability to maintain growth ensured their longevity.
Bearing this in mind some have insinuated that with Turkey’s economy on the ropes with the devaluation of the lira against all major currencies, Turkey’s current account deficit, inflation, the lack of independence of the central bank and the President’s unconventional instance that low interest rates reduce inflation, could lead to the opposition doing well in the polls. Some say perhaps they might even win if not the Presidential elections, then at least prevent the AKP from having a majority in parliament.
But at this exact moment Turkey is not in recession or financial crisis, but rather on the proposes of one. There are dark clouds on the horizon but they are not quite on top of us yet. Therefore, the extent to which economic uncertainty will be detrimental to Erdogan and the AKP depends on the success of their political campaigns as well as those of the opposition. A couple of weeks ago I touched on an important component of electoral campaigns, political branding. But now, allow me to discuss the importance of the political slogan.
In simple terms, a slogan is an effective, easily identifiable and repeatable refrain or motto which encapsulates the message or ideology of the candidate and/or political party. Just like a brand it is supposed to capture an emotional and intellectual connection with voters and accompany them into the voting booth. It can be chanted at campaign rallies, feature on billboards and uttered by politicians in a speech.
There have been some excellent political slogans over the years. Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 “Labour isn’t working” managed to capture widespread public discontent with Britain’s ruling Labour party’s inability to get to grips with the recession. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” was simple, uplifting and catchy. Love it or hate it Donald J. Trump’s “America First” was effective, albeit terrifying for the student of history. Perhaps the greatest of all time was the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”, a rallying cry against British imperial rule during the 18th century and currently used by residents of DC who strangely find themselves constitutionally without congressional representation. My personal all-time favourite slogan is “Up Yours, Delores!”. Not affiliated to a particular party per se, it was first featured in a 1990 British tabloid newspaper headline. The phrase was then chanted at demonstrations in reaction to the French politician Jacques Delores’ advocating the ECU, the precursor to the Euro.
A couple of weeks ago, President Erdogan handed the opposition a slogan on a silver platter when he stated that all the Turkish people had to do was say “tamam” and he would step down, in this context “tamam” meant “enough”. And sure enough, millions of Turks were tweeting #Tamam.
The good news for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party of the National Alliance (CHP, IYI, SP, DP) and its presidential candidate Muharrem Ince is that they used a variation of “tamam” in their slogans – “Artik tamam” meaning “enough already” is an obvious allusion to the hashtag. The CHP’s other slogan, “Millet icin geliyoruz!” roughly meaning “we are coming for the nation” is also a play on the Erdogan speech where he says all the nation has to do is say enough. Another CHP and Ince slogan is the rhyming “Turkiye’ye guvence Muharrem İnce”, roughly translating to "Muharrem İnce, an assurance to Turkey".
Quite catchy with clear messages, the CHP’s slogans have so far been ok, not bad, pretty good. But they are not exactly wow either. Although certainly an improvement on the CHP’s lame June 2015 election slogan, “Milletce alkisliyoruz" meaning “we clap as a nation”, the CHP’s 2018 message does not hit hard enough, especially not on the economy. A really good political slogan finds the incumbents’ weak spot and presses it hard and relentlessly until something gives way.
A good example of this is another all-time great, Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. Coined by James Carville, one of the best politically campaigners of the modern era, the Clinton slogan was able to beat the incumbent US President George Bush Snr in the 1992 elections. The fact that Clinton won was remarkable as he defeated an incumbent US president who was basking in the glory of the successful Gulf War. In 1991 Bush enjoyed a whopping 90% approval rating. However, having found Bush’s weak spot, the recession of the previous year, Clinton was relentless on economic issues until slowly but surely Bush’s popularity all but evaporated. With this in mind the CHP’s slogans, quite frankly, need to be better, especially on the economic downturn on the horizon.
Now let’s evaluate the slogans of the current ruling party and president, the dominant forces of the People’s Alliance, a coalition between the AKP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the smaller Great Unity Party (BBP).
So far, the AKP’s election slogans, just like its campaign in general, have not exactly been thrilling. “Vakit Turkiye vakti” roughly translating as “the time is Turkey’s time” is somewhat effective in that it relates to the time conscious period of the holy month Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day and break bread at sundown. The use of religious motifs in AKP electioneering is not new. Back in November 2015, one of the AKP’s main slogans was “Haydi Bismillah", a common religious refrain in Turkey. The AKP’s other current slogan is “Guclu Meclis, Guclu Hukumet, Guclu Turkiye” meaning “Strong parliament, strong government, strong Turkey” which echoes President Erdogan’s ambitions to transform Turkey’s political system.
But this message has already been made, especially during last year’s constitutional referendum. The slogan is therefore rather dull. Not only did the AKP already win the constitutional referendum, but the slogan also recycles the June 2015 AKP phraze “İstikrara oy verin" (vote for stability). Back then, the AKP only won just under 41 per cent of the popular vote, something which the AKP will hate to repeat this time round. The stability card in my opinion, is quite desperate, almost as needy as the November 2015 election re-run slogan of “İlk gunku askla" which roughly translates to “with the same love of the first day”, as if the people’s relationship with the AKP was one of a married couple trying to rekindle the magic of times past. Erdogan and the AKP needs to up their game if they want to win their majority in parliament and the presidential run-off in the first round.
Let’s have a look at Meral Aksener and the IYI Party, part of the National Alliance. The slogan "Türkiye ve milletimiz iyi olacak", which roughly translates to “Turkey and our nation will be good” is certainly cheesy, but it’s not terribly bad either. It suffers the same problem as the CHP in that it does not hit hard enough about the economy, the soft underbelly of Erdogan and the AKP. However, the underlying message is one of positivity, and it has the potential to make the voter link their patriotic views of Turkey with the party whose very name means “good” when it’s time to cast a vote.
The best political slogan in this race is that of the HDP, “Senle degisir”, meaning “it changes with you”. It is a very empowering phrase and encapsulate the liberal and democratic spirit of the HDP. It is also clever as words can be put in front of the slogan, for example, “one man rule, it changes with you” or “everything, changes with you”. This is not unlike the 2014 election slogan of Selahattin Demirtas, "Bir Cumhurbaskani Dusunun" meaning “imagine a president…” a phrase left open ended so that another word or two may be added such as “who unites”, “brings peace”, “doesn’t discriminate”, etc. Obamaesque, no doubt. Also for the 2018 election there’s the rhyming “Yurttas, Yoldas, Arkadas Demirtas” (countryman, comrade, friend, Demirtas). This is also quite effective too. The problem of the HDP and Demirtas is not their slogans or branding, but their ability to campaign which is severely crippled due to security constraints and politically motivated attacks against this largely Kurdish party. Yet the HDP might just get past the 10 per cent threshold if they continue to do and say the right things.
As the campaigning continues I’m sure you will notice that some slogans will be dropped and others adopted. It is always interesting to observe what catches on and how the nature of campaigning evolves during an election cycle. I’m sure some new slogans will be ringing in our ears over the next few years. I can’t wait to hear them.
While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was visiting the United Kingdom last week, I wrote a piece about UK-Turkish relations which was published by the EU Observer and can be found here. Some of you might be aware that I am currently working on a research project about UK-Turkish relations at the Istanbul Policy Center. My main thinking about the subject will be available in a full policy report in a couple of months, but let me take this occasion to make a few brief comments about President Erdogan’s UK visit.
In my view UK-Turkish relations are entering a golden age. Bilateral trade is flowing at its highest level, ministers are regularly meeting and goodwill has never been higher. So, it was pretty obvious that Downing Street would give President Erdogan the red-carpet treatment including the pleasure of meeting Her Royal Majesty the Queen.
Indeed, it was this audience with Britain’s hereditary sovereign which was the most controversial aspect of President Erdogan’s visit. It should be remembered that as soon as Erdogan called snap elections other European nations ruled out the possibility of ministerial visits for campaign purposes, leaving only Bosnia as part of Erdogan’s international campaigning.
But President Erdogan’s visit to London was planned well before the snap elections were announced. However, it was not planned as a state visit, meaning that London was not obliged to stick the baked bean (that’s cockney for Queen) before the Turkish head of state. However, Lizzy was not busy and so London was able to provide Erdogan a great photo op while he is fights what is increasingly becoming a tough presidential and parliamentary election race next month.
But it didn’t quite work out so smoothly, at least not for Erdogan. The footage of the meeting between Erdogan and the Queen was not heavily circulated by the Turkish press, even pro-government outlets. Perhaps this was because Erdogan appeared to be making a very low bow before the Queen in the photograph? Obviously, one is supposed to make a humble nod of the head before blue blood, but it remains the case that at 1.85 (6ft 1) Erdogan towers over Elizabeth II whose height stands at a regal 1.63 (5ft 4). In other words, in order to make eye contact and shake the hand of the head of the House of Windsor, President Erdogan had little choice but to make a deeper bow than what looked good.
A slightly different case with the Turkish first lady Emine who was accompanying her husband in his royal visit. Looking rather overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, Emine had the advantage of being about the same height as her regnant host, and their handshake looked like one between equals. This was the photo the Turkish press chose to publicise more widely.
Also, Erdogan made a disastrous interview with Bloomberg while in London, stating that he would tighten his grip on the economy including ensuring that interest rates remain low. This was the opposite of what investors wanted to hear and contributed to the Lira plunging against all major currencies including the dollar, euro and pound sterling. The visit can hardly be described as a boon before the elections.
This aside, there are questions that need to be raised about this visit. Last year the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on the UK’s relations with Turkey which stressed the importance of not just strengthen its relationship with the ruling governing party but all segments of Turkish society. Absolutely right. But upgrading the nature of Erdogan’s visit to London hardly meets this goal, especially without the UK making some kind of gesture towards the opposition or fostering stronger ties with Turkish civil society. The question still looms, how can Britain forge ties with all segments of Turkish society without angering the governing party and President? For real long-term durability in bilateral relations, Britain has to diversify the nature of its engagement with Turkey.
However, from Turkey’s perspective, this recent visit affirmed what I have thought all along - in Britain, Erdogan and the AKP has found a perfect ally. Although Britain’s international standing has diminished, it still remains a significant medium international power that is able to punch slightly above its weight. Turkey’s ties with the UK are unlike that of, say, Germany. British leaders do not go on about human rights, the state of democracy or the rule of law. They mention it a little bit of course, but they in no way make political relations and economic engagement contingent on such matters. Also, as a supporter of Turkey’s EU accession and a country that has been the most sympathetic towards the ruling government after the attempted 2016 coup, Britain has earned Erdogan’s favour. Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May even used the term “Kurdish Terrorism”. You don't hear that too often from European leaders.
The UK is eager to shake hands and make deals whether that be in the defence, services and pharmaceutical sectors or new emerging industries. London's hope is that during the period of Brexit, UK-Turkish relations can stand as an example of beneficial trade and diplomatic relations with other countries outside of the EU and thus maintain the Global Britain brand.
Much more to come about this subject in a couple of months when my report is released.
A few days ago, I was approached by a journalist who wanted me to comment on recent violence in Israel, specifically the killing of 60 Palestinians along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip on Monday 14 May. This was latest in a series of protests organised by the Strip’s Hamas rulers which intensified after the US officially opened its embassy in Jerusalem. The journalist was especially interested how this relates to international law and the question of proportionality. I decided not to comment because I did not want my views on this complicated and intricate subject to be reduced to a half sentence. Nevertheless, I have an opinion which I would like to share.
I get very suspicious when “experts” or politicians refer to international law without mentioning specific articles or conventions. Even when they are specific, sometimes the treaties and articles they refer to do not make a clear-cut case against Israeli actions in this instance.
For example, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates, among many other things, that individuals have the right to life and not be arbitrarily killed (Article 6). I mention this because in one article I read the “expert” refers to this treaty. However, leaving aside the possible counter that the deaths of the protesters in Gaza on Monday may not have been arbitrary, the context of Article 6 is also not necessarily relevant to the recent events because the broader context of the article is the death penalty within a society rather than loss of life during battle or conflict.
Another treaty which is often referred to when discussing alleged Israeli violations of international law is the Fourth Geneva Convention. But much of this document is about the responsibilities of an occupying power. This is more relevant to Israeli settlement policy than recent events in the Gaza Strip. To make it relevant to the Gaza protests, one has to first posit that Israel is the occupying power of Gaza, which is debateable and even doubtful since its withdrawal in 2005. If, for the sake of argument, we grant that Israel is the occupying power, it is still unclear under which article Israel is supposedly in violation in relation to Monday’s events. It would appear Article 147 which considers “wilful killing” a breach of the treaty. This is one of the documents that Amnesty International was assumedly referring to when it condemned the Israeli use of excessive force and “wilful killing”. However, Article 147 is not about protests, demonstrations or attempts to breach border security, but rather the detention and trial of prisoners of war or those accused of criminal offences in wartime.
The other treaty Amnesty International could have been referring to was the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Rome Statute describes what constitutes a crime against humanity, which, among other important things, includes an action which is “part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” including the use of “murder” and “extermination” to name but a few of the horrific acts described in the treaty (article 7). In addition, Article 8 of the same statute is concerned with war crimes and states that “wilful killing” constitutes such an offence, and, in a follow on passage, namely Article 2b, this includes “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities” as well as “Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life… which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated”.
Aha, there we have it! Now let’s take a look and see if Israel is in breach of this piece of international law.
60 Palestinians were killed during the most recent protests on 14 May. If, having examined the facts, it emerges that these protesters were entirely peaceful and sought to stage a non-violent protest by the border, under the terms of the Rome Statute, Israel would have committed a violation of international law.
However, one may counter, didn’t Israel drop leaflets warning protesters not to approach the border area? Wasn’t this corroborated by news reports which can verify this was the case? And there was also the precedent of previous incidents by the border. In other words, surely the Palestinian protesters knew that they were risking their lives by approaching the border? Sure, but it still remains the case that if the intension of the protesters was fully peaceful, Israel’s actions would to be both disproportionate and in breach of the Rome Statute.
But what if Israel’s claims that some Palestinians, including many of those who were fatally shot, were indeed trying to sabotage the fence prove to be true? In such a case, when the potential sovereignty of a state is at risk, it is reasonable to expect that force will be used. Nevertheless, 60 deaths still appears excessive, especially if other measures could have been used. Israel still has some serious answering to do and may still be in breach of the Rome Statute.
However, Israel not only claims that Hamas militants were trying to breach the fence, but Hamas operatives were also making an attempt to enter Israel to attack Israeli civilians. If this turns out to be the case, Israel, I think, would undoubtable be in its right to use lethal force. Those attempting to breach the border would also now be deemed combatants - a Hamas leader recently stated that the majority of those killed were members of Hamas. In this context, it would be difficult to state that Israel was acting disproportionately to the threat, and making the case that Israel violated the Rome Statute would be a stretch.
Whether or not Israel is in violation of international law does not absolve Hamas for its use of civilian protesters as human shields. This is a factor that must be considered regardless of whether Hamas was trying to breach the border to murder Israelis or just using protesters for PR purposes. They were still fully aware that civilians were being put in harm’s way. The use of human shield is a violation of Article 8 of the Rome Statute as well as Article 23 of the Third Geneva Convention and article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Let us also not forget that children were brought to a protest where violence and death are the norm and that there were cases of gruesome Hamas incitement to violence ahead of the demonstrations.
As you can tell from this entry, international law and the Israel-Gaza conflict is neither simple nor clear-cut. When you hear people talk about violations of international law, know that the reality may be a lot more complicated and unclear.
The debate surrounding the decision of US Present Donald J. Trump’s to nix the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been a real eye opener. It seems that some politicians and commentators have lost their moral compasses.
After Trump’s decision, Federica Mogherini, the foreign minister of the EU, stated that “We are determined to keep this deal in place”. Meanwhile, it was reported that Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, commented that the Iran deal highlights the need to defend European economic sovereignty, even putting forward the idea of creating a statute to offset US sanctions on European firms doing business in Iran. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, contends that Britain should join other European nations to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on the US – make Trump pay for sabotaging the Iran deal, he argues.
Wow, that must have been some great deal to advocate that Europe side not with the US, but an autocratic regime which hates the very ideals that Europe stands for (remember when Italy was obliged to cover naked statues so not to offend the visiting so-called moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani), an Islamic theocracy that has terrifying resemblances to the dystopian society envisaged in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
First things first, the deal itself was poor. Bret Stephens of the New York Times put it best when he wrote that if the JCPOA was so great then why did leaders from France, Germany and the UK, as well as some of its other supporters, feel the need to accept that it needed fixing? Fix it, not nix it, they begged of Trump. Surely, if it was such a good deal, it wouldn’t need any fixing?
In reality, there was much that needed to be mended, so much so that the repair work would have left the deal unrecognizable. Where to start, the sunset clause allowing the Islamic Republic to be a nuclear weapon threshold state within 13 years? And then there’s the fact that the deal ignores Tehran’s ballistic missile programme, the exclusion of which was a grave error because if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would have to be compatible with its ballistic projectiles. And what about the inspections themselves? Far from unfettered access on demand, if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) want access to secret military areas, they can’t just barge it. They would need approval from a committee of which Iran is a member! Moreover, the Israeli seizure of Iranian nuclear documents confirmed the suspicions of the US and the IAEA that Iran had indeed been working on a nuclear weapons programme, which although frozen, was still not disclosed to the IAEA and therefore contrary to the spirit of the JCPOA and perhaps even the letter of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
It was under President Obama that the JCPOA was signed. Obama twice failed the people of Iran, proud inheritors of an ancient civilization whose erudition and study of their poets such as Saadi and Hafez makes me wish that people in the West would do the same for Shakespeare, Melville, and Cervantes. The first Obama let down was in 2009. As Iranians took to the streets to demand that their votes count in what become known as the Green Movement, Obama’s silence was deafening. Later, Obama did well to spearhead international sanctions which crippled the Iranian economy. Make no mistake, in 2013 the sanctions brought the Mullahs to their knees. However, Obama and the P5 +1 abandoned the prospect of regime change in order to make this terrible nuclear deal. Not only did this hand a lifeline to the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards (the real powers in Iran), but it allowed the regime to continue its support with boots on the ground for Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Damascus, who deliberately tortures, murders and massacres his own people, sometimes with the additional sadistic twist of chemical nerve agents.
Europe needs to be more honest about its Iran policy. The reality is there are billions of euros at stake with companies such as Airbus, Total, British-Dutch Shell, Peugeot, Renault, and Siemens standing to lose out with the nixing of the Iran deal. It just all goes to show that the lofty foreign policy ideals of the EU are nothing more than a bunch of words. To hell with the Iranian people, many critics of the deal are effectively saying, as long as European companies make a profit. Shame.
It took a hashtag to heat up election season in Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that if the public want him to step down all they had to do was say “tamam” (in this context meaning enough). Within hours there were over a million tweets with the hashtag #Tamam. The next day Erdogan’s supporters were tweeting “devam”, meaning “continue”.
This brings me to a related issue, one which I had already planned on addressing: branding and brand identity in the Turkish political context.
Perhaps more than anything in this world people are consumers. We make purchasing choices all the time - what food to eat, what clothes to buy, what car to drive. Successful businesses seek to steer our decisions towards their products or services.
The idea of a brand is more than just the name of a product like, say, “Coca-cola” or “Burger King”. The brand is the encapsulation of the attributes of a particular product or service that communicates a strong sense of association, perception, feeling or emotion. Not only does it do so in a way which is brief and concise, but it also has the potential to reach a broad audience.
Central to a successful brand strategy, at least in recent years, is the idea of a narrative or personal story. Often this is described as a “journey”. Go to the website of any new brand. Whether they sell bed linen or blouses, there will probably be a section that details the personal background of the owner and how he or she created the product. The idea is to create an illusion of intimacy between the brand and the consumer. By purchasing the product, you become part of the story.
Branding in politics is not so different. Just as we are consumers, we are also voters. Let me sketch out the brand identities of the leading presidential candidates and political parties in Turkey to illustrate my point. In doing so, I hope you will see who are the frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June as well as their chances for success.
The party which has the strongest brand identity is the ruling AKP. Just its name, the Justice and Development Party, hints its political agenda – the quest for justice for those, particularly the pious or traditional, who despite being the majority were marginalised by the secular elite. The Party stands for rectifying this injustice while developing the country into a vibrant, innovative and modern economy. The official name of the AKP is the AK Parti. AK, meaning clean or white, denotes purity. Not only does this speak to the religious or those concerned with family values, but it also implies that the party is transparent. Love or hate the AKP, this is a highly effective brand message. No wonder the AKP has won every election it has contested and remains the frontrunner ahead of next June.
President Erdogan’s personal brand is a rag to riches story, a man of the people who encapsulates the quest for the rectification of past injustices while fighting for the prosperity of the Turkish nation. A religious man with a pious educational background, Erdogan is the man that “they” could not prevent from rising. A man of the people, Erdogan’s success is your success. A vote for Erdogan, the message goes, is a vote for yourself. What is more, his brand is that of being a doer whether that means putting foreign leaders in their place or managing the economy. Erdogan’s brand message continues to be highly effective. However, recently it’s been taking some knocks. Sometimes Erdogan comes across as beleaguered and his flashy expensive suits seem out of kilter. Also…well actually I’ll stop there. Don’t think I really want to give out advice.
Let’s turn to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP also has a clear and consistent brand which everyone knows. Come on, say it with me, “the CHP is the party of Ataturk”. This clearly implied in the party’s logo, the six arrows of kemalism on a red background mirroring the national flag. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this brand per se. Its failing is that it is old fashioned. It also lacks a narrative beyond that of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this day and age the story of Ataturk has been appropriated by many different sectors of society, leaving the CHP’s brand narrative rather dull. It doesn't speak to innovation, the future or the Turkey of the 21st century. As a result, the CHP consistently hovers around the 25 per cent range of the popular vote in recent elections. This is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of the CHP this election was not putting forward its party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its presidential candidate. From a branding perspective, I think this decision will prove catastrophic. When Kilicdaroglu became CHP leader in 2010 he was quite cleverly marketed as Turkey’s Gandhi. But this brand weaned in subsequent years and Kilicdaroglu appeared more like a boring bureaucrat than a toga wearing non-violent revolutionary. However, this Turkish Gandhi image was revitalized after the 2016 attempted coup and the ongoing state of emergency. Justice marches, rallies and civil action campaigns, Kilicdaroglu’s brand was becoming effective. He wasn’t wearing a toga, but he was pictured in a string vest eating a modest meal while breaking bread with ordinary citizens while on his Ankara to Istanbul march. Not bad. Yet, after all this the CHP chose Muharrem Ince as its candidate. Ince, who certainly has some fire in his belly and cross-party respect, might be an ok candidate, but time is not on his side to develop a publically recognizable brand. I think he stands no real chance.
This is in contrast to IYI Party founder and leader Meral Aksener who led a break-away faction from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In reality, this split should not have been a big deal – the activities of a renegade faction from a country’s 3rd or 4th largest party normally fades from the news cycle quite quickly. But Aksener was somehow able to brand herself as a political warrior leading a fight against those in the MHP who were succumbed by the allure of power. I guess you could say they were seduced by the dark side of the force. Noble and defiant, Aksener’s stands for the honor of fighting for your principles. The problem with Aksener’s brand is that it completely overshadows her party. I suspect the election results will show poor votes for IYI Party (although part of the opposition coalition), but significant votes for Aksener in the Presidential run-off.
Finally, let us turn to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its Presidential candidate, the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas. Both have an effective brand image as the country’s liberal and democratic pro-Kurdish Party. This image does not speak to the entire Turkish population, but doesn’t attempt to; the HDP is not trying to turn atheists into believers, or, in this case, ardent nationalists into progressives. The unfair incarceration of Demirtas who is running for President while in prison only adds to the HDP’s effective brand. It also plays into the image of Demirtas as a man who stands for hope, reason and change (remind you of anyone?). The brother of a PKK fighter but who chose the path of peace with an outstretched arm to his Turkish brothers and sisters of all faiths and backgrounds, Demirtas and the HDP have no problem with their brand, but rather a huge problem with their inability to effectively campaign. Restrictions, incarcerations and physical attacks, it’s an insurmountable obstacle.
So, there it is, an overview of branding in the Turkish political context. I hope this helps explain some of the dynamics of the forthcoming elections. More to come soon.
I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Ezgi Basaran’s impressive new book Frontline Turkey: The Conflict at the Heart of the Middle East. In the book’s preface, Basaran, a Turkish former newspaper editor and columnist, reflects that if she had been asked a few years ago to describe herself in three words she would have chosen “woman, journalist and Istanbulite”. But following the closure of her newspaper, the continued repression of the media, and her new position at the University of Oxford, Basaran bemoans that no longer is she either a journalist or an Istanbulite.
But I say once and Istanbulite, always an Istanbulite. And replacing journalist for academic could be a lot worse. But that’s not really her point. The sad reality is that top quality journalists and academics are quickly becoming endangered species in Turkey. They are leaving for the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and other parts of Europe. The world is getting enriched by Turkey’s best and brightest while Turkey is getting poorer.
Reading Basaran’s book has made me think on my own views on the subject:
One of the great taboos of Turkish politics remains the Kurdish question. Examining the issue too deeply is a sure-fire way for journalists or academics to find themselves either jobless or doing time in the slammer. This despite the “opening” under Erdogan’s AKP government and the “solution process” between Turkey and the PKK.
The Kurdish issue needs to be part of the public debate in Turkey. The Kurdish question lies in the heart of Turkey’s security, democratization and foreign policies. In other words, it effects everyone. The failure of the peace process in 2015, which led to violence that killed hundreds and rendered hundreds of thousands displaced in the southeast of the country, had a profound effect on Turkey’s international trajectory, especially after the breakdown of the Syrian state.
As the uprisings against the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad descended into civil war, Turkey found itself with an increasing refugee crisis and an unpresented security threat right by its border. By around 2015 there were three major security threats emanating from Syria; Kurdish PKK affiliated organs such as the YPG which were in the process of carving out a piece of territory to the north of Syria in what they called Rojava, the rise of the so-called Islamic State who were creating an a militantly anti-Western Taliban style regime in Syria and Iraq, and, not least, the Assad-regime itself which Ankara remained adamant was the primary cause of Syria’s problems. Don’t forget, the situation was critical. Between 2011 and 2017, there were 87 terrorist attacks which left 956 people dead. These incidents were blamed on either Islamic State or affiliates of the PKK.
With three significant enemies along its immediate border, Ankara needed to think strategically and pragmatically. Surely, Turkey needed to avoid having to deal all three threats simultaneously? An effective policy would be for Turkey to identify a primary threat and focus on eradicating this one enemy. To do so would mean, at least in the short-term, deprioritising the others. In other words, Turkey had a choice of enemies. Who was Turkey’s real enemy, Islamic State, the PKK or Assad?
At first, Turkey didn’t make a choice and that was part of the problem. It wasn’t until the end of 2016 that Ankara finally made a decision. Sponsored by the PKK, it was decided that Syria’s Kurds were Tukey’s main security threat. Turkey subsequently launched Operation Euphrates Shield and a year later Operation Olive Branch to help the Free Syrian Army make inroads against Kurdish positions in the north of Syria. Sure, Turkish backed forces also fought against the Islamic State, but that was peripheral and not the point of the operations.
Ankara’s choice of the PKK and its Syrian affiliates as its main enemy contributed to the deterioration of ties with the US and Europe, angered that Turkey is fighting the strongest indigenous force against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Turkish-PKK peace process remains in tatters, the Assad regime is on the front foot, Iran has an ever-increasing presence in Syria, and Turkey is beholden to the overwhelming influence of Russia.
It needn’t have been this way. Had Turkey sought to revitalise the peace process with the Kurds, Turkey’s southeast would be calm, the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria would not have been a security problem, the domestic terror threat reduced, and Ankara would be on better terms with the US and West. It may even have given Turkey more leverage against Assad. But despite all this, I fear that the cost of the failed Turkish-PKK peace process is only beginning to be realised.
Last Monday, I had to make a difficult television viewing decision, either catch up on Homeland season 7 or watch Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu make a live appearance to make revelations about Iran’s nuclear programme? I chose the latter.
Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, is ever the showman. While delivering a Ted Talk style presentation, he announced to viewers that Israeli intelligence operatives managed to seize tens of thousands of top-secret Iranian documents from a previously unknown nuclear archive located in an unassuming neighbourhood in Tehran (wow!). A sprinkle of these documents was shown in Bibi’s presentation which the Israeli prime minister claimed was evidence that Iran’s top officials, from supreme leader to president and foreign minister, had lied to the international community when they insisted that Iran was not seeking a nuclear bomb.
This trove of information, argued Netanyahu, casts doubt on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which was concluded between Iran, the US, Russia, China and Europe in 2015 under the leadership of Barack Obama, the most fickle president in the history of US foreign policy until the election of Donald Trump, to reduce and monitor Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. In other words, save the Islamic Republic in return for a nuclear deal. President Trump along with a slew of conservative politicians, academics and commentators have termed the agreement a bad deal, a “terrible” deal or the “worst deal ever”. It now looks that they have a point.
Some commentators, eager to save the JCPOA, and by extension Obama’s legacy, insist that there is nothing particularly new in these seized documents. They say that it is all hyperbole, rehashed information and that the deal is still a good one. They add that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was already aware of Iran’s attempt to weaponise its nuclear programme, and the documents are dated before the signing of the 2015 JCPOA. Moreover, the IAEA, as well as Europe and the United States all confirmed that Iran has been in full compliance of the deal and, so far, none of the captured documents seems to have contradicted these assessments. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Not so fast. Why such faith in an autocratic regime which has incessantly lied to its people from Ayatollah Khomeini’s hijacking the 1979 revolution with his hidden plan to install a constitution based on his political interpretation of the Shia concept of the velayat-e faqih with himself as supreme leader, to the stealing of the 2009 elections and the perpetual corruption which led many across the country to protest the regime a few months ago? Why is it so hard to believe that the same clerical regime that murders, steals, plunders, executes, tortures and imprisons its own people also lied to the international community and broke agreements, pledges and declarations?
And yes indeed, there is actually something to this cache of documents. Consider the following:
It is true that the IAEA, the CIA and other agencies had their suspicions that Iran was actively seeking to weaponise its nuclear programme and was conducting research into the design and construction of a warhead capable of delivering a nuclear payload, but ceased this project in 2003. But throughout this period and continuously until this very day, Iran’s political leaders denied that there was ever such a programme. However, the IAEA and CIA’s suspicions are now facts. Not only do we now know that Iranian officials had been lying, but they were also negotiating in bad faith, including their declaration before the 2015 agreement that Iran would reveal the full extent of its past nuclear work. The documents show that they have done no such thing.
Furthermore, the existence of this nuclear archive seems to have been unknown to the international community. Iran did not declare its existence to the IAEA either before the 2015 nuclear deal or after. Nor did Iran hand over its research into making a nuclear bomb. Instead it hid it. This in itself is a breach of the spirit of the JCPOA and may even be a violation of Articles II and/or III of the Non Proliferation Treaty. If Iran is indeed in breach of the NPT, then the JCPOA as it currently stands is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Finally, Bibi’s revelations create the very real suspicion that having negotiated the JCPOA in bad faith, Iran was essentially putting its nuclear weapon programme aside only to come back to it a later. Of course, defenders of the deal have countered that the P5+1 negotiated it with the assumption that Iran was lying, and in the words of President Obama it was based on “unprecedented verification”.
But when negotiating the deal, the international powers did not have such concrete proof that their Iranian interlocutors were brazenly lying. How can anyone now defend the laxity in regulating Iran’s ballistic missile programme or the JCPOA’s ridiculously naïve sunset clause which would allow Iran to enrich again after 15 years? No way Jose!
Although tougher than its critics like to admit, the flaws in the JCPOA are real. Obama did an excellent job in forming and executing a stringent sanctions regime which really crippled the Iranian economy and brought the regime to its knees. But the Obama administration underestimated just how successful it was. In 2012 and 2013 there were rumblings of protests in Iran’s major cities, alleviated with the 2013 election of President Rohani, a regime loyalist disguised as a reformer. While negotiating the deal, Iran was in a situation where it could not afford to be in Syria and Yemen, develop a nuclear programme and placate its restless population angered by corruption, inflation and unemployment. The very future of the regime was at stake. Obama and Kerry could have done better and should have done better
French and German heads of state have tried to convince Trump to fix not nix the deal and make additional supplementary agreements instead. These new documents give him leverage to do just that. He should take it.
The electoral schedule in Turkey has been announced, the parties who are running are confirmed, and the election harmonization bill has been signed. Meanwhile, opposition parties are manoeuvring. There have been meetings and discussions about Presidential candidates and possible alliances ahead of the joint Presidential and Parliamentary race.
It seems that as we enter the beautiful spring month of May, the election process is starting to heat up. But there are no darling spring buds blooming in this election. If you are a believer in democracy and a good dose of liberalism to boot, the situation is not looking rosy.
I have read some interesting and well thought out pieces over the past week or so, which have been somewhat optimistic about the chances of the opposition. Not necessarily because they have any real chance of winning, but because the race will be a tight; the AKP and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have to fight it out, both at the parliamentary and presidential polls. The optimists think it possible that the AKP may not end up dominating parliament, thus necessitating ’s the President (in all likelihood Erdogan), to be more conciliatory towards the opposition. A small victory for Turkish democracy.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but such optimism is nonsense. The upcoming election is a contest for an elected autocracy, plain and simple.
Turkey’s new presidential system, voted in after a tight referendum last year, is not designed to have a robust opposition. It is also not designed to have a dynamic relationship between President and Parliament. In fact, the opposite. One of the reasons why Erdogan and the AKP sought to move away from the parliamentary system was to untie the President’s hands of having a strong parliament which was seen as an impediment to effective government and passing legislation easily.
The new Presidential system is one where parliament’s role is to rubber stamp the policies of the President. Under the amended constitution, the President can basically ignore much of what comes out of parliament and possibly rule by Presidential decrees instead (the scope of this power is under defined). The President may also use, or at least threaten to use, the Samson option - dismiss parliament and call for new simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of the other powers the President now has. He can declare a state of emergency. He can appoint his cabinet at will and without any parliamentary oversight. The President can appoint almost half the high court without any approval needed from parliament. Meanwhile, the impeachment process is so convoluted and arduous that it only really exists on paper. For a full breakdown of the power of the President under the new constitution and a critique of the new system, read the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s report and opinion of the constitutional changes. It is a terrifying document which accurately describes the democratic deficiencies of the new system. Basically, it is an elected autocracy. It doesn’t matter how well the opposition performs in parliament. (Also, see my post about some of the opposition’s chances of passing the 10 per cent threshold here).
It also doesn’t matter who wins the presidency. The new constitution has eroded democratic norms.
Just for the sake of argument, let us say that President Erdogan loses the race. The votes have been counted, there are no cases of electoral fraud or violence, and a committed democrat becomes Turkey’s new President. Let us even imagine that he or she decides that these new additional presidential powers will not be used. There still lies the problem that the constitution still grants such power to a future presidential office holder who might not be a committed democrat. In other words, there is currently no constitutional guarantee for present or future democratic practices.
Again, for the sake of argument, let us follow the scenario that Erdogan loses the election to a committed democrat. On entering office, the new president decides to revert back to the status quo ante and overturn the changes that were voted for in last year’s referendum. This is also problematic. Ignoring the results of the referendum may not be considered legal. Some might also argue that it would also be undemocratic to ignore the will of 50 per cent of the population who voted in favour of it. Doing so might even plunge the country into a constitutional crisis with widespread confusion about correct institutional procedures, practices, and protocols. Decreeing constitutional changes void would set a dangerous democratically questionable precedent (no pun intended).
Another alternative might be for this new committed democratic president to decree new democratic safe guards into the constitution. But you can’t instil democracy by decree as it can just as easily be uninstalled by decree. The only real option would be to seek constitutional amendments through parliament. This would mean that Turkey would have significantly altered its constitution three times in 10 years and potentially be a source of internal and external doubt about the country’s stability. But for this happen we are envisioning a scenario where Erdogan loses, a committed democrat enters office with a parliamentary majority strong enough to change the constitution and committed to democratic reform. It’s just not going to happen and that is why last year’s referendum was a catastrophe for Turkish democracy.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter who wins the forthcoming elections. The democratic constitutional safeguards are all but extinct and the power of parliament is a façade for one-man presidential rule. No-one should have such overwhelming power in a democracy. Not Erdogan, not Abdullah Gul (next time), not Aksener, Kilicdaroglu, or Demirtas. Not even the bloody Dalai Lama. Nobody.
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