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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Stuck Pendulum of Politics in Turkey

If a pendulum in equilibrium position is displaced, gravity will counteract to restore the pendulum to its neutral resting position.   The pendulum’s mass causes this “centering” oscillation.  Not only is a pendulum used in timekeeping, it is also a model for helping explain political oscillations between the left and right of the center:  When an election yields a shift from left to right or vice versa, analyst claim that it’s the natural reaction of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction, meaning the public feels that policies of a regime have gone too far to one side and that the public has decided to give the other side of the political range a chance to correct. 
The Turkish political pendulum has been in the rightward swing for quite some time under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and appears to be held there despite its natural tendency to oscillate back.   AKP first won the 2002 general elections and reinforced its position in 2007 while its Islamist tendencies became more obvious.   Turkey’s general elections are fast approaching this June and once again polls show AKP in the lead, despite a narrowing margin.  
How is it possible that AKP still seems to have a strong base and does the general population have access to information to formulate an opinion on their preferences?
Based on the pendulum metaphor alone, and considering that AKP has been ruling for a very long 9 years, we would expect the public to reverse direction.   In a way, this is the case:   During a stroll down a busy Istanbul street, you can see multiple groups of citizens protesting against the government. 
Theoretically, AKP’s voter base should be dwindling-  High school and university students, have been alienated entirely:  In Turkey, university seats are limited and this national test guarantees admittance so when it was recently revealed that a cheat code was shared with certain groups of students at the recent university exams,  a great deal of reaction resulted.  Healthcare workers were also pushed around with badly planned new labor regulations, forcing practitioners to shut down their private offices and instead work at government hospitals where pay is now proportional to standards such as a “a tooth filling in 4 minutes” and patient exam in 5.  Social services, including healthcare, are now cut off if the recipient is unable to make a monthly payment, placing seasonal workers, especially farmers at risk.
While segments of consumers directly hurt by the AKP policies grow in number, AKP is loading the stakes to benefit its partisans:  Ankara Chamber of Medicine documented at least 51 “professors” who have been assigned professor titles without fulfilling any of the requirements by the Council of Higher Education.  AKP has replaced elected university rectors with its own sympathizers,  On the other hand, Koranic lower schools have been mushrooming and their graduates can now move into universities and subsequently into government jobs.

To the ordinary citizen, the Turkish system appears to be one of relying on government subsidies and the good graces of the ruling party in order to survive and prosper which inevitably means a citizen must belong to the AKP, go to pray at a mosque every Friday even if they are an Alevite or non religious and the wives are expected to don a head scarf.   Once they “join” this group, they are encouraged to do business with others in the group- An established shop owner in the fashionable Nisantasi district was recently overheard complaining that the “AKP bunch” are the only ones with money but they only frequent businesses operated by their kind. 
How far can the AKP go with the carrot and stick approach to maintain its supporter base?  In a relatively poor nation lacking education in critical thinking, it can go farther than one would estimate.  There may be an abundance of citizens inclined to sell their vote to the highest bidder just so their children can eat, get into schools, receive free school supplies as one taxi driver shared recently.
Of course, AKP cannot bribe the entire voter base which explains the widespread dissent in the major cities.   AKP wants to minimize this risk by buying out the media channels and facilitating their sales to partisan institutions. One of the largest groups, ATV-Sabah was sold in 2007 to Calik Holding headed by the Prime Minister’s son in law.  Dogan Media Group faced bureaucratic pressures and tax fines coercing it to place Hurriyet, a popular newspaper on sale.  The levy, seen as the governments attempt to control free press was criticized by the US State Departments 2009 Human Rights report on Turkey. 
June 12th general elections in Turkey will be a critical turning point- If AKP manages to win, Erdogan is interested in constitutional changes to enable his presidency, a move which will help secure him a Putin style position of power.   Putin, like his friend Erdogan, wants a “dictator-length” hold on Kremlin:   After two consecutive terms, the former KGB colonel had transitioned presidency to Medvedev in 2008 but continues to wield his influence as a prime minister.  Putin hasn’t yet ruled out presidency in 2012.   Parallels are so obvious that one wonders how often Putin and Erdogan exchange “how-to” notes.
 AKP is a liability to Turkey, where it has interfered with the natural flow of political tendencies and the free will of the voters by utilizing public resources to bribe its partisans in order to stay in power.   The situation will only get worse if AKP wins the June elections and Erdogan gets his “US Style” presidency.   Unlike in the US, Turkey is now void of a system of checks and balances and a Presidential system would generate an uncontrolled one-man show, further depressing the protections around the judicial freedom.   This is a scary scenario that leaves AKP opponents completely unprotected and must be avoided at all expense.