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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Good Party, Uncertain Future: Meral Akşener's attempt to upend Turkish politics

On October 25, 2017, a new political party was formed in Turkey, taking the name İyi Parti (Good Party).

This new party was founded by Meral Akşener, a vocal Turkish politician and critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Akşener, who has been in politics since the mid-1990s, once belonged to the True Path Party, a secular conservative party. As the True Path Party faded into the background, she then joined the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a small but influential far-right nationalist party which, despite its more moderated image today, has a history of violence.

Last year, as the MHP cozied up to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), Akşener attempted to oust party leader Devlet Bahceli from his post. She was unsuccessful and forced out of the party.

During Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum, the MHP was split. While much of the high-level party officials were supportive of the proposed transition from parliamentary to presidential democracy, many of the party’s voters were not. Indeed, when Turks went to the polls, large amounts of voters in the MHP’s regional strongholds in the south of the country voted against the transition. Akşener was one of many voices to express her opposition to the referendum. 
Turkish general election 2015, provinces and districts.png

Maps detailing the results of the Turkish elections in June 2015 and the referendum results. Brown areas in the map on the left are areas won by MHP, many of which are red ("No" voting in the referendum). 

Turkish constitutional referendum 2017.png

Despite the split, the referendum still narrowly passed and Turkey is undergoing the transition from parliamentary to presidential which its critics dismiss as a power grab by President Erdoğan.

Akşener decided this autumn to start a new party, with one seemingly clear goal in mind: to run for president, unseat Erdoğan and pick up the damaged pieces of Turkey’s still-intact but fragile secular democracy in hopes of gluing them back together. The next Turkish General Election is in November 2019, giving Aksener two years to craft her party's platform, reach out to the Turkish people, and fight the AKP. 

From an ideological perspective, the İyi Party claims to be centrist, perhaps slightly leaning right in an attempt to woo wary AKP supporters. Like the CHP, it is nationalist, secular, and Kemalist, and it also has taken up a bit of populist anti-establishment sentiment as a response to what it perceives as the ineffectiveness and polarization brought on by the establishment Turkish political parties. It also seeks to reverse the transition from presidential to parliamentary democracy. 

A Gezici poll in mid-October had Erdoğan winning another term as president with 48% of the vote. Ms.Akşener sat 10 points behind him at 38%. In third place was Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Kemalist center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with 14% of the vote. In this scenario, Akşener and Erdoğan would go to a runoff election which she would have a good chance of winning considering most CHP voters' fierce opposition to the President. 

In Turkey’s last direct presidential election, the CHP and MHP rallied together behind Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, but he came in second with only 38% of the vote compared to Erdoğan’s 51%. Because Erdoğan won over 50% of the vote, no runoff election was necessary. Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish politician from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) came in a very distant third with 10% of the vote.

President Erdoğan has many critics in Turkey. However, his critics come from vastly different political angles and rarely do they agree on a consensus. The Republican People's Party, known by its Turkish initials CHP, the second largest party in Turkey, is a secular center-left party. While it enjoys large popularity on Turkey's western coast and in cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, its support quickly dissolves once you delve further into the Turkish heartlands. The MHP, already in a state of crisis between the pro- and anti-Erdoğan factions, only tends to draw large support from a small region in Turkey's south. The Kurdish-interest HDP receives almost no support outside the southeast of the country. MHP and HDP refuse to speak to each other and CHP seems stagnant in terms of how much support they can amass. None of these parties seem to be able to cut substantially into Erdoğan's base of support, which even in its low point in the June 2015 elections managed 40% of the vote, still 15% higher than that of the second-place CHP. 

The new presidential system Turkey is moving towards may work in the Good Party's favor, but a few things will need to happen for them to actually unseat Erodgan and the AKP.

In order for Akşener to win, she's going to need to master a big-tent appeal. First, she must be able to convince the CHP and MHP to rally behind her as one as they did behind İhsanoğlu in 2014. It seems unlikely that the second largest party in Turkey will not nominate their own candidate for this position, but Akşener could broaden her appeal and call for her Good Party and the CHP to join forces. If the CHP is dead-set on running their own candidate against her such as Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, it will only split the anti-Erdoğan voting bloc into smaller pieces. Kılıçdaroğlu, the current leader of the CHP, has said he is not interested in running for President in 2019, but that does not necessarily mean the party will not field a candidate. 

Calling MHP to her cause may be even more difficult as she is an ex-member of the party. The pro-Erdoğan faction of the MHP may try to scuttle her plans to win the presidency by running a token candidate who is only lukewarmly opposed to Erdoğan. While Akşener looks like she is already drawing MHP voters to the İyi Party, uniting the party to the point that MHP does not run their own candidate will be difficult. 

A Sonar poll conducted between November 1 and 6 has MHP's support dwindling down to 7.8% while the İyi Party is on track to gain 21% of the vote for the Parliamentary election. In Turkey, a political party must gain at least 10% of the vote to gain parliamentary representation. If this poll is accurate, MHP would lose all its representation at the national level. 

Akşener’s ability to appeal to HDP and AKP voters may be most difficult of all. As a former member of the far-right nationalist MHP, Akşener once carried a banner that Kurds living in Turkey have severe reservations about. Considering both co-leaders of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ are under arrest, neither of them may run in the presidential election and it is unclear whether HDP will even be allowed to contest any part of the 2019 elections. It is unlikely the Kurds will remain politically silent in 2019, and the June 2015 elections showed they can be a considerable force in Turkish elections when they won 13% of the vote. Considering MHP and HDP have barely been on speaking terms while in Parliament together, voters who flip from HDP to the İyi Party will likely represent a very small minority. 

The other goal in Akşener's quest to oust Erdoğan from power is to cut into the base that Erdoğan has relied on 15 years. Erdoğan first swept to power in 2002, and has won elections consistently since then in 2007, 2011, twice in 2015, and then 2017's referendum.

As stated before, even in the June 2015 election when AKP slumped to its worst result since its founding in 2001, it still managed to capture just over 40% of the vote. If Akşener can't cut into this base without significant support from other anti-Erdoğan factions, it will be difficult for her to accomplish her speculated goal of unseating the President. 

Most of the support for Akşener seems to be coming from disaffected MHP voters, as some polls have the MHP falling from its last performance of 11.9% down to around 3-5%, which would effectively end its time in the Grand National Assembly as parties need at least 10% of the vote to get represented. In polls where the İyi Party gets over 10% of the vote, AKP slumps to around 38-40%, while CHP and HDP's percentages stay mostly the same.

Take a Sonar poll conducted from November 1-6. Its results (AKP 38.5%, CHP 23.5%, MHP 7.8%, HDP 10.3%, İyi 16.1%)  indicate that CHP and İyi would have a slight advantage in voting percentage (39.6% to 38.5) to scrape out a tiny majority over the AKP's plurality. If they focus on anti-Erdoğan sentiment, these two parties could likely stall much of Erdoğan's agenda even if he still won the Presidency. The direct presidential poll conducted by Gezici in mid-October suggested that Akşener may be popular enough to, at the very least, force Erdoğan into a runoff election for the Turkish Presidency, which she would make extremely competitive if the CHP voters rally behind her.

Of course, all of this is speculation. Polling is far from an exact science, and the İyi Party is still in its infancy. How much appeal it truly has or can muster when it's time for Turks to go to the polls in 2019 is still uncertain. Their daring attempt to unseat President Erdoğan has a path to victory, but it's a long road ahead. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sickles, Hammers, Stars and Bars

Recently, the United States was shaken to its core by a large white nationalist/supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally in the sleepy little college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence broke out at the rally and a young woman named Heather Heyer lost her life in the subsequent car attack.

This "Unite the Right" Rally, was organized as a protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Many protestors carried the infamous battle flag of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, often referred to as the Stars and Bars. 

In recent years, the United States has wrestled with the question of when, if ever, the display of this flag is appropriate. Some argue it is a vital piece of Southern pride and heritage, a symbol of the resolve of the people. Others decry it as an inherently white supremacist flag, citing its use by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, that flag is often compared to the red, white and black swastika flag once used by Nazi Germany. 

Personal display of the Stars and Bars is not illegal, and strong arguments exist that even with the extremely negative connotations of the Stars and Bars, it should remain available to use on a personal basis. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have defended the rights of white nationalists and Neo-Nazis to march with that flag as hate speech is still considered constitutionally protected free speech and assembly. 

The flag is still flown at many Confederate memorials, and this has also been a point of controversy. The memorials are considered inherently traitorous as the Confederacy did try to break away from the United States, as well as an enabling symbol of the racism which has tarnished much of American history. 

Some do not want these memorials gone as they fear it will make the history behind them fade away. Some believe these memorials should be razed entirely because of their white supremacist connotations. Indeed, many of the monuments were erected during the Civil Rights Movement and dedicated by the Ku Klux Klan, an unmistakable symbol of white supremacists.

Others believe the memorials can exist, but should only appear in museums and at the Civil War battlefields where they became stained with blood.

Even then, there exist gray areas. On Georges Island in Boston Harbor, deep into what was once Union territory, there exists a large headstone which memorializes thirteen Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners of war on the island. The headstone was put there by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1963, as both the Civil Rights Movement and Civil War centennial were in progress. The memorial is currently boarded up and some are calling for its removal, but it does not really glorify the Confederate cause in the same way a triumphant statue of General Lee or Jackson may. It is little more than a headstone not unlike what you'd see in a civilian cemetery. 

Symbolism is powerful, and the Stars and Bars has counterparts in other parts of the world. For centuries the swastika was a symbol of luck and good fortune in parts of Asia, but it is synonymous with one of the purest forms of evil in Europe and the Americas. Japan’s Rising Sun flag is still considered a patriotic symbol in Japan. It is still officially used by the Japanese Navy and its symbolism appears in Japanese day-to-day life on Asahi Gold beer cans and the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun (“The Morning Sun”), despite the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan in China, South Korea, and the United States.

And then there’s the famous, universally recognized symbol of communism, the interlocking Hammer and Sickle. Mention Russia and despite it being over 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, don’t be surprised when that symbol is mentioned a few minutes later. It’s near unavoidable, for better or for worse.

For seventy years, that unmistakable crimson banner was the symbol of my country of origin. Had I been born less than two years earlier, I would have been born in the USSR, not Russia. Indeed, my original passport does not say Russian Federation.

It says Союз Советских Социалистических Республик. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The Stars and Bars has been convincingly argued to be a symbol of racism and white supremacy, whether intended or not. Obviously not everyone who flies that flag is a racist, but many, many racists fly that flag. It was clearly displayed by many during the infamous tiki torch march in Charlottesville. It is the same with the old orange-white-blue South African flag and the green and white flag of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

The Sickle and Hammer is a symbol of communism. Communism is not an inherently prejudiced ideology, but under its red banner, over 100 million people in China, the Soviet Union, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe were unjustly imprisoned, sentenced to cruel and unusual punishment, outright executed, or even victim to genocide in Cambodia and Ukraine.

The dynamic is a bit different than that of the Stars and Bars. The Confederacy attempted to break free of the United States. It failed. The Reds, however, succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government of Aleksandr Kerensky and won the Russian Civil War and with it control over all of what was the Soviet Union. When they won, the sickle and hammer flag ceased to be simply a symbol of a political ideology, but a country.

That symbol went on to be included in snapshots of great historical achievement. When Nazi Germany was defeated, Red Army soldiers flew the Sickle and Hammer over Berlin. Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman to break free of Earth and visit the cosmos did so with "CCCP" proudly displayed on their helmets.

Therefore, it could be argued that there exists a limited space in which one could celebrate achievements of the Soviet peoples with that flag and symbol displayed.

It also comes down to timing. A Russian or a person with Russian heritage with pride in the achievements of his or her people may choose to display with restraint such symbolism on certain holidays such as on Victory Day or Cosmonauts’ Day, but in all other cases opt to display the white-blue-red flag used today.

It would also, without a doubt, be considered especially inappropriate in the presence of certain people and groups. Just as displaying the Stars and Bars to a black person or the Nazi swastika to a Jewish person would be unthinkably disrespectful, displaying the Soviet banner would be gravely disrespectful to display in the presence of citizens of the countries that were once unwilling satellites of the USSR. In the United States, many have responded to the display of the Stars and Bars with the slogan, “Stop pretending your racism is patriotism”. That slogan could be altered in the case of the Soviet banner as well, although perhaps not in a direct condemnation of racism. While communism was oftentimes mixed with ethnic and racial prejudices, the ideology, at least on paper, portrays itself as a force against such prejudice.

In Russia, most of the statues and symbols of communism were not destroyed. Some still stand in their original places, but many have been moved to museums to offer historical context and a space for debate. It is possible that a similar approach to Confederate symbols may be required. To erect a statue of a Confederate soldier in heroic likeness in a city square will almost certainly be considered inappropriate. To erect a statue of a Confederate General from the vantage point where he directed his troops on a Civil War battlefield or at a museum near that battlefield, while not completely without controversy, could be used in a more historical and informative perspective. Even Robert E. Lee, the most famous of Confederate generals, believed statues of his or his brothers in arms’ likenesses would keep old wounds open.  

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Playing with Fire: The Iraqi Kurdish Independence Referendum and its Consequences

On September 25th, 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan set in motion a regional referendum to decide on whether the region should secede from Iraq and become an independent state. 
The referendum was opposed by nearly every country in the Middle East, the lone exception being Israel. Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran were all especially vocal in their opposition, as each country has a large population of ethnic Kurds, all of which have flirted with the allure of establishing an independent and greater Kurdistan. 
Nevertheless, the Kurds went to the polls, and when the dust had cleared, a result overwhelmingly in favor of independence emerged. The turnout was claimed to be high at 72%, which translates to over three million voters. Of those, 92.7% voted for an independent Republic of Kurdistan. Kurds in all four countries erupted in celebration at the news. 
Before the ink on the official results could dry, however, tensions rose. Borders closed, ultimatums were given, joint military drills were held. Two days ago, the Iraqi Army marched northeast from their positions near the mostly Arab city of Hawija to the city of Kirkuk and captured the city as well as the airport and the air base near it. While there was some sporadic fighting, the city fell quickly and mostly peacefully. 
As the Iraqi Army rolled into the streets of Kirkuk, the Arab and Shia Turkmen populations rejoiced while the Kurds fell into dismay. Kirkuk is a multiethnic city, with large populations of all three ethnicities, and it is considered a cultural capital for Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen alike. While not originally part of the established Kurdish Regional Government, Kirkuk City and large parts of Kirkuk Province were taken over by Kurdish Peshmerga troops as the predominantly Arab Iraqi Army retreated from an Islamic State offensive in 2014. This was a considerable point of pride for Kurds in Iraq, many of whom believe Kirkuk is a Kurdish city and should have been part of Kurdish-controlled territory since the regional authority was established after the American invasion.
Islamic State has endured a slow but sure decline since its original breakneck expansion and no longer controls territory where the border between Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan lies. Its territorial control in Iraq is today restricted to a few small cities in Western Iraq’s Anbar province and some open desert, and there is a considerable possibility the Iraqi Army will be launching an offensive to secure the border in full before the end of the year. 
As well as defeating ISIS for good, the Iraqi Army seems determined to march farther north into Kurdish-controlled territory and move towards the original borders of the Kurdish Region to the dismay of many Kurds living in those areas. There is considerable fear that this will lead Iraq into another civil war, only a few years after sectarian fighting allowed Islamic State to reach all the way to Baghdad’s suburbs. 
On October 17th, unconfirmed reports claimed that the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga would withdraw to the original borders of the three provinces set out for Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003. If this holds, the Kurdistan Regional Government will shrink considerably back to its original size. Evidence suggests that this agreement is being implemented. 

The possibility of independence, which was always going to be a difficult prospect even on the best day, seems to be fading. If the Peshmerga abides by their possible agreement to move back peacefully and Kurdish regions stay with Iraq, there could be major consequences for leaders in both Baghdad and Erbil. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi will likely see his popularity, already considerable, move even higher. The defeat of ISIS as a state and the mostly peaceful preservation of Iraq’s northern borders would cement him as a pivotal and effective leader. Whether he can translate that momentum into strengthening Iraq’s economy, battling corruption, keeping sectarian tensions low and rebuilding after the war against ISIS is yet to be seen, but it’s pretty likely that unless tensions bubble up again that Al-Abadi will at least be given a second chance when and if he runs for re-election. 

KRG President Masoud Barzani could possibly face considerable consequences in the opposite direction. If the Kurdish region does not go independent, Kurds will likely blame his government for not following through. 

Iraqi Kurdistan, doted on by many media outlets in the west because it is largely peaceful, free from sectarian violence, and generally more secular than the rest of Iraq, is still saturated with its own problems. The Peshmerga forces in charge of its defense often fight for one of the major political parties rather than the region at large, highlighting the region’s serious political polarization. Masoud Barzani, president since 2005, hasn’t faced re-election since 2009, and the region hasn’t gone to the polls to elect a new Parliament since 2011. Barzani has long been accused of being dictatorial and authoritarian in his rule, and those claims are not without merit.  The two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the right-wing Kurdistan Democratic Party and the left-wing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, less than 10 years after the Genocide of Al-Anfal, and their animosity remains present. 

Like any other people, the Kurds of Iraq deserve the right to decide their own fate, and even with the ethnic tensions in areas like Kirkuk, most Kurds in Iraq do seem to want independence. Kurds cheered the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign when the US invaded and remain quite pro-American in many cases. Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have been vital forces for good against the Islamic State-in fact, this article happened to be published on the day predominantly Kurdish forces defeated Islamic State in their de facto capital of Raqqa. A secular, democratic and independent Kurdistan could be a force for good in the Middle East if it was able to tactfully work out its relationship with Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, and the possibility of a relationship between an independent Kurdish state with Israel could have been reason for hope. 

The Kurds’ desire for independence is not the problem, but the way the referendum came about left a lot to be desired. While there is an argument to be made that there’s never a really optimum time for a region to declare independence from a state which has ruled over them for a long period of time, Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum happened at poorly decided time. It’s understandable that many Kurds were of the opinion “If not now, when?”, but there were serious regional issues. President Barzani seemed to use the independence referendum as a distraction above anything else. It allowed him to divert attention from the lack of free elections for nearly 6 years both for the executive and legislative branches of the government. It allowed a distraction from the region’s endemic corruption and inability to pay many workers. Even if Iraqi Kurdistan did go independent peacefully, the chances of it resolving its own internal problems as well as negotiating separation from Iraq would have been difficult even for an accountable democratic government. 

In the end, the Kurds in Iraq don’t look like they’ll be ruling over their own independent state in the immediate future. Independence was never going to be an easy struggle for this long-oppressed people, but a serious reshuffling of priorities before going ahead with the referendum may have made it a bit more feasible. It’s true that being surrounded by hostile neighbors backed up by international alliances didn’t help much (only Israel, a country widely mistrusted across the Middle East, was willing to go out on a limb and explicitly support the region’s desire for independence), but the rollout of this attempt was clumsy, ill-times, and collapsed quickly when pressure was applied.