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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rock down to Electric Yerevan, they made the prices higher

In Yerevan, the capital of the tiny Republic of Armenia, protests have broken out over an electricity price hike set to take place on August 1st.

Due to Armenia's location and recent history as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ukrainian and Russian news media outlets have spun the protests to their own agendas. Russian state media has rushed to denounce the protests as the start of a "color revolution". Meanwhile, Ukrainian media has offered its own support, even comparing these protests to the Euromaidan demonstrations that first hit Ukraine in November of 2013 and culminated in the revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. 

 Neither of these spins may be appropriate towards this chain of protests that is only a few days strong, however. It is true that the Armenian electricity network traces its origins from Russia, but Armenia is much closer to Russia politically than countries like Ukraine. Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union headed by Russia, and even though Armenians have displayed considerable interest in eventually joining the EU through opinion polls, EU membership is not quite the visible political ambition that it is in Ukraine or in Georgia. Grievances voiced by protestors so far do not seem to be anti-Kremlin or anti-Russian in nature.

Armenia is rated "Partly Free" by Freedom House, an international watchdog organization in the United States. For civil liberties, Armenia earned a 4 and on political rights, Armenia earned a 5. These measurements are done on a scale of 1-7, where the smaller the number, the less repressive the country is, and the larger it is, the more authoritarian it is.

Armenia suffers from rampant corruption and some journalistic self-censorship, but it is still a democratic state in practice. The opposition parties to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which include both the pro-Russian Prosperous Armenia party and the pro-E.U. Heritage party, have started to involve themselves in the protests with some MPs symbolically walking out of Parliament. 

As of now, it doesn't appear that these protests will lead to a revolution, as calls for President Serzh Sargsyan's resignation have been rare, but if discontent grows, he may become the subject of the protests. Sargsyan was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2013, and in both elections the opposition parties disputed the result, claiming his party rigged the voting process. Most of the chants and cries heard in Yerevan's Freedom Square were aimed at corruption.

Similar to what happened in Ukraine, protests ballooned in size as excessive use of force by police was widely documented and shared via social media.

At the same time, Armenia's international relations are in a very difficult rut. Nagorno-Karabakh is still not yet fully resolved. The relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan is extremely toxic because of past armed conflicts and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as is the relationship with Turkey due to the refusal of Ankara to recognize the Armenian Genocide or Medz Yeghern (Great Crime) as a genocide. The economy is stagnant as Armenia has closed its borders with both Turkey and oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Turkey's recent election showed that many Turkish people seemed to believe President Erdogan was overstepping his boundaries as a head of state. While the Islamist AKP still came in first overall in the June 7th election, it lost its majority and the Kurdish HDP now holds 80 seats in the Grand National Assembly. That may lead to a new opening of dialogue with the two countries as the large CHP-affiliated newspaper Cumhuriyet (The Republic) did publish a newspaper on Armenian Genocide Rememberance Day with the headline "Never Again" in Turkish and Armenian, and Kurds often admit and apologize for their role in the genocide.

It is still too early to tell what will result from these protests in Yerevan, but the government would do well to address the problems of corruption, disputed elections, and economic stalling before the demands of the people shift from discontent with merely corruption and price hikes to problems with the government as a whole.

Title inspired by Eddie Grant's "Electric Avenue".

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ankara's Crossroads: Turkey's General Election 2015

On Sunday, June 7th, citizens of the Republic of Turkey will head to the polls to elect a new Grand National Assembly, their parliamentary body.

The election comes at an important crossroads in Turkish history. For more than ten years, Turkey has been ruled by the right-wing and Islamist Justice and Development Party (often known by its Turkish initials AKP or AK Parti)  and its head honcho, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan became Prime Minister of Turkey, a parliamentary democracy, in 2003, and was elected president in Turkey's first direct presidential election. Up until 2014, the Turkish President was elected by the Parliament, but this has since changed.

Turkey's parliamentary elections come at a very interesting time. Islamic State is still wreaking havoc just south of the Turkish border in Syria. A more-or-less independent Iraqi Kurdistan sits to its southeast as the Iraqi Kurds were able to fend off Islamic State. Much of the country, though mostly in the western cities, was engulfed in large protests from May to August 2013, primarily against the perceived authoritarianism, internet bans, and fading secularism under the Erdoğan government. 

Turkey is one of the main connections between Europe and Asia, and its demographics reflect that. The cities on the coasts and in the western part of the country tend to be more secular and pro-European because of their proximity to European Union countries. As one ventures into the heartland of Turkey and into the eastern regions, they will see a still largely conservative Muslim nation.

Dozens of political parties exist in Turkey. However, Turkish law dictates that to earn seats in the Grand National Assembly a party must win 10% of the popular vote, and therefore, only about four parties look slated to enter the parliament after all the votes are counted. Because of political splits from the main parties, however, ten parties sit in parliament today. The four that will likely make it in on June 7th are as follows with their names in English and their initials in Turkish:

Justice and Development Party (AKP)
Republican People's Party (CHP)
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)
People's Democratic Party (HDP)

The AKP is a right-wing, Islamist political party that currently runs the show in Turkey. AKP gets votes in all areas of Turkey but are most popular in the middle, more rural parts of the country where society is more conservative and religious. The AK Parti is likely to get the largest share of votes because while they have seen large protests against their rule in many Turkish cities, their support among conservative Muslim Turks in other parts of Turkey is strong.

The question on everyone's mind is not whether AKP will win over the rest of the rest of the political parties as it would be a great surprise if they did not. The question most media outlets are interested in is whether the AKP will earn enough seats to gain the power to change the Turkish constitution. It's unlikely that they will pass that threshold as most opinion polls have them finishing considerably lower than they'd need and the emergence of the HDP as the possible 4th largest party may keep them from doing so. If HDP crosses the 10% threshold the chances of AKP being able to change the constitution under Erdoğan become quite unlikely. 

The CHP is a left-leaning secular party. It is one of the oldest in Turkey, operating on the "Six Arrows" of Kemalism: revolutionism, populism, statism, laicite, republicanism, and nationalism. They are the main opposition in Turkey, primarily drawing their support from Turkey's coastal cities in the western part of the country. The party

The MHP is a nationalist political party. While it does not have a geographic stronghold like the AKP and CHP do, it does draw enough support to be the third largest party in Turkey. Turkish people have long been known for their very strong sense of patriotism, and it wasn't long ago that MHP was a coalition partner in the Turkish parliament.

The HDP is a left-wing party, and may siphon votes from left-leaning Turks who believe the CHP is not left-wing enough. The HDP's main support comes from Kurds in the southeast of Turkey, though many also believe the AKP is superior because Kurds have received broader rights under President Erdogan.

The HDP is hoping to gain 10% of the popular vote in these elections to receive parliamentary representation. This should be attainable, as in the presidential election last year, Selahattin Demitras, the HDP's candidate, polled with 9.76% of the popular vote. Many Kurds who do not vote for the HDP vote for the AKP as they are in a mostly conservative part of the country, and the AKP has reached out to the Kurdish minority in Turkey. However, this presidential election came before the rise of Islamic State and most importantly, the siege of Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish town on the Turkish border. Ankara stubbornly decided to do very little about the siege of the town, angering many Turkish Kurds-and this may drive Kurds who voted for the AKP in the past to switch their votes to the HDP.

Many Western powers have doted on the Kurds and their struggle against Islamic State, and while there are some merits the Kurdish population has for western nations (they are generally pro-western and rarely fundamentalist in their religious beliefs) but they are not without their own skeletons in the closet. The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization in many countries, and not without merit.

The CHP, MHP, and HDP have all been very critical of the AKP's time in power, and if the AKP underperforms, there could be the possibility of a coalition government made up of various opposition forces. The problem is that the main opposition parties that oppose the AKP are also very different than each other. It's extremely unlikely the Turkish nationalist party MHP would enter into a coalition with the left-wing Kurdish interests party HDP, and a CHP/MHP coalition doesn't look like it'll gain enough seats for a coalition. AKP and HDP are quite ideologically different so their joining into a coalition looks unlikely as well. CHP and HDP have claimed that they would consider a coalition if the numbers were favorable (this is also unlikely) but CHP's civic nationalism inspired by Kemalism may be too much for the HDP.

Turkey has been marred by an increasingly authoritarian government since Erdoğan came into power in 2003, but the opposition forces in Turkey are still allowed to campaign and rally against the government. The government may try to mar the election with voter fraud, but the opposition parties have announced measures to keep any problems from coming up. 

The latest, and technically illegal opinion polls (Turkish opinion polling is supposed to cease ten days before the election) shows the following: 

AKP 38.5%-46% (49.83% of the popular vote in the 2011 election) 
CHP 25.3%-28.5% (25.98% of the popular vote in the 2011 election)
MHP 14.8%-18.1% (13.01% of the popular vote in the 2011 election)
HDP 9.0%-12.6% (Did not run as a party in 2011)