We have moved / Taşındık!

If you're reading this, you've come to the old home for the James in Turkey website. The website has changed servers and adopted a new look ahead of the 2014 local election.

For the latest Turkish politics and election analysis from Michael Daventry redirect your bookmarks to jamesinturkey.com.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Playing politics with council boundaries

'A minor fracas' is the best way to describe the fuss caused by Turkish MPs' decision to cut up one of Istanbul's most prominent council districts and combine it with its larger, northerly neighbour. The MPs were meeting in committee to  discuss a law to upgrade a number of Turkey's smaller cities to 'metropolitan city' status, but government members of the panel managed to sneak in an amendment to rejig the local political map of the country's largest city. As they stand, the law would see the northern part of Şişli merged into Sarıyer.

For a clearer understanding of what all the fuss is about, kindly consider this map of Istanbul's administrative districts and political colours of the mayor who won at the last election.

Although no district is labeled on this map, Şişli is easy to spot: in navy, it is the only one where the Democratic Left Party (DSP) was victorious. Nope, that's not two districts, but one district with an exclave. Have another map:

Şişli was cleft twain in 1987 when Kağıthane (yellow on the second map) was promoted to become a district of its own. Of the old district's rump, the southern partition remained the centre, containing council facilities and much of the city that had sprung up since the 1950s; the north, meanwhile, was home to three indistinct neighbourhoods: Ayazağa, Huzur and Maslak. It looks to me like it was a bizarre decision. After all, what use is your council if you have to travel through a whole other district to get to it?

So from an utterly apolitical perspective, combining Şişli northern exclave into Sarıyer makes some sense.

Of course, there is a political perspective and it has caused enough of a stink for Şişli's mayor, Mustafa Sarıgül, to drop everything and rush to Ankara for some urgent lobbying.

You see, the three neighbourhoods in the northern exclave have become rather wealthy since the ill-advised map drawing session of 1987. Ayazağa is the site to the new stadium for Galatasaray football club and Maslak has become an international business centre, home to banks and luxury apartments and their skyscrapers. Maslak is in fact poster-child for all those evening photographs of Istanbul taken in an unsuccessful attempt to make the town look like Manhattan. There is money to be made there and Mr Sarıgül would be a fool not to fight to keep it.

Ayazağa is larger than Maslak and Huzur combined, both in terms of area and population: there were 22,622 registered voters there at the last local election in 2009, as against 6622 in Huzur and just 1224 in Maslak.

In comments carried today by Hürriyet, Istanbul MP Celal Dinçer said last night's amendment was clearly political: voters in Ayazağa supported the AK Party over his centre-left CHP by almost a 4-1 margin and the CHP only won Sarıyer at the last election only by a narrow margin. The charge is clear: the AK Party wants to make sure they can capture Sarıyer at next year's council elections by shifting over loyal voters.

At the last election in the three contested Şişli neighbourhoods, the AK Party candidate to become mayor of Şişli won 6698 votes. His CHP rival won 1925. So Mr Dinçer's claimed AK margin is quite true. But he omits to mention the left vote in Şişli was split by the current mayor, who contested the election on the Democratic Left Party (DSP) ticket. Here is what actually happened:

It's also worth looking at the result in the neighbourhood of Ayazağa alone:

So Mustafa Sarıgül comfortably swept all three neighbourhoods, with a slight swing to the AK Party in Ayazağa. He certainly trounced his namesake running on the CHP ticket. He is a personality politician: 2009 was his third consecutive victory as mayor and he is remarkably popular in his district. Indeed, his ego was so inflated he dabbled in national politics - and lost - when he challenged the former CHP leader (more background on this from me here). Should he run again for mayor, he is likely to win.

As for Sarıyer, I would contend that the new districts would only help the CHP's cause unless there is a sea change between now and the next election. It's a view that appears to be shared by Sarıyer's CHP mayor Şükrü Genç, who said when asked about the boundary change:

"In local elections, you are judged not on your political position but on what you do, what you say you are going to do and how persuasive you are. The people of Sarıyer have known me well over the last three-and-a-half years. We discriminated no-one on the basis of politics, ethnicity or lifestyle. We targeted all over the 350,000 people who live here. That's why I don't think we will have a great problem at the elections."

Mr Genç also said that he had lobbied the Interior ministry for the very same change three years ago but was turned away.

Bear in mind this amendment has only come of the committee stage and needs to be approved by all MPs - and the president - before it becomes law. Will someone in the AK Party realise before then that this particular game of politics is not worth it?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The polls are wrong: one in two Turks won’t vote AKP

A 52 percent poll lead does not mean one in every two Turks would vote AK tomorrow

A year ago, Turkey’s AK Party won a third successive term in government. The victory came as no surprise; that they increased their share of the vote to just under 50 percent took most commentators aback. A poll by Konsensus in Haberturk last weekend suggested that, in the event an of an election tomorrow, they would repeat the feat, increasing their share further still. The headline result was AKP 51.6 / CHP 26.8 / MHP 12.7 / BDP 5.0, virtually unchanged since the last Konsensus poll three months ago.

This does not mean one in every two Turks would vote AK in a hypothetical election tomorrow, because the results are more opaque than you might think. Pollsters in Turkey have a habit of sharing out respondents who do not express a voting preference among all the parties proportionally. This gives everyone a nice, round number out of 100, but it inflates the support of each party and effectively ignores anyone who hasn’t made their mind up.

In the same Konsensus poll, the undistributed result (with changes from their March survey) was AKP 43.1 (-4.7) / CHP 22.4 (-3.2) / MHP 10.6 (-1.7) / BDP 4.2 (-1.0). Far from an increase, the trend here suggests a decline in support for all parties, with AK and CHP hit the hardest. This is the lowest Konsensus has polled for AK since before last year’s election.

More interesting is the number of those non-committal voters – those who were undecided, or would spoil their ballot, or not vote at all – which this month came in at 16.4 percent. It suggests one in every six voters has not made up their mind – that’s twice as many as the last survey. In fact, Konsensus hasn’t reported such a high proportion of voter apathy for a year-and-a-half, well before the last election.

Now, part of this is because of time: the last election is long gone, the next is a couple of years away, and politics simply won’t register with as many people. The fact that all parties have suffered losses suggests this may well be the case. But the CHP and AK Party losses are significantly larger, which could point to greater disappointment in the larger parties. It is difficult to establish how statistically significant the drop in AK and CHP support is without looking at a trend – which means more polling, please.

That said, the “apathy vote” should not be overblown. All pollsters, even those hostile to the government, are showing a solid AK Party lead fuelled by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal popularity. It would easily win that hypothetical election tomorrow, even if we can’t say by how much.

Konsensus’s other headling-grabbing finding was the answer to “Who should succeed Abdullah Gül as President?”, which Mr Erdoğan topped for the first time. Fatih Altaylı, writing in Haberturk, argues that public awareness of the president’s role has greatly increased and that Mr Erdoğan’s high approval ratings have made him a sure bet for the role, able to claim it “without moving a finger”.

Of course, things can change in an instant, and that instant might come this week, when the Constitutional Court is due to rule on the length of President Gül’s term. The government had set it at a single term of seven years, but the CHP argued this didn’t tally with the earlier 2007 referendum, where Turkish voters endorsed two terms of five years for their president, and took it to the court.

The ruling is due on Friday. Ali Rıza Çoban, the rapporteur, has already submitted his report, which found that the president’s term should be seven years, but preventing him from seeking re-election for another five would be unconstitutional.

The report is only advisory; it will be the court judges who make the decision. It won’t be an easy choice, though, as it could spell a potential twelve years in office for Mr Gül, taking him to 2019. That wouldn’t poll well with Mr Erdoğan.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The two faces of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Comments made this week on abortion demonstrate a serious character flaw in Turkey's prime minister.

Last week, addressing a UN conference on population and development, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: "I am a prime minister who is against caesarean births. I consider abortion to be murder."

Two days ago, he went even further. Speaking to a meeting of his AK Party - a meeting of his party's women's branch, no less - the Turkish prime minister explained how he considered caesareans to be part of "organised attempts to prevent the country's population from increasing. They are attempting to keep this country's population stops at a certain level."

"Every abortion," he went on, "is an Uludere", referring to the southeastern village close to where 35 civilians were killed in a botched airstrike. "I ask you, what difference is there between killing a child in the mother's womb, or killing after birth?

"We are compelled to fight this all together, because it is a sinister plan to wipe out this nation from the face of the earth. To allow this nation to multiply, we must not play to these games."

The prime minister's remarks were preposterous, yet utterly in character.

Preposterous, because Uludere is such a dreadful analogy to use. One is a human tragedy, the other is a position of social morality. The 35 civilians were killed in December last year by Turkish F16s after being spotted hiking their way across a mountain from Iraq. They were suspected members of the PKK; it turned out they were smuggling cigarettes and diesel.

The Uludere incident provoked outrage and street demonstrations across Turkey. Mr Erdoğan's government promised recompense to the victim's families and a full investigation, but refused to apologise. Mr Erdoğan himself appeared bemused that, months later, certain sections of the media were still running campaigns for justice and transparency. It was to these outlets that he addressed his foolish Uludere/abortion line this weekend.

It is incidents like these that demonstrate how there are two Recep Tayyip Erdoğans. The first is the darling of the Western world, that astute friend of foreign investment and face of moderate Islam, who managed what his predecessors could not by pushing the army out of day-to-day politics. The second is the boorish, pious conservative whose views on family planning, women's rights and alcohol reveal a man who would relish the opportunity for a spot of social engineering.

The conflict between the two is stark: Mr Erdoğan's policies in support of greater business policies makes him quite an economic liberal, but socially his record must rank him among Europe's most illiberal. In 2004, he notoriously tried to introduce legislation that would criminalise adultery. After his 2007 re-election, he used his new-found paternalist image to roll out a spot of social engineering by demanding every Turkish family gives birth to three children.

His comments on abortion and caesareans this week could possibly be spun as a moment of confusion - does he *really* think caesareans are a population-controlling tool? His earnest health minister Recep Akdağ did try to explain that the government was planning a crackdown on unnecessary c-sections conducted by private hospitals wanting to claim a higher insurance premium, but Mr Erdoğan made no such announcement to his party's women's corps.

Instead, rumours abound in the Turkish press this week that the government is preparing to outlaw abortion. The governing AK Party's shoddy record in personal freedoms is evidence enough that such hearsay could be based on the truth.

We've all heard plenty about the growing authoritarian strand in Turkey's government, from imprisoned journalists to dodgy business deals. Much of it has been justified - or at least tolerated - by pointing to past decade's marked improvement in Turkish living standards and the military's reduced influence over everyday life. The question is, when will Turks reach the stage when they think Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's AK Party is no longer worth the trouble?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Being gay in Turkey's army

If you haven't seen it already, Emre Azizlerli from the BBC has produced a comprehensive and accurate account of what Turkish gay men have to endure before they can clinch a much-cherished exemption from military service.BBC image

"They asked me when I first had anal intercourse, oral sex, what sort of toys I played with as a child," one man is quoted as saying. Have a read, or listen to the whole documentary here.

The Turkish general staff refused to give Emre Azizlerli an interview. They didn't even provide a comment. This is hardly surprising: for all the talk about the army "defending" secularism against a pious government, it is still an extremely conservative institution that fiercely resists any form of progressive thought. It had an entirely separate judiciary as recently as three years ago. Soldiers would always be tried in military courts, irrespective of whether they attacked a superior or stole a car.

The conservatism applies to its approach to gay recruits too. Their defintion of homosexuality comes from an Amercian Psychiatric Association paper in 1968, Azizlerli writes. That's clearly outdated and wrong, and needs to change.

Turkish society is a only little more open-minded than its armed forces. Homosexuality is not a criminal offence - which, for a Muslim-majority country, is saying something - but that doesn't make Turkey an easy country to be gay in, especially outside towns like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Most families would consider a gay son a disgrace; homosexuality in women is barely acknowledged.

There are, however, signs of shifting attitudes, albeit at a glacial pace. When Selma Aliye Kavaf, a cabinet minister for women and family issues, said in a 2010 newspaper interview that she believed homosexuality is "a biological failure, an illness" and "something that needs treatment", she was widely censured. Gay rights groups protested her comments and a lively debate about homosexuality ensued in television chat shows. She was even publicly criticised by a cabinet colleague, health minister Recep Akdağ, who said Turkey is not an easy place to be gay.

Ms Kavaf's AK Party deselected her from the party list ahead of last year's election. The vehemence of the reaction against her, and Mr Akdağ's subsequent comments, demonstrates Turkey is no stereotypical Muslim country. But there is so much more to do, and enshrining sexual orientation in the new constitution would be a start.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

After Erdoğan

As these words buzz their way across the interweb to you, Turkey's prime minister is at home in Istanbul. He's not running the country; he's recuperating after surgery. It's a relatively routine procedure relating to his digestive system and it's certainly not life-threatening: he'll be back denouncing some rival or another at his party's parliamentary meeting in no time.
In a press release announcing the hospital visit, the office of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (for it is he) sounded almost anxious. The operation went "as planned at the beginning", we are told. "Our Prime Minister's health is absolutely fine. He plans to resume his routine engagements later in the week."
And so he did. He met the son of Bosnia-Herzegovina's founding president, then spoke on the telephone to his British counterpart David Cameron about Syria. Can't say fairer than that, really. Roll on next week's return to parliament.
But as Turkish domestic politics ticked along with routine and not-so-routine developments over the past few months of Mr Erdoğan's hospital treatment, it often fell to other people - such as Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç - to speak for Turkey's government. For the first time in ten years, the talking head for the Turkish government has been not been Mr Erdoğan.
Don't let me mislead you: I'm not saying the prime minister is on his way out. He isn't. He intends to see out tenth year of his job in March 2013, and most likely the eleventh year too. Barring the unforeseen, there's very little that can unseat him until then. His party is riding high in opinion polls and loyalty to him within the party is strong.
But Mr Erdoğan's absence in recuperation might have shown us what the future looks like. Parliament recently decided that Turkey's first popular presidential election will be held in 2014 and Ankara's worst kept secret is that the prime minister wants the job for himself. If he does, he will win. He's more than popular enough to do it.
I first wrote about Mr Erdogan's presidential ambitions in 2006. At the time I said that a candidate for president requires experience, must be known by the public and liked by the public. He had no trouble meeting the last two criteria, I wrote, but as prime minister for a little under four years he did not have that statesmanlike quality - experience in government, knowing how the country runs - that an ideal president needs.
Since I wrote that, Mr Erdogan solidified his public support with victories in two general elections and two referenda. He challenged the Turkish army's influence over the state and won. He established himself as an internationally recognised leader for modern Islam. Whether or not you agree with his politics, the statesmanlike quality is now there.
President Erdoğan would assume his position with just under a year to go before parliamentary elections due by June 2015. The AK Party campaign would be led by a new man. The contenders to be that man are the usual suspects: Mr Arınç; Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister; Cemil Çiçek, the speaker of parliament; Ali Babacan, another deputy prime minster; or even Abdullah Gül, the current and ostensibly party-neutral president.
The problem is that there is no guarantee that any of these men would inherit the same job Mr Erdoğan vacates. A special parliamentary committee is currently working under Mr Çiçek's leadership to put together a new constitution, a new blueprint for Turkey's institutions which could produce a radical shake-up.
Mr Erdoğan is widely understood to favour a French-style presidential system with himself at the top. That would be a hefty change from the existing arrangement. The role of Turkey's president is notionally ceremonial, but holds considerable indirect influence over the country's institutions. The prime minister, meanwhile, holds more direct executive powers than in many Western democracies; if Mr Erdoğan had his way, a lot of these would simply transfer upward with him.
There is, however, widespread opposition to these plans. Prominent members of Mr Erdoğan's party - including some of those who might contend for his job - have publicly said a presidential system is not desirable to them. Much expends on what the new constitution looks like: little is known so far about the changes, if any, that will be made to the structure of Turkey's executive and legislature.
The new constitution will have to be approved by referendum and may require a renewed parliamentary mandate afterwards. That would mean fresh and early elections, in which Mr Erdoğan would lead his party once more.
The main question over Mr Erdoğan's future is not who will succeed him. It concerns the amount of executive power he thinks he can get away with as president. Watch parliament's constitution committee closely for an answer to that.