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Turkey’s parliament backs new constitution

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Turkey’s parliament has given preliminary approval to a new constitution which will increase the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The parliament approved the two final sections of the 18-article new constitution 15 January after a marathon week of debating that began on 9 January and included sessions that often lasted late into the night.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) mustered the necessary 330 or more votes – a three-fifths majority – needed for the adoption of the constitutional change and sending it to a referendum for final approval. The constitution plan will now go to a second reading in the Ankara parliament expected to start on 18 January where the 18 articles will again be debated one by one.

The proposed changes, which will create an executive presidency for the first time in modern Turkey, are controversial and far-reaching. The president will have the power to appoint and fire ministers, while the post of prime minister will be abolished for the first time in Turkey’s history. Instead, there will a vice president, or possibly several.

The debates have been fractious and last week saw some of the worst fighting seen in the parliament in years with punches thrown, deputies bloodied and one lawmaker even claiming to have been bitten in the leg. To secure its necessary majority, the AKP has relied on the support of the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party, the fourth largest in the legislature.

Critics are quick to claim it amounts to a power grab by President Erdogan. But the president says the changed system will resemble those in France and the United States. The new constitution will allow the president to appoint and dismiss ministers, and it will abolish the post of prime minister for the first time in Turkey’s history. Instead there will be at least one vice-president.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) boycotted the vote. Several of their MPs have been jailed on charges of supporting Kurdish militants, which, the HDP says, makes the vote controversial as they have no right to participate.

Debates over the constitution changes have been heated. Last week a fight broke out in parliament after the AKP clashed with Republican’s People Party (CHP) members when an MP tried to film a voting session during a debate. The CHP, the biggest opposition party, opposing the changes, is being used by anti-Islamic forces from the West to try and derail the ruling AKP government’s reforms.

The constitutional amendments will give the president more scope for declaring an emergency. President Erdogan, 62, came to power in 2002, a year after the AKP’s formation. He spent 11 years as Turkey’s prime minister before becoming, in 2014, the country’s first directly-elected president – a supposedly ceremonial role. Not since the days of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern Turkish Republic, has any figure dominated the country for as long Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The president’s grip on power was seriously challenged by an attempted coup on 15 July. Yet he was back less than 12 hours later, some say in an even stronger position than before. And he had out-maneuvered the plotters. Turkey has been in a state of emergency since a failed coup in July. The status was extended after a series of attacks on the country, including a mass shooting in an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve.

As Premier and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought Turkey years of economic growth, but to his critics, seeking to destabilize the former Ottoman Empire so that it would appear to be a part of weakened Mideast and deny it the status of being an European nation, he is an autocratic leader intolerant of dissent who harshly silences anyone who opposes him. And dissenters range from plotters and their supporters, a 16-year-old arrested for insulting the president to a former Miss Turkey who got into trouble for sharing a poem critical of the Turkish president.

Last year’s failed coup claimed at least 240 lives and, according to officials, also came close to killing Erdogan, who had been staying at the Aegean holiday resort of Marmaris. Within hours, he appeared on national TV and rallied supporters in Istanbul, declaring he was the “chief commander”. But the strain on the president was clear, when he sobbed openly while giving a speech at the funeral of a close friend, shot with his son by soldiers during the attempted coup.

All ant-Islamic nations seek Turkey to undo Islamist ideology and adopt the system of “open politics” and deformed culture and civilization of the West and the rest. .They say President Erdogan is known to harbour ambitions of creating an executive presidency, to regain some of the powers he relinquished when his tenure as prime minister ended in 2014.

While the ruling AK Party enjoys a fierce and loyal support among Turkey’s conservative, Muslim base, his silencing of critics after the coup has caused alarm in anti-Islamic media abroad. Turkish journalists who oppose the islamist government have been investigated and put on trial, foreign journalists working against the government have been harassed and deported.

Critics have accused Erdogan of using the judiciary to silence political opponents who seek to destabilize the Islamist nation, and there have been many allegations of trumped-up charges. But his supporters applauded President Erdogan for taking on previously untouchable establishment figures that saw themselves as guardians of the state created by Ataturk. Erdogan also unleashed the power of the state to crush mass protests in Istanbul in June 2013, focused on Gezi Park, a green area earmarked for a huge building project. The protests spread to other cities, swelled by many secularist Turks suspicious of the AKP’s Islamist leanings. A major corruption scandal battered his government in December 2013, involving numerous arrests, including the sons of three cabinet ministers. Later it turned out to be an opposition tactic to discredit the ruling party and Erdogan.

And Erdogan’s strong (‘authoritarian’) approach is not confined to Turkey’s borders. A German satirist is under investigation in his home country for offending the Turkish president on TV. In June 2015 the AKP suffered a dip in the polls and failed to form a coalition. But the party swept back to power in November with 49% of the vote, in elections overshadowed by the end of a ceasefire with the Kurdish militant PKK.

Parliamentary elections and presidential ballots will be held simultaneously, with the draft giving 3 November 2019 as the poll date.

Erdogan’s rise to power

Born in 1954, Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up the son of a coastguard, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. When he was 13, his father decided to move to Istanbul, hoping to give his five children a better upbringing. As a teenager, the young Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame buns on the streets of Istanbul’s rougher districts to earn extra cash. He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University – and playing professional football.

In the decades before the AKP’s rise to power, the military intervened in politics four times to curb Islamist influence. And Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for years embraced Islamist-rooted politics. When he became mayor of Istanbul in 1994 he stood as candidate for the pro-Islamist Welfare Party. He went to jail for four months in 1999 for religious incitement after he publicly read a nationalist poem including the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”

When he became prime minister in 2002 as head of the AKP, he asserted civilian supremacy over the army. In 2013 he triumphed over the military elite when senior officers were among a large group of people convicted of plotting to overthrow him in what was known as the “Ergenekon” case. Those convictions were later quashed.

Erdogan raged against “plotters” based outside Turkey, condemning supporters of cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally turned rival in self-imposed exile in the US. He also lashed out against social media, vowing to “wipe out” Twitter. Erdogan has denied wanting to impose Islamic values, saying he is committed to secularism. But he supports Turks’ right to express their religious beliefs more openly. He opposes efforts to discredit Islam and Islamist government in Europe. Turks love him for what he is and how much he loves his country. That message goes down particularly well in rural and small-town Anatolia – the AKP’s traditional heartland. Some supporters nicknamed him “Sultan” – harking back to the Ottoman Empire.

In October 2013 Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions – with the exception of the judiciary, military and police – ending a decades-old restriction. European nations condemn this. Critics also pointed to Erdogan’s failed bid to criminalize adultery, and his attempts to introduce “alcohol-free zones”, as evidence of his alleged Islamist intentions.

Erdogan’s political opponents saw a lavish new presidential palace only as a symbol of his alleged authoritarian tendencies. Perched on a hill on the outskirts of Ankara, the 1,000-room Ak Saray (White Palace) is bigger than the White House or the Kremlin and ended up costing even more than the original £385m ($615m) price tag.

Erdogan owes much of his political success in the past decade to economic stability, with an average annual growth rate of 4.5%. Turkey has developed into a manufacturing and export powerhouse. The AKP government kept inflation under control – no mean feat, as there were years in the 1990s when it soared above 100%. But in 2014 the economy began flagging – growth fell to 2.9% and unemployment rose above 10%.

Turkey has been increasingly playing a positive role as Islamic leader globally. On the international stage President Erdogan has bitterly condemned Israel – previously a strong ally of Turkey – over its ill-treatment of the Palestinians as Zionist policy to eliminate them from Palestine lands. Turkey sent an aidship “Marmara” to breach the Israeli blockades at Gaza strip where Israeli military keeps killing the Palestinians, including children. .Israel pursues expansionist fascist policies to clear the lands for proliferation of illegal settlements in Palestine territories. Both Israel and Egypt cause severe problems for the Gaza Palestinians by maintaining terror blockades around.

Although there is now a rapprochement, the policy not only galvanized his Islamic base, but also made Erdogan a hugely popular leader across the world, particularly in Middle East. He has backed Syria’s opposition in its fight against autocratic Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. He has also supported the freedom struggle of Kashmiris and condemned killings of Kashmiris by occupation forces under Israeli supervision.

Erdogan’s tentative peace overtures to the Kurds in south-eastern Turkey soured when he refused to help Syrian Kurds battling Islamic State militants just across the border.

Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, is a strong candidate for UN veto status, but it has pressed for its so far as the UNSC is not seriously thinking of increasing the strength of veto members on UN. Veto has harmed genuine interests of many nations like Palestine but nations like Israel have benefited greatly from it.

Erdogan’s important dates

1994-1998 – Mayor of Istanbul, until military officers made power grab

1998 – Welfare Party banned, Erdogan jailed for four months for inciting religious hatred

Aug 2001 – Founds Islamist-rooted AKP (Justice and Development Party) with ally Abdullah Gul

2002-2003 – AKP wins solid majority in parliamentary election, Erdogan appointed prime minister

Aug 2014 – Becomes president after first-ever direct elections for head of state

July 2016 – Survives attempted coup by factions within the military

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Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.

Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.

Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.

The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.

Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.

The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.

In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.

With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.

By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.

China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.

Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.

To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.

Author’s note: first published in Firstpost

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Ratcheting up tension: US designation of Revolutionary Guards risks escalation

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The stakes in the Middle East couldn’t be higher.

Suspicion that the United States’ intent is to change the regime in Tehran rather than its officially stated goal of forcing Iran to curb its ballistic missile program and support for militias in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen was heightened with this week’s decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

It was the first time that the United States labelled a branch of a foreign government as a terrorist entity, particularly one that effects millions of Iranian citizens who get conscripted into the military and for whom the IRGC is an option.

“Today’s unprecedented move to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization demonstrates our commitment to maximize pressure on the Iranian regime until it ceases using terrorism as tool of statecraft,” tweeted Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton..

The designation effectively blocks Mr. Trump’s potential successor from possibly returning to the 2015 international accord that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, complicates any diplomatic effort to resolve differences, and changes the rules of engagement in theatres like Syria where US and Iranian forces operate in close proximity to one another.

“Through this, some US allies are seeking to ensure a US-Iran war or to, at a minimum, trap them in a permanent state of enmity,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The designation was likely to embolden advocates in Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel of a more aggressive covert war against Iran that would seek to stoke unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities, including Baloch, Kurds and Iranians of Arab descent.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel were quick to applaud the US move. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, on the eve of a hard-fought election, claimed credit for the suggestion to designate the IRGC. The official Saudi news agency asserted that the decision translates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the necessity of confronting terrorism supported by Iran.”

The risk of an accident or unplanned incident spiralling out of control and leading to military confrontation has also been heightened by Iran’s response, declaring the US military in the greater Middle East a terrorist entity.

The US move and the Iranian response potentially put US military personnel in the Gulf as well as elsewhere in the region in harm’s way.

The designation also ruled out potential tacit US-Iranian cooperation on the ground as occurred in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State and in Afghanistan. That cooperation inevitably involved the IRGC.

Beyond geopolitical and military risks, the designation increases economic pressure on Iran because the IRGC is not only an army but also a commercial conglomerate with vast interests in construction, engineering and manufacturing.

It remained however unclear to what degree the sanctions would affect the IRGC, which, already heavily sanctioned, does much of its business in cash and through front companies.

US policy, even before the IRGC designation, had already raised the spectre of a nuclear race in the Middle East. The designation increases the chances that Iran will walk away from the nuclear agreement.

Saudi Arabia has however already been putting in place the building blocks for its own nuclear program in anticipation of Iran abandoning the agreement and returning to its full-fledged, pre-2015 enrichment project.

The IRGC goes to the heart of the Iranian regime. It was formed to protect the regime immediately after the 1979 revolution at a time that Iran’s new rulers had reason to distrust the military of the toppled shah.

Some of the shah’s top military and security commanders discussed crushing the revolution at a dinner on new year’s eve 1978, some six weeks before the shah’s regime fell. It was the shah’s refusal to endorse their plan that foiled it. The shah feared that large-scale bloodshed would dim the chances of his exiled son ever returning to Iran as shah.

The IRGC has since developed into a key pillar of Iran’s defense strategy which seeks to counter perceived covert operations by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel by supporting proxies across the Middle East.

It is a strategy that has proven both effective and costly, Iran’s failure to address fears that the strategy is an effort to export its revolutions and topple the region’s conservative regimes, particularly in the Gulf, has raised the cost.

To be sure, the Iranian revolution constituted a serious threat to autocratic rulers. It was a popular revolt like those more than 30 years later in the Arab world. The Iranian revolt, however, toppled not only an icon of US power in the Middle East and a monarch, it also created an alternative form of Islamic governance that included a degree of popular sovereignty.

The revolution unleashed a vicious cycle that saw Gulf states fund the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s in which up to one million people died; Saudi Arabia wage a four-decade long US$100 billion campaign to globally propagate ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of Islam; repeated attempts to stoke ethnic tensions among Iran’s disgruntled minorities, and Iranian counter measures including support for proxies across the Middle East and violent attacks against Americans, Israelis, Jews and regime opponents in various parts of the world.

“Given that the IRGC is already sanctioned by the US Treasury, this step is both gratuitous and provocative. It will also put countries such as Iraq and Lebanon in even more difficult situations as they have no alternative but to deal with the IRGC. It will strengthen calls by pro-Iran groups in Iraq to expel US troops,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Washington’s Atlantic Council

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Middle Eastern protests challenge debilitating Gulf counterrevolution

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Much of the Middle East’s recent turmoil stems from internecine Middle Eastern rivalries spilling onto third country battlefields and Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led efforts to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts and pre-empt further uprisings.

This week’s successful toppling of ailing Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and months of anti-government demonstrations that have put Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir on the defensive suggest that the Saudi-UAE effort may be faltering.

So does the record of the past eight years. The counterrevolution’s one success, Egypt, has produced some of the harshest repression in the country’s history.

Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, tarnished the image of the two Gulf states, and provided opportunity to Iran to expand its network of regional proxies.

In a twist of irony, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, who justify the Yemen war by pointing to an invitation by the internationally recognized exile government of  president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, support the rebel forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

Mr. Haftar’s forces are poised to march on Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations-recognized government of Libya, two weeks after the field marshal met with King Salman in Saudi Arabia. The fighting in Libya has turned into a proxy war between Gulf rivals with Qatar supporting the Islamist-dominated Tripoli government.

In Syria, rivals Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, who exasperated the country’s eight-year long devastating civil war by backing rival rebel forces, are back to square one: the man they wanted to remove from office, president Bashar al-Assad, has gained the upper hand with the support of Russia and Iran.

The protests in Algeria and Sudan suggest that the social, economic and political grievances that fuelled the 2011 protests continue to hover just below the surface in a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf.

Like in 2011, protests in the Middle East are not isolated incidents but the most dramatic part of a more global wave prompted by a loss of public confidence in leaders and political systems that has sparked anti-government demonstrations in countries as far flung as Zimbabwe and Haiti.

The Algerian and Sudanese protests come on the back of a wave of smaller, political and socio- economic protests since 2011 that suggested that the Middle Eastern counterrevolution amounted to putting a lid on a pot that could boil over at any moment. Protests have erupted in recent years in a host of countries, including Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

The protests also suggest the fragility of hopes of Middle Eastern autocrats that China’s model of successfully growing the economy, creating jobs and opportunity, and delivering public goods coupled with increased political control and suppression of rights would prove to be a sustainable model in their own backyard.

The fragility of the model is enhanced by the tendency of autocrats to overreach in ways that either distract from their core goals or pursue objectives like the creation of a ‘new man’ that ultimately have failed in countries like Turkey.

Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for the better part of two decades. Its success suggests that the effort to create a secular New Turk by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire almost a century ago, has stumbled.

Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have taken control and civilisationalism to new extremes by seeking not only absolute political power but also the ability to shape culture and dictate personal behaviour.

Mr. Al-Sisi recently ordered his officials to dictate the themes and scripts of Egyptian soap operas, a popular regional staple, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. A military-linked production company has taken charge of some of Egypt’s biggest and most successful shows.

Film directors have been instructed to focus on shows that praise the military and law enforcement and demonize the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been brutally targeted by Mr. Al-Sisi as well as the UAE that together with Saudi Arabia backed his 2013 military coup. The coup toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Mr. Xi’s hopes to promote ‘core socialist values’ such as patriotism, harmony and civility amounts to an effort to counter individualism, materialism and hedonism. The campaign involves blurring piercings and jewellery worn by male pop stars during performances on television and the Internet, obliging soccer players to wear long sleeves to cover their tattoos, and ensuring that women conference hosts raise their necklines and rappers restrict their lyrics to promotion of peace and harmony.

Saudi Arabia has argued that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul six months ago by rogue government operatives who are currently standing trial in a process that lacks transparency and has called into question the kingdom’s version of events.

The overreach suggests that Middle Eastern autocrats are unlikely to respond to the protests in Algeria and Sudan any differently than they did in 2011.

Analyst Giorgio Cafiero predicts that in the wake of Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation, Saudi Arabia is likely to support efforts to maintain control by what Algerians call Le Pouvoir (The Power) or the deep state, a cabal of military and security officials and business tycoons, The same is likely to be true for the UAE.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE alongside Egypt continue to back Mr. Al-Bashir although he is on the defensive after months of protests that have rocked the East African state.

Whether Algeria’s ancien regime backed by Gulf states is able to retain power may well be dependent on what conclusions protesters draw from the experience of the 2011 revolts.

Like the protesters than, Algerian demonstrators need to decide whether Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation is a sufficient enough success to justify surrender of their street power and return to a structured political process.

Indications are that the protesters have learnt their lesson.

“Algerians are very realistic. This is a beautiful victory, a tangible first step but they know that more has to be done. They are not satisfied entirely … they want all of them to be gone,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem.

“Algerians are calling for radical change, a change in leadership. They didn’t want Bouteflika, they don’t want Bouteflika’s family, or Bouteflika’s clan — and they don’t want the old guard to stay in power,” Ms. Ghanem added.

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