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Reforming the WTO is a Long and Complicated Process

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Since early autumn 2018, the issue of reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO) has become an increasingly visible item on the global economic agenda. It was one of the central questions posited in the final communique of the G20 Summit that took place in Buenos Aires on November 30 – December 1, and the parties intend to tackle it again at the next meeting in Tokyo.

The WTO is traditionally considered the third institution of the Bretton Woods system. However, while the first two – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) – started functioning shortly after the end of World War II, it took 47 years of excruciating negotiations to create the third part, a universal trade organization. The establishment of the WTO in April 1994 following the Uruguay Round of negotiations (1986–1993) should rightly be considered the greatest event in economic relations in the 20th century. However, the tremendous success had a certain reverse side: contradictions and issues between member countries remained. This predetermined the future need to reform the WTO.

Trade Wars are a Signal for Action

The problem of the institutional reform of the WTO has been discussed at the level of experts for at least the last 15 years. However, it has never gone beyond the scope of an academic discussion, and for serious reasons too. The older generation of trade diplomats and experts remembers all too well the excruciating negotiations at the Uruguay Round, which were accompanied by crippling crises and contradictions between the parties. Hammering out compromises was a Herculean task, and the agreement on establishing the WTO crowned those compromises.

It is precisely because of these features of the WTO’s protracted birth that representatives of various countries, recognizing the need to reform the organization, were fully cognizant of how difficult and risky such a reform will be in practice. That is why each and every time discussions ended the same way: the GATT/WTO system has been functioning for 70 years, and even though it has its problems, no one can guarantee that a reform will not make things worse. Nowadays, the situation has been noticeably radicalized due to the new U.S. protectionist policies and the trade wars it started “with the entire world.”

The Administration of the 45th US President has embarked upon a course of open criticism and attacks on universal trade rules. In late February 2017, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) delivered the Trade Policy Agenda and Annual Report to Congress. The document emphasized that given the “unfair trade practices” of other countries, the United States can disregard the WTO rules and conduct a more “aggressive” trade policy in protecting its national interests.

On June 1, 2018, Washington imposed increased import tariffs on metals from the European Union, Canada and some other countries to 25 per cent for steel and 10 per cent for aluminium. The current U.S. administration believes that domestic steel production has fallen sharply in the recent years, and this threatens national security. However, Europe and Canada see the legal justification for Washington to increase tariffs as being completely unacceptable.

Partners Reject U.S. Protectionist Measures

Within the WTO, each country has its commitments based on the rules developed during the Uruguay Round. These rules allow import restrictions in three very specific situations: in cases of dumping; the use of illegal subsidies; and if there is a threat to national industries due to a sharp increase in imports. In each case, the damage from the above-stated actions of a supplier country must be substantiated. The damage is assessed in the course of an appropriate transparent investigation that involves all the parties. The current U.S. measures do not fit into any of these scenarios, and instead it is being justified by “reasons of national security.” This, however, gives the matter an entirely different legal twist.

The WTO legal framework does stipulate restricting market access for reasons of national security: appropriate measures are possible in cases of illegal trade in weapons and nuclear materials, the danger of armed conflicts, a terrorist threat, etc. Therefore, in such cases, every state itself determines the measures for restricting access to its market under Article XXI of GATT, which is devoted entirely to “reasons of national security.” The difficulty with applying Article XXI of GATT is that its application mechanism is still not quite specific; a state that introduces restrictions under this article acts as the ultimate judge in the dispute.

The United States offers a very subjective formulation of “reasons of national security” that is clearly detached from the current international rules. Washington sees a threat to national security in the sharp drop in domestic metal production, even though such a situation is essentially a consequence of regular international competition.

European countries and Canada were shocked by the fact that the United States imposes tariffs against them out of “reasons of national security.” As the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker emphasized, “these unilateral U.S. tariffs are unjustified and at odds with World Trade Organization rules. This is protectionism, pure and simple.” President of France Emmanuel Macron called the U.S. administration’s decision illegal and mistaken. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau spoke rather sharply at the June 2018 G7 Summit in Quebec calling Washington’s measures “punitive,” “unacceptable” and “insulting.”

Following repeated attempts to convince Washington that its protectionist measures were unfounded, in late November 2018, the European Union, along with China, Canada, Norway, Mexico, Russia and Turkey, and then India and Switzerland filed a complaint against the United States with the WTO’s Appellate Body concerning the illegality of the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the United States. In the complaint, the plaintiffs intend to challenge the U.S. tariffs as protective and simultaneously prove that the United States cannot invoke reasons of national security. This demarche against the United States by nine countries at once is a rather convincing proof that the WTO’s leading members are resisting Washington’s attempts to revise the existing rules of international trade.

Thus, the U.S. administration believes that it can protect its domestic market and ensure its foreign trade interests on the basis of its domestic trade legislation. Over the course of 2018, Washington primarily invoked two legislative acts. Under the Trade Act of 1974, the United States can impose penalty tariffs on countries that discriminate against American goods. The second is the 1962 Trade Expansion Act that allows the United States to restrict import of goods that would “threaten to impair the national security.” This act served as a legal justification for Washington to increase import tariffs on steel and aluminium starting June 1, 2018.

Europe, Canada and Japan believe that using legal acts that are over 50 years old is odd at the very least, since in the intervening decades, international economic regulations have changed drastically, the principal change being the emergence of a full-fledged multilateral regulation institution, i.e. the WTO, which was to a great degree promoted by the United States. Strictly speaking, the moment the WTO became operative in January 1995, the United States did not invoke the provisions of those domestic acts since it believed itself to be bound, like other WTO members, by the WTO’s commitments.

Every Side has its Arguments on Reforming the WTO

In March 2018, the United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer presented the latest version of the U.S. administration’s annual agenda in trade policies. The agenda concerns such issues as reforming the WTO, trade agreements with other countries and the application of U.S trade laws. The document is critical of the trade policies of previous administrations and simultaneously claims to reach a qualitatively new level in trade policies under the Trump administration.

Lighthizer’s report states that the U.S. administration is dissatisfied with the existing rules and their application in such areas as labour conditions, competition policies and the medical equipment market. It notes the investigations of U.S. officials into China’s violations of U.S. intellectual property rights. In essence, the report justifies instances of applying U.S. trade laws from the 1960s–1970s in order to protect national security interests, which cannot but cause concerns, since these laws are applied separately from the WTO rules and the commitments that the United States has undertaken as part of the organization.

As for the current multilateral negotiations at the Doha Round, Washington has specific grievances in that area, which may be considered justified to a certain extent. For instance, the United States is not satisfied with their highly stilted character, the impossibility of achieving new agreements other than at the biennial WTO ministerial conferences, and what the United States views as the outdated agenda of the Doha Round.

What is more, in recent years, the United States has not hidden its displeasure with the position of a large group of countries within the WTO which, having joined the organization as developing countries, continue to see themselves as such today, despite the fact that they have made significant progress in a number of economic sectors and even outstripped certain developed countries. In addition to this, many developing countries have non-transparent trade policies. Consequently, those WTO members de facto use privileges that Washington deems to be unjustified, which blocks progress in developing new WTO rules and also impedes further liberalization. This is the essence of Washington’s approach to reforming the WTO: eliminate unjustified and unfair privileges held by a group of developing countries that today essentially paralyse the multilateral trade system.

As for the other major player in international trade – the European Union – it has assumed a highly proactive stance on the issue of reforming the WTO. The European Union was the first to publish a list of specific proposals (a concept) on reforming the WTO. Analysing the entire list is rather a task for trade policy experts. It would therefore be appropriate to single out the key points. Even though the European Union’s stance was originally a direct consequence of the wrongfully protectionist measures of the United States towards European manufacturers, the document contains no direct or indirect complaints against Washington, which is largely reasonable, since reforming one of the key institutions of global economic management is too grave an issue to start it by settling scores with an old trade partner.

Essentially, Brussels shares Washington’s position on the matter, as well as its grievances against that group of developing countries that has reached a rather high level of economic development, but has no wish to part with their previously gained privileges

The EU proposals also note that today’s discussions are frequently dominated by the opinion that global trade rules somehow impede trade and, therefore, developing countries need to be exempted from both current and future rules. In fact, today, the differences between developed and many developing countries are not quite as pronounced as they were 25 years ago, when the WTO was established, meaning that the above-mentioned opinion is fundamentally wrong. Obviously, some flexibility in enforcing the compliance of developing countries with the WTO rules should be preserved, but only in those cases where it is necessary. The proposals put forward by Brussels contain specific mechanisms for tackling this task.

The EU concept focuses heavily on modernizing the WTO’s Appellate Body, a crucial organ in the mechanism of resolving disputes within the WTO. The European Union’s stance on the matter was supported in November by Canada, India, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, South Korea, Iceland, Singapore, Mexico and China.

In its proposals on the Appellate Body, Brussels largely takes Washington’s grievances against its current functioning into account. In particular, the European Union proposes limiting the appeals term to 90 days, which had been stipulated earlier, yet the parties often failed to comply with the requirement.

The EU concept also contains a series of initiatives on bolstering the multilateral trade system and improving the efficiency of the WTO.

China, which has been striving to form a united front with other countries that condemn Washington’s protectionism, has also called for a reform of the WTO.

While supporting WTO reform, China has thus far limited its actions to fairly general statements, stressing that the importance and inviolability of the WTO’s basic principles and rules. It would seem that Beijing is unlikely to be unconditionally receptive of Washington’s demands that current privileges for developing countries in the WTO be abolished. In contrast, China will rather put forward the need to fight protectionism, which is a threat to free trade.

As for Russia, it wholeheartedly supports the idea of reforming the WTO. President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin recently declared this stance. Russia’s trade diplomacy has quite good positions to take an active part in the process.

In conclusion, we need to emphasize that the nascent process of reforming of the WTO cannot be simple and quick, since the list of problems is too variegated. Above, we have outlined only some of these problems. At a certain stage, the most difficult problem will likely be that of transforming the decision-making system. The consensus mechanism that has been in effect in the GATT/WTO for over 70 years clearly hampers decision-making today, as the organization boasts 164 member countries. However, abolishing this mechanism will not be easy either. This is probably the main challenge to the incipient WTO reform.

First published in our partner RIAC

Professor of World Economy and International Affairs Department at Higher School of Economics, Leading Researcher at RAS Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO)

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Future of Mid Size Business Economies & Bureaucracies of the World

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The Agrarian age morphed into an industrial age over a millennia, sometime later industrial age advanced to computer age in another century,  but now from cyber-age to advance into a new paper-less, cash-less, office-less and work-less age seems like an arrival in the coming days.

As if, like a revenge of The Julian Calendar, time like a tsunami drowning us in our own depths of performance, challenging our lifelong learning and exposing our critical thinking but only forcing us to fathom the pace of change, swim or drown.

Flat earth finally accepted as a sphere after a million years, but nowin the future, possibly, more like a digital cube of six parallel dimensions, a new perception of world-economic-order appears.Awaits a new horizon, where in simultaneous synchronization the digital platform economies, where borderless skills expanding boundary less commerce and productivity standards worthy of globally competitive edges. This is when transnational global public opinion selects the future of national economies driving global-age triangulating of latest new upskilling crushing old thinking and old models. 

Visible primarily to the entrepreneurial mindsets, therefore such thinking always searches for collaborative assemblies of all of the various talents and skills required to mobilize national programs to advance such transformations for common good.  National mobilization of entrepreneurialism expands the commonality and clarity of vision across the nation for a unified goal.  Digitization creates platforms and ease of operations.

 Some 200 nations are struggling for answers to the post pandemic recovery; only miniscule percentages have the critical meritocracies levels fit enough to uplift front line economic development agencies and navigate their midsize economies.  The majority of nations are simply drowning in fermented bureaucracies, outdated-mindsets, fearful of change and deeply silent to face new narratives but still methodically slowing local midsize economies and strangling global growth.

The global economic damage now openly visible primarily caused by lack of digitization, absence of understanding national mobilization of entrepreneurialism on platform economies and lack of global-age skills are all creating economic havoc, therefore, with all solutions, almost free digitization and blueprints available only meritocracy will save face.

Bureaucracies leave no room to fight the climate change issues; national treasuries badly need thriving midsize business economies to fund the climate change fights. Now the growth of small medium businesses, blocked by bureaucracies across the world, with no room to fight climate change urgently needs meritocracy across governments of the world, creating global-age speed of progress to save the future.  Investments on such digitalization, mobilization and transformation gaps are not necessarily impossible amounts of new funding from treasury but rather a call for political leadership with skillful execution and mastery of mobilization. What is stopping and where are the solutions?

The world economies are visibly suffering while political leaderships shy to dig deep on the root cause. The election cycles only repeated. Change postponed. Missing now are the post pandemic bold new narratives not for finger-pointing but collaborative amalgamation of talents and resources to fit the new world. No nation can do it alone.

What takes seconds in digital age processing is taking weeks and months in paper-based, floor-by-floor, rubber-stamping-approval-culture, creating chasms of digital-divides already struggling with mental divides. The magnitudes of losses of opportunity at certain geographical points are 1000 times greater than replacement costs of a brand new economic development agency.

However, de we let the trees fall in the forest, no matter how critical the tactical needs of advancements or how urgently the answers needed, each aspect calling for multilayered global scale virtual events to table solutions, here are three bold suggestions; 

ONE: Forest fires always put out by creating more selected fires; study deeply, government and bureaucracy with visible skill gaps need undisturbed bureaucracy and to remain parked, while creating a far superior brand new meritocracy centric digital firefighting unit to act at the top and bring required results. The motivated and transformational talent will percolate towards the top.

TWO: Fear of exposure of talent is the number one fear of digitization. When procedures linger for decades on paper-based processing the management skills slowly end up only as a single rubber-stamp. Digitization eliminates that instantly, hence the resistance. No redundancy policy will save the day; all departments ensured staying provided upskilling and reskilling meticulously observed to create the digitization transformation.

THREE: Incentivizing all frontline management of all midsize business economic development and foreign investment attraction and export promotion bodies is a requirement of time. The world is spinning too fast and opportunity losses are extremely large, here creative entrepreneurial mindset required. Observe the power of entrepreneurial mindset in the driver seat, deploy national mobilization of midsize economies, accept upskilling as a national mandate, and digitization as national pride.

Conclusion: No need to panic, as the swing of the global pendulum on real value creation productivity, performance and profitability is the true driver of grassroots prosperity, capable enough of solving global climate change challenges and keeping the global economic order. Needed are the new bold and open narratives by the global institutions, like, UN, IFC, WTO, OECD, UNIDO, ICCWBO, Worldbank, chambers and trade groups, and major global Banks and to apply an entrepreneurial mindset criterion in dialogue to figure out applicable options. Economic development leadership across the world also has some new thinkers and visionary rising to claim their roles in this future.  

The challenge is to find the right mindsets, as scratch-n-sniff policies out of old dysfunctional case studies and insecurity based academic feasibilities will only take another decade to the next pandemic.  Time for action is right now, like today.

The rest is easy. 

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Afghan crisis: Changing geo-economics of the neighbourhood

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has caused a rapid reshuffle in the geo-economics of South, Central and West Asia. While the impact on the Afghan economy has been profound, triggering inflation and cash shortage, it’s bearing on Afghanistan’s near neighbourhood has wider far-reaching consequences. The US spent almost $24 billion on the economic development of Afghanistan over the course of 20 years. This together with other international aid has helped the country to more than double its per capita GDP from $900 in 2002 to $2,100 in 2020. As a major regional player, India had invested around $3 billion in numerous developmental projects spanning across all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Indian presence was respected and valued by the ousted Afghan dispensation. With the US, India and many other countries deciding to close their embassies in Afghanistan and the US deciding to freeze Afghanistan’s foreign reserves amounting to $9.5 billion, the economy of the country has hit a grinding halt. IMF too has declared that Kabul won’t be able to access the $370 million funding which was agreed on earlier. The emerging circumstances are ripe for China and Pakistan to cut inroads into the war-torn country as the rest of the world watches mutely.

Beijing’s major gain would be the availability of Afghanistan as a regional connector in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linking the economies of Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan. Afghanistan is already a member of the BRI with the first Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2016. Only limited projects were conducted in Afghanistan under the initiative till now due to security concerns, geographic conditions and the government’s affinity towards India. Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed interest in Afghanistan joining the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), a signature undertaking of the BRI. CPEC is a $62 billion project which would link Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province to China’s western Xinjiang region. The plan includes power plants, an oil pipeline, roads and railways that improves trade and connectivity in the region.

China also eyes at an estimated $1 trillion mineral deposits in Afghanistan, which includes huge reserves of lithium, a key component for electric vehicles. This mineral wealth is largely untapped due lack of proper networks and unstable security conditions long-prevalent in the country. Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted Taliban representatives in late June in Tianjin to discuss reconciliation and reconstruction process in Afghanistan. Taliban reciprocated by inviting China to “play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development” of the country. After the fall of Kabul, China has kept its embassy open and declared it was ready for friendly relations with the Taliban. It had also announced that it would send $31 million worth of food and health supplies to Afghanistan to tide over the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Pakistan, a close ally of China, has on its part has sent supplies such as cooking oil and medicines to the Afghan authorities. Pakistan having strong historical ties with the Taliban will possibly play a crucial role in furthering Chinese ambitions..

The immediate economic fallout of the crisis for Iran is its reduced access to hard currency from Afghanistan. After the imposition of US sanctions, Afghanistan had been an important source of dollars for Iran. Reports suggest that hard currency worth $5million was being transferred to Iran daily before the Taliban takeover. Now the US has put a freeze on nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to Afghan Central Bank and stopped shipment of cash to the country. The shortage of hard currency is likely to affect the exchange rates in Iran subsequently building up inflationary pressure. Over the years, Afghanistan had emerged as a major destination for Iran’s non-oil exports amounting to $2billion a year. A prolonged crisis would curb demand in Afghanistan including that of Iranian goods with a likely reduction in the trade volume between the two countries. In effect, Iran would find itself increasingly isolated from foreign governments and international financial flows.

India had been the wariest regional spectator watching its $3 billion investment in Afghanistan go up in smoke. Long-standing hostility with Pakistan has prevented land-based Indian trade with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republic’s (CAR’s). Push by India and other stakeholders for setting a common agenda for alternate connectivity appears susceptible at the moment. India has been working with Iran to develop Chabahar port in the Arabian sea and transport goods shipped from India to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the proposed Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway line. India is also working with Russia on the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a 7,200 km long multi-mode network of ship, rail and road routes for freight movement, whereby Indian goods are received at Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, moves northward via rail and road through Iran and Azerbaijan and meets the Trans-Siberian rail network that will allow access to the European markets. According to the latest reports, the Taliban declined to join talks with India, Iran and Uzbekistan on Chabahar port and North-South Transport Corridor, which has cast shadow on the Indian interests in the region. India’s trade with Afghanistan had steadily increased to reach the US $1.5 billion in 2019–2020. An unfriendly administration and demand constraints may slow down the trade between the two countries.

With the US withdrawal, the CARs would find their strategic and economic autonomy curtailed and more drawn into the regional power struggle between China and Russia. While China has many infrastructure projects in Central Asia to its credit, Russia is trying to woo Central Asian countries into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), though so far it was able to rope in only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. CARs would need better connectivity through Afghanistan and Iran to diversify their trade relations with Indo-Pacific nations and to have better leverage to bargain with Russia and China. Uzbekistan, the most fervent of the CARs to demand increased connectivity with South Asia, expressed its interest in joining the Chabahar project in 2020, which was duly welcomed by India. The new developments in Afghanistan would force these countries to remodel their strategies to suit the changed geopolitical realities.

The fact that Iran is getting closer to China by signing a 25-Year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership cooperation agreement in 2020 adds yet another dimension to the whole picture. India’s hesitancy to recognize or engage with the Taliban makes it unpredictable what the future holds for India-Afghan relations.

The hasty US exit has caused rapid reorientation in the geopolitical and geo-economic status-quo of the region. Most countries were unprepared to handle the swiftness of the Taliban takeover and were scrambling for options to deal with the chaos. The lone exception was China which held talks with the Taliban as early as July, 28 weeks before the fall of Kabul, to discuss the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also took a high-profile tour to Central Asia in mid-July which extensively discussed the emerging situation in Afghanistan with Central Asian leaders. Since the West has passed the buck, it’s up to the regional players to restore the economic stability in Afghanistan and ensure safe transit routes through the country. Any instability in Afghanistan is likely to have harrowing repercussions in the neighbourhood, as well.

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Turkish Economy as the Reset Button of Turkish Politics

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Democracy has a robust relationship with economic growth.  Barrington Moore can be seen as one of the leading scholars focusing on the relationship between political development and economic structure with his book titled “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” first published in 1966. According to Moore, there are three routes from agrarianism to the modern industrial world. In the capitalist democratic route, exemplified by England, France, and the United States, the peasantry was politically impotent or had been eradicated all together, and a strong bourgeoisie was present, and the aristocracy allied itself with the bourgeoisie or failed to oppose democratizing steps. In Moore’s book, you can find out why some countries have developed as democracies and others as dictatorships.

It can be argued that economic development facilitates democratization. Following this argument, this article is an attempt to address the Turkish case with the most recent discussions going on in the country. One of the most powerful instruments used by the political opposition today is the rhetoric of “economic crisis” that has also been supported by public opinion polls and data. For instance, the leader of İYİ Party Meral Akşener has organized lots of visits to different regions of Turkey and has been posting videos on her social media account showing the complaints mostly centering around unemployment and high inflation. According to Akşener, “Turkey’s economic woes – with inflation above 15%, high unemployment and a gaping current account deficit – left no alternative to high rates.”

Another political opposition leader, Ahmet Davutoğlu raised voice of criticism via his social media account, saying “As if monthly prices hikes on natural gas were not enough, they have introduced 15% increase on electricity costs. It is as if the government vowed to do what it can to take whatever the citizens have.”

A recent poll reveals that about 65 percent think the economic crisis and unemployment problem are Turkey’s most urgent problems. Literature on the relationship between democracy and economic well-being shows that a democratic regime becomes more fragile in countries where per capita income stagnates or declines. It is known that democracies are more powerful among the economically developed countries.

The International Center for Peace and Development summarizes the social origins of democracy in global scale as the following:

“Over the past two centuries, the rise of constitutional forms of government has been closely associated with peace, social stability and rapid socio-economic development. Democratic countries have been more successful in living peacefully with their neighbors, educating their citizens, liberating human energy and initiative for constructive purposes in society, economic growth and wealth generation.”

Turkey’s economic problems have been on the agenda for a long time. Unlike what has been claimed by the Minister of Interior Affairs Süleyman Soylu a few months ago, Turkish economy has not reached to the level which would make United States and Germany to become jealous of Turkey. Soylu had said, “You will see, as of July, our economy will take such a leap and growth in July that Germany, France, England, Italy and especially the USA, which meddles in everything, will crack and explode.”

To make a long story short, it can be said that the coronavirus pandemic has exerted a major pressure on the already fragile economy of Turkey and this leads to further frustration among the Turkish electorate. The next elections will not only determine who will shape the economic structure but will also show to what level Turkish citizens have become unhappy about the ongoing “democratic politics.” In other words, it can be said that, Turkish economy can be seen as the reset button of Turkish politics for the upcoming elections.

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