The right recipe for democracy

“There’s more to democracy than free and fair elections”.

This is a refrain we’ve heard more than once since the anti-government protests broke out in major Turkish cities two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, a Turkish lawyer and university lecturer, Zaynep Ayeata, made this point again on The World Tonight. Former Foreign Minister, and one of the founding fathers of the governing Justice and Development (or AK) Party, Yasar Yakis, responded by telling us Turkey is still developing its democracy and it is not perfect. Remember that until the past decade, the Turkish military played a dominant role in the country’s politics.

Then, look at today’s presidential poll in Iran – does the fact the Islamic Republic hold elections make it democratic? Many would say no, not really. They could point to the fact that the candidates are vetted ahead of the elections, and that this year the two considered to be reformists were barred from standing at all, limiting the choice voters have.  There are also the limited powers of the President in Iran. He – and it has always been a he – does not hold the most important political office in a complex system which is truly presided over by the Supreme- in both a political and religious sense-  leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But even in the “mature democracies”, we’ve had reminders in the past week that there is more to democracy than voting. An ex CIA whistle-blower,  Edward Snowden, has revealed through the press that the United States Government has been carrying out widespread secret surveillance both of American citizens’ telephone communications, and of internet communications of people all around the world, probably including British citizens.

The US authorities insist this surveillance is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and few Americans are disputing this kind of activity may be necessary, but there is concern in Congress and civil society about the secrecy and what they see as lack of democratic oversight of government security agencies.

Do these three stories really have much in common?

It seems to me they do and that all of them illustrate there are two other fundamentals needed for effective democratic governance: the separation of powers and accountability.

In Turkey, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won three elections in a row and his AK Party got half of all votes cast in the last one two years ago. He promised then to be a Prime Minister for all Turkish citizens, not just those who voted for him. But, the protesters who’ve been defying the tear gas and water cannon of the police for two weeks think he’s broken his promise and is not listening to them.

Turkish lawyers, who have joined the protests, argue there is still not a clear separation of powers in the country and the judiciary is not sufficiently independent from the government, so it can run roughshod over opposition to its policies.

There has also been criticism of the media in Turkey – much of it controlled by big businesses which benefit from government contracts – for being reluctant to cover the protests when they first started. The government has also fined two smaller TV stations for carrying live coverage of clashes between police and protesters.

There’s another weakness to Turkish democracy and that is the lack of a strong opposition party in parliament to hold the AK government to account, which is another reason opponents of Mr Erdogan may have felt the need to take to the streets to voice their unhappiness at his policies – be it the redevelopment of one of the last remaining parks in Istanbul or restrictions on the sale of alcohol after 10pm, or one of the other grievances raised by protesters.

Neighbouring Iran’s political system – at least on paper – appears to have checks and balances built into it. But, in practice, the political and religious authority of the Supreme Leader means Ayatollah Khamenei, who cannot be removed by the voters, wields huge and largely unaccountable political power.

In the US, the issue thrown up by Mr Snowden’s revelations also revolves around accountability. In Hong Kong, where he’s taken refuge, the former CIA operative told interviewers he took action to defend the basic liberties of people all around the world. But, back in Washington, the debate has been less about the rights and wrongs of such surveillance, and more about the ability of Congress – the people’s elected representatives – to hold the government to account for what it is doing. If the surveillance is taking place in secret, the argument goes, how can legislators do their jobs properly?

Winston Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  So has the past week once again shown that Churchill had a point?

Democracy is far from straightforward and requires much more than elections to deliver legitimate government. Other essential ingredients seem to be a separation of powers between different branches of government, including an independent judiciary that enables the rule of law; and an independent media, an effective elected opposition, and open government to ensure accountability.

The former Turkish Foreign Minister, Yasar Yakis, suggests Turkish democracy is a work in progress, but perhaps that’s the case everywhere – even in countries where it has been established for much longer.


Armenians in Turkey: an unextinguished light

To find out how world peace was coming along I rose early this morning (not easy after a New Year’s Eve engaged in one of the marathon rakı and cards sessions of which middle-aged Turks are so fond) to attend mass at the local Armenian church.

That it is possible to write such a sentence is a small miracle. A century ago, the port town of Iskenderun in southern Turkey had a thriving population of Armenians. Today there are just one hundred left – ten of them joined me, bleary-eyed, at mass. Their church, founded in the late nineteenth century, reopened in 2011 having been closed for decades due to the absence of a priest. It owes its resurrection to an earnest young member of the community who, fearful that without a focal point the old traditions would die out, decided to fill the gap, and went to Lebanon and Jerusalem to be trained as a priest. He now ministers to the small church of Iskenderun and the even smaller chapel of a nearby village, the last Armenian settlement in Turkey.

During a break in the three hour-long service, the elderly man sitting next to me introduces himself and asks my business. Within a minute or two, unprompted, he remarks that ‘this country has done terrible things to Christians.’ In 1916, he tells me, his parents had been forced to flee to Iskenderun from the interior. Turkish soldiers were killing Armenians in the surrounding region, and in anticipation of the troops’ arrival the people of his village had begun to join in. This was the beginning of a series of events described by Armenians and most of the world as genocide and by Turks, unconvincingly, as war. At least a million people are thought to have died in the ensuing months. Iskenderun itself was not immune to the killings, the old man says, but because it was a French protectorate at the time it provided a safer haven than much of the rest of the country.

Today the town continues to be a welcoming home to its small Armenian population. The priest tells me that he and his congregants have no problems with their fellow townspeople, nearly all of whom are Turks, and that Iskenderun is a fine place for Armenians to live. In recent months the oafish political posturing of Sarkozy has dominated the Armenia-Turkey debate, but as we enter what is likely to be a turbulent new year the resilience and endurance of Iskenderun’s Armenian community tells a more positive, constructive story. A Happy New Year to all.


Turkey – turning away from the West or rebalancing its priorities?

Turkish voters approved a new constitution this weekend, greeted in Brussels – if not Paris and Berlin – as a key step on the road to EU membership.

But recent commentary and headlines – particularly in the US – have claimed Turkey is turning its back on the West as the rift between Turkey and Israel deepened following the killing of 9 Turkish citizens by Israeli forces when they raided a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza in May.

Turkey is an ally of the US and a staunch member of NATO, it has also been trying to get into the EU for more than twenty years, so why are some commentators saying Ankara is turning away from the West? (more…)

Getting your priorities right

Eastern Turkey is currently plagued by a simmering war between the Kurdish separatist PKK and the Turkish army. Hardly a day passes without some battle or other resulting in two or three, or sometimes ten or twelve deaths.

But villagers in the eastern village of Habsunnes have more important things to worry about. This weekend they have marked the anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death by sacrificing three sheep and two goats and holding a mass prayer session to ask that the King of Pop’s soul may rest in peace. The thousand or so congregants wore T-shirts emblazoned with his image and then watched a film celebrating his life.

This year’s crop of sheep have got off lightly. When Barack Obama became US president, forty of their brethren were sacrificed. Posters of the great man were plastered around the village. ‘We are doing this to maintain the dialogue between nations,’ said one idealistic villager. Ataturk, used to having his own image displayed in every living room and on every street corner, must be spinning in his grave.

Israel and Turkey – time for cool heads

Waking up to the catastrophic news of Israel’s attack on the flotilla that was trying to break the blockade of Gaza, my snap reaction was that this event had the potential to trigger a chain of uncontrollable consequences. Nothing has since happened to reassure me that this was an early-morning overreaction.

Perhaps most worrying is the potential for friction between Israel and Turkey, countries that once enjoyed an unexpectedly good relationship (£2.5bn in bilateral trade in 2009). Turkey was the aid convoy’s main national sponsor, leading Israel’s unions to retaliate with a boycott of the country.

According to one Israeli union leader:

Turkey had been wiped off the workers unions’ travel maps. In a survey we conducted among the participants in the semi-annual union heads forum, we found that Israel’s workers’ unions have had enough of Turkey’s hostility toward Israel, which in the past had been characterized by verbal attacks by the country’s prime minister, but had now shifted to active attempts to harm Israel’s sovereignty. The tourism boycott is a weapon that will send a message to Ankara that words and deeds have consequences.

But Tel Aviv may now be the capital to discover that deeds have consequences that can go well beyond a boycott. The Turkish government is reported to be threatening to send more boats sailing towards Israel’s coast, but this time to give them a naval escort. That would put the two countries on track towards a very dangerous confrontation.

Bradley Burston, writing in Haaretz, is also worried:

Perhaps most ominously, in a stepwise, lemming-like march of folly in our relations with Ankara, a regional power of crucial importance and one which, if heeded, could have helped head off the First Gaza War, we have come dangerously close to effectively declaring a state of war with Turkey.

“This is going to be a very large incident, certainly with the Turks,” said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the cabinet minister with the most sensitive sense of Israel’s ties with the Muslim world.

Let’s hope the Turkish government continues to pursue its grievances with Israel through the international system, rather than putting the two countries’ navies on a collision course. Otherwise this grim year could get soon get much worse – yet again.

Update: Channel 4’s Faisal Islam points to NATO’s charter, presumably with Turkey in mind.

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence…

An armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack… on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

Update II: NATO will meet on Tuesday at Turkey’s request. According to an unnamed diplomat:

NATO does not really have instruments with which to deal with the follow-up from this type of affair. Turkey has not invoked article five which envisages all allies coming to the aid of a member country that is the victim of an attack.

But, given that numerous Turkish citizens appear to figure among the casualties, it is understandable that (Ankara) triggers political dialogue with its partners.

Update III: One to watch is the Irish boat – MV Rachel Corrie (yes, that Rachel Corrie) which is yet to reach Israel:

Five are onboard the Irish-owned vessel, MV Rachel Corrie, and all are safe. The ship was one day behind the main flotilla and is still on its way to Gaza.

Among the passengers on the Rachel Corrie are Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire and former UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday.

Does it sail on towards a second confrontation? And if so, how will the Israelis react?