New Age Islam Edit Bureau
30 October 2015
Israel’s defensive democracy is no democracy
By Yossi Mekelberg
Debating the Middle East beyond Iran and ISIS
By Joyce Karam
Reclaiming Nigeria: After Boko Haram
By The Economist
Middle East Counter-Revolution
By Serge Jordan
Turkey’s Election: Voting To the Sound Of Explosions
By The Economist
Israel’s defensive democracy is no democracy
29 October 2015
When I was a political science major, back in the 1980s, together with many of my peers we complained about the constant erosion of democratic values in Israeli society. These were the days of deep political divisions in Israel, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. We resented the attempts to silence those, who objected to the unnecessary and disastrous war north of the border and the occupation that violated Palestinians’ human rights and obstructed their right for self-determination. One of our most admired professors had much sympathy for our political stand. Nonetheless, he made a habit of reminding us, that considering the lack of democratic traditions of most of the countries that our parents emigrated from, Israeli democracy, despite its faults, must be regarded as a small miracle. Intellectually I understood it; however, I refused to accept it. Internalising this argument would have been the same as accepting that the country was allowed to be some sort of a second tier democracy, permitted special allowances due to the origins of its citizens.
In the three decades that have elapsed since I have revisited the notion of Israeli democracy many times, sometimes even with my own students. I have observed with great concern, the gradual deterioration of the democratic values of the Israeli society. This continuous corrosion, including muzzling freedom of speech, is closely correlated with internal social trends within the Israeli society, and to a large extent keeping millions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation or blockade. One manifestation of this erosion in recent years is the Israeli government’s attempts to advance legislation, which would anchor restrictions on freedom of speech in law and curb political activity deemed harmful to Israel’s security or character.
Only last week the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would bar entry to Israel to anyone who supports boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state. Though the bill was initiated by MK Yinon Magal of the extreme right party in the coalition Bayit Yehudi (the Jewish Home), it was supported by the more ‘moderate’ elements in the government. This bill, which needs the approval of the Israeli parliament the Knesset, adds to other anti-democratic legislative initiatives such as the nation-state law and another bill seeking to tax or eliminate foreign funds to NGOs focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many cases these bills never become a law, but this reflects a dangerous discourse that attempts to undermine pluralism and questions the equality of the rights of minorities in Israel.
There is no escape from the fact that the nation-state law was aimed at marginalizing everything that is not Jewish, leaving the Arab population that comprises one fifth of the entire Israeli population wondering what the future holds for them. If this proposed legislation ever becomes a bill, Israel may end as a mishmash of Zionist nationalist chauvinism with Jewish theocratic underpinnings. Scholars, as much as jurists who observe Israeli polity, have defined the country’s democracy as a Defensive Democracy. Commonly this term denotes a democracy which defends itself against its potential wreckers, mainly those who use the democratic system to gain power only to destroy it. In Israel, defending democracy entails much broader and more troublesome aspects. It for instance provides a license to violate human rights in the name of combating terrorism, or prevents anyone that questions the Jewishness of the country from being elected to the Knesset.
This is where the danger lies for Israeli democracy. In the absence of a firm constitution, the standards of behaviour, which one expects of a democracy, fall victim to politicians’ whims and opportunism. The debate about the pros and cons of imposing BDS on Israel is legitimate. Nevertheless, preventing those, who support these ideas from entering the country, is a crude infringement on freedom of expression. Moreover, it prevents a vibrant and intelligent debate on the issue between those who support it and those who oppose it. Ironically, though not surprisingly, a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute demonstrates that the majority of “… Jewish Israelis are familiar with basic human rights and civil rights, and also rather supportive of them.” Sixty-three percent of the Israeli Jewish population thinks that Jews should not have greater rights than Arabs. Nevertheless, nearly half of them do not want to live next to an Arab, and seventy-four percent assert that the decision about peace and security should be determined by a Jewish majority. These figures reflect an enduring and perturbing discrepancy in the Jewish Israeli society between supporting democratic values in the abstract, while rejecting the translation of them into a daily reality.
This gap is evidently fuelled by political leadership, mainly from the right, but not exclusively so, which thrives on encouraging fear of the other. Debate is replaced with incitement and long term policies with knee-jerk reaction. Legislation, which endeavours to silence the more liberal minded, peace advocates or even those from abroad who criticise Israel, ends in severely harming the future of the country and its reputation around the world. Israel’s success and prosperity has been largely achieved due to it being a relatively open and democratic state and despite the sin of the occupation and other lapses. Allowing creeping discriminatory and anti-democratic legislation and discourse to thrive, is a slippery slope towards ending the dream of Israel as Jewish and democratic.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
Debating the Middle East beyond Iran and ISIS
29 October 2015
In the last four years, and as unprecedented tectonic changes swept over the Middle East and North Africa, regional policymakers looked towards Western analysts and think tanks in attempting to understand the new reality. This approach might be finally changing, as new regional think tanks among them is Beirut Institute are gaining foothold, by introducing a more pro-active indigenous strategy in addressing the region’s future.
As its name would suggest, Beirut Institute is based in the Lebanese capital but has managed through its first annual summit earlier this month in Abu Dhabi to bring forth a global network of policymakers, youth activists, from as far as Australia and as close as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The idea was to “brainstorm ideas in light of events and changes in the Middle East, post-Iran deal and Russian repositioning, and to go beyond the security prism”, the institute’s founder Raghida Dergham and my colleague at Al-Hayat told me this week.
Unlike many conferences on the Middle East, Beirut Institute Summit (#BIS2015) was not monolithic in its agenda or participants. It is indigenous in its structure and the voices it brings to the forefront. Key names in the Arab art scene, such as directors Nadine Labaki and Jihane Nojeim, shared the stage with former US military General David Petraeus and technology guru Ken Lee. There were also Saudi, Emirate and Libyan women who defied in their statements for liberalism, every stereotype about their lives and vision.
Politically, the debate at Beirut Institute Summit was blunt and far reaching. At the four closed policy circles for the 120 participants, there was no time wasted on assigning blame or looking backwards. A frank regional and U.S. self assessment was put forward to “find solutions, and preempt crisis rather than wait for the next Marshall plan” says Dergham. Iranian, Egyptian, Russian, and Saudi experts exchanged views with those on the “other side” such as ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda or former President of Slovenia Danilo Türk.
In the open sessions, the diversity and spontaneity of the crowd stood out on stage. There was retired U.S. diplomat Robert Blackwill lamenting the Arab Spring as “profoundly damaging to the Arab world, it undermined the regimes which helped create stability", and later two opposite sides of the Washington political spectrum analyzing the Barack Obama policy on Syria. Petraeus criticized the decline of U.S. role and called for safe zones in Syria, while former White House coordinator Phil Gordon acknowledged its failure but called for a new approach.
Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih advocated a new “regional paradigm”, while Bahraini business leader Khalid Janahi called for direct dialogue between Iran and the GCC countries. Former Saudi head of Intelligence Turki Al-Faisal proposed a comprehensive ceasefire in Syria and “going to the Syrians to decide their future.”
“We wanted to provoke new thinking, to push the envelope” says Dergham. This new approach was also vivid in the youth and art panels. Labaki decried self censorship in the region, while Nojeim voiced hope in the transformation of the region through its youth and activists. Dergham explains the emphasis on youth and women for being “natural agents in confronting extremism, and as evidence that regional challenges are not just about assigning women a quota or laying out geopolitics.” Dergham’s journey in journalism is seen by many as a testimony to Arab women success and latitude.
The two-day-summit in Abu Dhabi concluded in a declaration and will be followed up by key recommendations handed to policymakers worldwide.
Some of these recommendations will possibly incorporate ideas from the final declaration including the call “decisive multi-lateral action to bring end to the current conflict in Syria” by undertaking “immediate action to address the humanitarian crisis, including specific and increased assistance to the refugees and the establishment of humanitarian safe-zones.” It also calls for “creation of a legitimate vision for post-conflict Syria, underwritten by a GCC fund to support the critical need to rebuild infrastructure, social services, and the critical elements of the state that have been destroyed by the years of conflict.”
It brought new focus to intra-Arab structures and disagreements, urging “efforts to strengthen intra-Arab relations, moving beyond the traditional impediments to our collaboration to deepen our economic, social and cultural relationships, including through necessary reforms.” It also reiterated the call for a two state solution and went a step further in working towards “joint peace treaty between Israel on the one hand and Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.” Other individual ideas such as reestablishing the U.S.-Egyptian alliance, setting out a clear plan for Libya could make their way to the recommendations list.
Beirut Institute’s first summit has already left its mark on the regional policy debate by blending in grassroots voices with renown global analysts and policymakers. Rethinking regional politics cannot happen absent of its youth and women, and that’s the message that resonated loud and clear in Abu Dhabi.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
Reclaiming Nigeria: After Boko Haram
By The Economist
Oct 31st 2015
THE marks of terrorist rule start to appear a couple of hundred kilometres north of Yola, capital of Nigeria’s Adamawa state. Bombed churches and burnt-out political offices sit decaying in Hong, one of the southernmost towns taken by Boko Haram. Broken-down tanks adorned with the jihadists’ emblem litter the road. Deep in the self-proclaimed caliphate, signs advertising un-Islamic goods and services have been blotted out in black. In shaky Arabic, the words “There is no god but Allah” are tattooed on walls.
Nigeria has made gains against the Islamic State-affiliated insurgency, which at the height of its power occupied an area of the north-east roughly the size of Belgium. Pushed out of most major settlements now, its fighters are hiding in the scrublands of the Sambisa forest and across the border in Cameroon. Morale among Nigeria’s soldiers has soared. They are better equipped, and better liked, than in years. Children smile and salute them in the streets. “They brought this land back to us,” said one woman farmer, who lost two children when the insurgents took Michika, a town in Adamawa, in 2014.
In the safer reclaimed spots in this state, life is improving. Torched farms are being replanted, markets have reopened and cars have returned to the roads. Citizens are rebuilding bridges bombed by Boko Haram. Shattered banks are opening new branches in bigger settlements like Mubi, re-establishing exactly the kind of “Western” economy that the insurgents revile (the name Boko Haram means roughly “Western influence is forbidden”).
Flyers distributed in Adamawa by Nigeria’s armed forces tell locals to take heart. “Your villages are safe now,” read the pamphlets, which were dropped (with no hint of irony) from helicopters. Authorities across the region promise to close refugee camps in the coming months. In Borno, the worst-affected state, the governor says he has begun rebuilding properties in “accessible” towns such as Bama.
Non-profit organisations are worried, though. They complain that leaders have downplayed the scale of the humanitarian crisis. They also worry about sending displaced people back to unsecured towns. Militants still stage murderous raids on villages where vigilantes are more visible than the military, and suicide bombers attack markets or non-extremist mosques with terrifying regularity. Almost 50 people died in twin attacks on the capitals of Adamawa and Borno states last weekend alone. “Most locations are not ‘safe’ from Boko Haram,” one Abuja-based diplomat says. “The Nigerian army has not finished operations, and is far from doing so.”
The north-east is among Nigeria’s poorest regions, and many returnees are afraid to go back to farming, which is the only work many can find. Instead, they rely on overburdened relief agencies for food. The most recent counts from the International Organisation for Migration suggest that people are still fleeing their homes in Nigeria’s north-east. A “conservative” tally put the number of displaced at 2.15m in August, and rising. Now is not the time to force them back into villages beleaguered by Boko Haram.
Middle East Counter-Revolution
By Serge Jordan
October 30, 2015
Jean-Pierre Filiu’s book comes in handy for all those who want to learn more about the background to the earth-shattering transformations and turmoil that the Middle East has been going through recently. It is rich in facts, details and anecdotes, erecting a dark but realistic picture of the machinations of the region’s ruling elites, their military intelligence systems, and their entrenched patronage networks which have worked to sideline and crush all forces that stand in their way. This book provides a good historical appraisal of the counter-revolutionary machines that have been running at full capacity in the last five years, following the first spark of the so-called Arab Spring, set off by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, in December 2010.
Filiu starts by going back to the Turkish roots of the expression ‘deep state’. The Susurluk scandal in 1996, which exposed the underground connections between the Turkish far-right, criminal gangs and security forces, and their tight collaboration in the struggle against the pro-Kurdish PKK guerrillas, came as an electroshock to ordinary people. It represented a watershed in Turkey’s politics, in effect clearing the way for the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which portrayed itself as a clean political entity ready to have a showdown with this much feared deep state. This had some similarities with the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) scandal in early 1990s Italy, which paved the road towards the ascension of Silvio Berlusconi. As Filiu puts it, however, the AKP’s upswing from 2001 onwards became only a “petty manoeuvre to replace one unruly repressive machine with a docile one more to his [Erdoğan’s] own liking”. Unruly, repressive, and utterly corrupt too, as indicated by the series of scandals which have marked the AKP’s rule in the last few years.
As his book was released before the summer, Filiu could not have known about Erdoğan’s military assault against the PKK and the Kurdish people in the south east of Turkey. Nor could he know about the savage bombing attack that killed over 100 workers, left and pro-Kurdish activists in Ankara on October 10. But if anything, it shows that the ‘peace process’, which Filiu describes as the only “formidable achievement” of Erdoğan’s rein, is in tatters, like the rest of the AKP policies.
The CWI, however, long ago warned of the possibility of a return to a situation of open armed conflict, as none of the fundamental problems underlying the national question in Turkey and in the region have been addressed. But Filiu proceeds with what comes out as an essentially empirical approach. In the foreword he admits: “My focus on the Arab revolution prevented me from assessing the full potential of the Arab counter-revolution”. Unfortunately, empiricism stays with him when he goes on to focus his newly acquired attention on the current Arab counter-revolution and its intrinsic sources, this time by forsaking the role played by the masses in shaping the political developments in the region.
Indeed, embroiled in the intrigues, plots and dirty games of the ‘deep states’, he sometimes gives the impression of being unwilling to get out of them. Filiu graphically illustrates the hijacking, in the post-second world war context, of the anti-colonial revolts and pro-independence struggles by the ‘modern Mamluks’, as he calls them. (Mamluks refer to a military caste, in contemporary terms repressive regimes based on large military apparatuses, systematic plundering of national resources, and regularly staged electoral plebiscites to legitimise their rule – as in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Yemen.) But he pays hardly any attention to the struggles themselves, their strength and weaknesses, their political programmes, strategies and leaderships.
Hence Filiu fails to explain how these hijackings could have been avoided. He does not explain how the region’s once-powerful Communist parties, responding to the dictates of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, helped to hold back the growth of the labour movement across the region, by subordinating its struggle to power-hungry military leaders and pro-capitalist nationalist forces, rather than guiding the millions of workers and peasants striving for change down the road of a genuine socialist transformation of society. The cold war period and the existence of the Soviet Union allowed some margin of manoeuvre to the regimes in the region, and led some of them towards confrontation with western imperialism and deep incursions into the prerogatives of the traditional landlords and capitalists. But the collapse of the USSR saw the process go into reverse, with the unleashing of mass privatisations and the warming of relations with the west.
On the ashes of a largely defeated left, and of the despair and disillusionment of some of the poorest sections of the Arab masses, the forces of right-wing political Islam grew. Indeed, they were often cultivated within the wombs of the Arab dictatorships as a counterweight against the left. Osama Bin Laden’s first attack, for example, was conducted as a covert anti-communist operation in Southern Yemen, with the full knowledge of the Saudi and North Yemeni intelligence. In its turn, the jihadi factor, as explored by Filiu in the chapter, ‘The “Global Terror” Next Door’, from the 1990s and especially after 9/11, became the new pretext for the Mamluks to boost their security apparatuses and tighten their relations with US imperialism. This was exemplified by ex-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh: “Less than a year into office, the Obama administration decided to dramatically increase US support for Yemeni security: military aid boomed from $67 million in 2009 to $155 million in 2010”.
The success of curbing the terrorist threat through such all-out repressive methods can be measured by the devastated state of Yemeni society today. Al Qaeda flourishes as never before in the southern provinces, boosted further by the chaos and destruction provoked by the Saudi-led bombardment of the country over the last few months. Similarly in Egypt, as Filiu argues, “when it came to jihadi terrorism, [current president] Sisi’s record was already ten times worse than [deposed president] Morsi’s (28 deaths, mostly in Sinai, from July 2012 to June 2013; against 281 victims, 40% of them on the Egyptian mainland, in the following eight months)”.
Cynical, hypocritical elites
Filiu’s book has its merits. He thoroughly exposes the narrative of Arab elites who regularly use ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-Zionist’ rhetoric while having, in the last analysis, “established their ruthless regimes on the ruins of the anti-Israeli resistance”. For instance, the Black September massacre in Jordan in 1970 was a defining moment in consolidating Hafez al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria. Large numbers of Palestinians and Jordanians who had risen in a mass revolutionary uprising against the corrupt regime of King Hussein were defeated in a bloodbath – as a result of the betrayal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leadership. Having no wish to see Hussein overthrown, because he feared revolutionary repercussions at home, Assad allowed the Syrian tank forces under the control of his rival, Salah Jadid, to be mauled in Jordan, thus paving the way for the discrediting of Jadid and his eventual demise.
Nine years later, Egypt under president Anwar Sadat, in a context of growing economic liberalisation by the regime, signed a US-sponsored peace deal with the Israeli ruling class, its armed forces being rewarded for their loyalty with an annual transfer of $1.3 billion in American military aid, which has continued up to this day. Sisi’s support for the Israeli army’s ‘Protective Edge’ offensive on the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, and the Assad-orchestrated blockade and killing of Palestinian refugees in the open-air prison camp of Yarmouk in Damascus in recent years, are in line with Filiu’s observation: “No counter-revolution should be complete without the liquidation of the Palestinian cause”.
Filiu also refuses to fall into the trap, dear to most liberal commentators (and to some on the left), of attributing secular credentials to regimes and rulers who crack down on anything they decide to label ‘terrorists’. The dichotomy ‘secularism vs Islamism’, presented by some as the cultural combat of our times, is swept away by clear examples. Talking about 2011, Filiu recalls that “paradoxically, the Muslim Brotherhood became the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ closest ally during this volatile period. The Islamist organisation had proved ready to strike a deal with Suleiman, to the dismay of the Tahrir activists, days before Mubarak’s fall. They were now open to a tacit agreement with the top brass in order to hold general elections that they were confident of winning”.
Similarly, Filiu recalls that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the son of Hafez – still presented by some on the left as ‘secular’ – had played with the jihadi fire long before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Assad gave backdoor support to Sunni insurgents after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, just as he let numerous jihadists sneak into northern Lebanon after his occupying troops were forced out of that country by a mass movement in 2005. Again in 2011, to sustain his own propaganda of a rebellion stirred up by ‘terrorists’, Assad organised the release and amnesty of notorious jihadi leaders.
The chapter, ‘The Algerian Matrix’, dealing with the ‘dirty war’ of the 1990s, reminds the reader that between the extreme brutality of the state repression and the maddening violence of jihadist groups, it is, as in Egypt today, a choice between plague and cholera. Filiu implicitly points at the price to pay if an independent alternative to both is not built. The failure of achieving this during the ‘Algerian Spring’ of 1988 left the road wide open for a major show of force between two crews of ferocious reactionaries. In passing, Filiu provides an interesting figure which tends to cut across the simplistic and ideological contrast made by many mainstream commentators between ‘legitimate refugees’ and ‘illegitimate migrants’: “110,000 Algerians left their country during the ‘black decade’ of the 1990s, compared to 840,000 during the 15 years following Bouteflika’s election in 1999. So the ongoing stagnation has proved more devastating for the long-term hopes of the Algerian youth than the horrors of the civil war”.
The very broad portrait the author wishes to paint by giving insights into a vast number of regimes of the Middle East, the Gulf and North Africa, can come across as overly ambitious. The sum of information is quite exhaustive and sometimes even overwhelming. On the other hand, the book falls short of dealing with all the factors behind the deep states’ resilience in the face of the powerful mass revolutionary movements that have shaken their rule since 2011 – among which these regimes’ own might is only one aspect.
Another critical aspect should involve a serious analysis of the revolutionary and protest movements’ own political and organisational characteristics. While sometimes hinting at the vital part played by the working class as a driving engine for revolutionary change – “Apart from the fundamental Mamluk characterisation of Egypt against Tunisia, the main difference between the two countries is the vitality of the labour movement in Tunisia” – Filiu never draws any conclusions from these episodic remarks.
On the contrary, he embellishes the Tunisian experience to the point of falling back into the commonplace ‘success story’ narrative, the one in which the class character of the revolution is swept under the carpet and in which politicians from the old regime are crowned as would-be democrats. “Tunisia proved that there was an alternative”, writes Filiu, “but the Deep State had to be neutralised and the Mamluks were bound to lose some of their dearest privileges”. The author here falls back into his original sin of disregarding the threat of the counter-revolution: by neglecting, for instance, issues such as the new ‘economic reconciliation law’ that the Tunisian government is presently pushing through. This is the source of important street protests as it is aimed at whitewashing the crimes of corrupt businessmen linked to the old regime and restoring precisely their ‘dearest privileges’.
Filiu does not seem to grasp fully how capitalist economics work. The last notes of his book, referring to the fall of oil prices by 40% in 2014 as “just one ray of hope in this bleak landscape”, sound almost childish after the lengthy descriptions given in the 252 previous pages. He writes: “Cheaper oil could alleviate the devastating pressure on Arab society and polities, in the same way that absence of oil was crucial to the success of the Tunisian revolution”.
This is not a very sound argument. In some cases, the fall of oil prices has actually been used by the ruling classes to justify attacks on the working class. The Moroccan government, for example, has exploited lower oil prices in order to implement structural cuts in state subsidies on energy. The full effects of these cuts and the popular resistance to them have been limited for now by the conjuncture, but will eventually hit the poorest hard once oil prices go up again. For the elites of those regimes heavily dependent on oil revenues, the fall of this financial valve means they will intensify their offensive against workers and poor to make up for the difference and keep their pockets full.
The shale gas prospecting in the south of Algeria, in total disregard for the environment and for the health and safety of the local populations, provoked a mass wave of protests at the beginning of this year. It is yet another example of how the fall of oil prices is not automatically alleviating pressure on society. That can only happen if the masses are capable, through their struggles and their political organisation, of building an entirely new society, based not on the greed of a ruling few, but on the public ownership and democratic planning of resources according to the needs of all: a socialist society.
Overall, despite its flaws, this book remains a fascinating comparative study, carrying us through the intricate and fast-moving corridors of the Middle East’s state structures – even at the risk of losing some readers along the road.
Turkey’s Election: Voting To the Sound Of Explosions
By The Economist
Oct 31st 2015
ELECTION campaigns in Turkey are sometimes exuberant affairs, with the streets decked out with bunting and resounding with jingles. But the mood was mostly subdued as voters prepared to cast their ballots on November 1st.
With every passing day since the previous poll in June, a country long seen as a model of Muslim democracy has grown more polarised. Political feuds and real bloodshed have become horribly intermingled, especially since the reopening in July of conflict between the state and the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). During the current electoral contest, a pro-Kurdish movement, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has denounced its terrible treatment by the ruling Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party. AK is in turn determined to recoup lost ground after losing its parliamentary majority because of the HDP’s unexpectedly high score of 13% in June.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ceremonial position is supposed to put him above politics, accuses the HDP of being a proxy for the PKK, which the HDP strongly denies. He has urged citizens to “teach the people who get backing from this terrorist organisation the lesson they need”: an implied call to vote for AK, which has dominated Turkey since 2002.
It was Mr Erdogan who rolled the electoral dice a second time after the failure of coalition talks involving the four parties in parliament: AK, the HDP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which speaks for Turkey’s once dominant secular tradition and the right-wing jingoists of the National Action Party (MHP). But the HDP says the tables are tilted. They have reported 200 attacks on their offices. Since violence resumed, 22 mayors elected on an HDP ticket have been removed, and another 20 arrested. The authorities have been “creating psychological pressure and making people feel as if they are doing something illegal by attending our gatherings”,
Media access has certainly been skewed. In the first 25 days of October, Mr Erdogan appeared on the state-run TV channel for 29 hours, while coverage of his party ran for 30 hours, says the Supreme Council for Radio and Television. The CHP and MHP were on air for five hours and 70 minutes, respectively, while the pro-Kurdish HDP got a mere 18 minutes.
Apart from crimping its obvious rivals, the government is also cracking down on former friends. On October 28th police wielding water cannon and tear gas burst into a media company and silenced its broadcasts. This was part of a drive against firms linked to Fethullah Gulen, an American-based Islamic preacher who used to back Mr Erdogan but is now a biting critic. It followed the government’s takeover, with a prosecutor’s blessing, of the broadcaster’s parent which also owns newspapers and mining and energy firms.
Oddly, this behaviour may not have affected voters’ feelings that much; polls suggest an outcome not much different from last time. But in some parts of the country, the climate is so tense that there are questions over how fair the election will be. Antagonism between Kurds and ethnic Turks is soaring to levels not seen since the 1990s. Whenever television shows the funerals of Turkish soldiers or police killed in clashes with the PKK, anti-Kurdish sentiment surges; and the government seems proud of the fact that it is fighting the Kurds beyond the borders as well as domestically.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister, confirmed on October 26th that Turkish forces had hit Kurdish militias inside Syria, although those forces are the West’s allies against the jihadists of Islamic State (IS). The Turkish government claims to be fighting a two-pronged war against Kurdish forces and IS. It has shown greater zeal in battling the Kurds, but this week it reported several domestic operations against IS. A shootout with suspected IS militants in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir left two police officers and seven fighters dead. Security forces then said they had arrested 30 people in raids around Konya.
The Ankara prosecutor’s office has blamed IS for an explosion in the capital on October 10th that killed 102 peace activists. (The government has made the weird charge that IS and the PKK colluded in the outrage.) Critics from the leftist and pro-Kurdish camp retort that whoever planted the bombs, people in their ideological corner were the main victims—as was the case with a bomb in July in the border town of Suruc, in which more than 30 young people died. There is evidence of a link between the two blasts: one of the perpetrators of the Ankara blast was a brother of a bomber involved in the Suruc one.
Besides violence, voters worry about bread-and-butter issues. AK boasts that the economy has grown a lot since it took power (though it has slowed of late). Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union rose again this month when Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, vowed to revive entry talks in return for help with refugees.
To ordinary Turks, whose life is getting harder, AK has promised to raise the minimum wage. It also offers a child bonus for mothers and support for students, young entrepreneurs and newly weds. Mr Davutoglu even made a bizarre pledge to help young people find spouses.
No election result will automatically bring stability. If AK reverts to single-party rule, it will face bitter opposition. If it fails to win a majority and teams up with the MHP, such a government would be furiously anti-Kurdish. A broad coalition of the AK and the CHP might pull the country from the brink. But that would require something unlikely: Mr Erdogan giving up dreams of an all-powerful presidency. Many Turks yearn to see an inclusive government; but the prospects for getting one are poor.