Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Turkey Travel and Politics

So during the time I was in Turkey they were having a hotly-contested election, and the country was on-edge from a recent bomb attack at a peace rally. Naturally security was tight but I didn’t see any overt signs of it. Covertly though it was there.

While in Istanbul my Mother and I went for a walk one evening down the Istiklal Caddessi, one of the busiest streets in Istanbul. It’s a wide pedestrian street but it is still crowded as thousands of people are always there shopping, dining or milling about, and the street connects to the popular Taksim Square. As we were walking along there were some people handing out political flyers for the HDP party (the pro-Kurdish party). We kept on going and once we reached the end of the street turned around and walked back. By the time we reached the HDP people there was a crowd gathered around, apparently one man had some strong opinions about the HDP and was having an argument with the people handing out flyers. As we walked by tempers flared and I guess someone started punching. We kept walking – no way we were sticking around to be near this. Suddenly men passed us running towards the disturbance, some with walkie-talkies. I’m not talking one or two either, more like 8-10. I guess there were a ton of plain-clothes police throughout the street. In hindsight it made sense, with the political tension and recent bombings there would be a lot of security on the Istiklal Caddessi given how busy it is and how many tourists go there. I assume a similar amount of security was hidden in plain sight at other major centres like the Sultanahmet neighbourhood.

The election was interesting mostly for how polarizing it was. It seems that Turks hold strong opinions about the various parties, in particular about Tayyip Erdogan the current President. Most Turks that I know really like Mr. Erdogan, which is why the party has been the main party for the last 12+ years, but there are others who see him as an Islamist who does a lot of harm for the country, opinions strong with supporters of the main opposition CHP party. My Mother did a bus tour of Turkey and she told me that the tour guide was a CHP supporter and adamantly against Mr. Erdogan. In contrast most of my friends are big Erdogan supporters.

So why all the support? According to my friends Turkey has undergone huge economic changes in the last decade or so, and things in the country have improved a lot. In the Eastern part of the country, largely ignored by the previous Government, there has been more development and job opportunities so it has greatly slowed the migration from poor rural areas to the big cities in the West of the country (this poverty migration is one of the main reasons for Istanbul having 16+ million people, roughly 20% of the population). Millions have been lifted out of poverty. The middle class has prospered. My friends give credit for this to Erdogan and his party. People continue to vote for him because they can still remember what things were like before he took office and they can see the changes that have occurred.

There is some merit to this argument. Turkey is becoming more and more popular with Arabs who have also noticed the improvements. A friend of mine told me as he was planning a trip to Istanbul his father questioned why he would bother going there – his father went there 16 years ago and didn’t like it. My friend went anyway as his friends had told him nice things about it, he loved it, and so his father decided to take a trip there. His father was surprised and said things had changed a lot, now the country was quite nice. I heard a similar story from a Qatari who had not been to Turkey in nearly 12 years but took a trip there recently. Arabs are more and more investing in Turkish property.

But clearly there is a flip side to this or else Erdogan’s party would have won a majority in the summer election (they recently won a majority, in the re-election that had to be held as in the summer election no party was able to form a Government). I’m not an expert it Turkish politics but I know there have been accusations of corruption, an almost dictatorial approach the Government takes against the media (it wasn’t long ago that Turkey temporarily suspended Twitter because it was being used to circulate anti-Government messages), increasing concerns about Turkey’s human rights record, and a slow shift towards more Islamic-friendly policies that contrast to the policies established by the revered founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. These concerns were in part enough to cause Erdogan’s party to lose their majority during the summer elections but they were able to regain it in the recent election. Perhaps the summer election was a message that while the people are generally happy with economic development the Government needs to be careful about overstepping its authority?

While markets reacted positively to the stability that a majority Government will produce it remains to be seen whether the positive change championed by Erdogan supporters will continue. The region is in a mess with the Syria and Iraq problems, as well as renewed fighting between the Turkish army and PKK rebels, so the current Turkish Government will have to deal with all of these challenges during their term.

I'll be back in Turkey next year for a vacation, we'll see how things go in 2016.

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