Hobson’s choice - Jawed Naqvi - Friday 10th June 2011


FOR over two decades, roughly since the end of the bipolar world, many people in different countries have faced a Hobson`s choice. In India, they have endured bone-crushing poverty with rampant corruption that came clothed as free-market reforms. The choice they faced was worse — life- sapping religious fascism.
It may not have been a coincidence, therefore, that an ancient mosque was demolished in Ayodhya within months of Dr Manmohan Singh`s arrival as finance minister, triggering religious violence that has become a festering wound. The ensuing political arithmetic suited both the casually secular Congress and the revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Votes were garnered over cynical slogans of communalism and minority rights but the outcome — the electoral mandate — was uniformly handed over to free-market mandarins.
The story is nearly the same in today`s Pakistan where an overtly secular government is widely perceived as corrupt amid accusations of doing secret deals with the IMF behind the people`s back. The lure is that it offers a sliver of hope for a quasi-resolute stand against an ever-growing storm of religious and ethnic fanaticism.
In Afghanistan, the Hobson`s choice is mutating into a trade-off between a corrupt regime sponsored by the West and a return of the Taliban, also supervised by the West`s benign gaze. A government-backed survey in Kandahar last year found more than 70 per cent citizens as not having faith in the state`s capacity to curb corruption. On the other hand, 53 per cent claimed the Taliban were incorruptible.
A UN committee backed by the United States and Britain is preparing to lift international sanctions on a number of former Taliban figures in Afghanistan. It is all claimed to be part of reconciliation for peace talks. The BBC`s Paul Wood informed us from Kabul this week that 47 such men had been selected by the committee for the lifting of travel sanctions, releasing their frozen accounts and, intriguingly, permission to buy arms. Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the Taliban Sanctions Committee, said flatly: “The Taliban will come back.” He added that there was no military solution.
In the meantime, Fareed Zakaria was interviewing the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for the CNN, getting assurances from the hitherto banned group of a syncretic multi-cultural future for the strategically vital Arab country. In India too a vital discourse on governance and probity has been handed over to religious figures and narrow nationalists. Rightly or wrongly, the burgeoning middle class perceives religious leaders as honest brokers against a habitually vile establishment. Mercifully, there is still room to delight in the farce of what is evolving as a situational tragedy.
As the police swooped to pick him up past midnight from his sprawling makeshift Delhi camp, Baba Ramdev instinctively hid behind his agitated yoga students. In the melee, as the police lobbed a few teargas canisters to tame the crowd, the Baba quickly discarded his trademark saffron dhoti for a woman`s shalwar suit. If he was caught before he could flee, it was because of his unkempt beard, which did not match the outfit he had changed into.
Cut to Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad`s Lal Masjid in July 2007. Didn`t he try to dress up as a woman — albeit more cleverly — in a burqa, mindful of his giveaway grey beard? Pakistan`s federal troopers homed in on his stronghold anyway and proceeded to unveil the cleric before a gaggle of bemused cameramen. At least 20 people were killed in that police-extremist standoff and dozens seriously injured. One woman was critically injured in the Delhi operation, but the Baba`s supporters described the police highhandedness as violence in Jalianwala Bagh.
Bereft of his saffron dhoti, and if you can visualise him with a Taliban-style headgear, Ramdev can easily pass for a battle-scarred field commander from the ravines of Gardez. A healed gash on his forehead could pass for shrapnel wound and a twitching smaller eye would not be unlike some of the icons unearthed from the extremist fringe. Ramdev strikes a more purposeful similarity with the Taliban, not the least in his intense desire to rid his country of pervasive corruption. Both advocate barbaric punishments, including death. Both prescribe severe retribution for sexual preferences.
There is of course no known nexus between official corruption and the kind of political system a country follows. For example, Transparency International`s report for 2010 places Denmark and New Zealand at par with Singapore as least corrupt with 9.3 points out of 10. And though both are robust democracies, Australia at 8.7 looks that much more honest than Britain, assigned 7.6.In South Asia, India`s runaway corruption appears saintly at 3.3 among a pack of incorrigibly tainted neighbours. Pakistan at 2.3 is struggling jealously behind Bangladesh, placed a notch higher at 2.4. Sri Lanka at 3.2 looks agreeable by the lowly regional yardstick.
By that token, even an ungovernable Afghanistan can revel at 1.4 for being placed second from the bottom, still ahead of Somalia`s 1.1. Potentially misleading statistics? In which case, how do we explain the Baba Ramdev phenomenon across India, even if many have dismissed him as a creation of the media?
After his eviction from Delhi, the Baba has continued with his hunger fast, a method Gandhi had used to fight colonial power. Backing him to the hilt is the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. The next elections are not due for another three years, but there is a key poll scheduled in Uttar Pradesh next year.
Capturing the state is considered a useful first step to rule India. Corruption is a low-yield political issue vis a vis parochial emotions. Doing a deal with sadhus of different religions seems to be the seasonal flavour across the world. That shouldn`t worry any establishment in India — whether headed by the Congress or the BJP — provided the resultant mandate is transferred to its powerful claimants. The conditions look pretty similar for any country faced with such a Hobson`s choice.
The writer is `s correspondent in Delhi.
Dawn jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Dismantling myths - Cyril Almeida - Friday 10th June 2011


WITH the army’s stock plummeting, that age-old question is back: how do you reverse the balance of power between the military and civilians? Ideas are a plenty. Parliamentary committees! Debate the military budget! A more muscular Ministry of Defence! Civilians need to get their act together!
It all makes sense, perhaps a bit too much sense. To get to the promised land, you need to do A, B and C, or some permutation thereof, and eventually you’ll end up with a military that obeys the commands of civilian authority. A neat theory for a messy country.
But maybe that alchemy hasn’t worked in six decades because missing is the necessary catalyst: dismantling the narrative the army has constructed for itself.
A combination of denial and exaggeration, that self-constructed narrative — subtly and not-so-subtly foisted on the public via the media and other channels of manipulation — acts as a buffer against any meaningful inspection of the army’s track record.
And without that scrutiny of the army’s track record, the argument for civilian control of the military is always stillborn, the scummy and self-interested politicians looking distinctly second-best to the noble and sacrificing military.
Even when things go pear-shaped as they did during the army’s mensis horribilis last May, the self-constructed narrative is trotted out soon enough, a self-exonerating version of reality spun around seismic events.
The ploy works in two parts: first, prevent any possibility of the facts emerging and then play up the army’s role in protecting the homeland against enemies seen and unseen.
The OBL debacle? Already we know we will never know how Osama bin Laden was able to hide for years in plain sight or what exactly happened the night of May 1-2. Having shovelled the facts into a pit and placed a do-nothing commission atop it to guard its contents, the army can now roll out the ‘enemies abound/you need us’ line.
PNS Mehran? Internal inquiries guarantee the public will never hear the truth. And since planes reduced to ashes were ‘India-specific’, the army doesn’t even have to try very hard on the ‘enemies abound/you need us’ line.
Saleem Shahzad? The ISI has spoken anonymously. Saleem’s killers will never be tried or publicly exposed. And the ISI will not stand for its reputation being maligned.
The one-two combination of suppressing the facts and drumming up the army’s role as defender of the nation almost guarantees that once more the army’s stock will bounce back. With no counter-narrative to the army’s self-serving narrative available, what could have been the beginning of a structural shift will eventually be remembered as a cyclical low.
Counter-narratives — or, to put it more bluntly, the truth — are hard to come by when the facts are suppressed. Remember Kargil? Or the ’71 war? Or even the ’65 war? By either not allowing debacles to be studied or suppressing the results of inquiries, the army has been able to protect its reputation as a competent fighting force.
So perhaps if the army is ever to be brought under civilian control, what we need first is for the army’s self-constructed narrative to be chipped away at.
But who will lead that charge?
Among the politicians, Nawaz Sharif alone seems inclined to challenge the army’s self-constructed myths. But he has massive wealth, popular support, international backers and a stubbornness most politicians don’t. What Sharif can do, or get away with, most others cannot. Even so, what’s possible in opposition isn’t necessarily feasible when in power.
Zardari also has massive wealth, control of an enormous vote bank and international backers, but he’s too scared, or perhaps too content with what he already has. Beyond those two, even the most powerful of constituency politicians will meekly fall in line when the army nudges. The trappings of power trump the uncertain rewards of defiance.
Oddly enough, the ones most likely to challenge the army’s self-constructed narrative are the very people who have helped spread that narrative far and wide in the first place: the media.
Having drunk the army Kool-Aid, the media, particularly the rambunctious electronic media, may seem an unlikely suspect to be leading the charge in taking down army-created myths.
But just like the jihadis who were nurtured for instrumentalist purposes ended up spinning out of control, the media too has elements who genuinely believe all the tripe they have been fed.
Pakistani exceptionalism, external threats, army as the defender of the first resort militarily and of the last resort politically — all of that doesn’t just sound like stuff that should be repeated ad nauseam, it was stuff that was repeated ad nauseam because it was believed in.
Eventually, events occur which expose those myths as hollow and bankrupt. At that point, the army’s suppression of facts kicks in, salvaging enough of the myths to be later burnished once more, and again with the help of the media, once it has been suitably mollified of course.
But this time there’s a media with increasing doubts, armed with a megaphone unlike one seen before. The furious words in the media last month were not unprecedented since 1971. They were unprecedented. Period.
The banner headline in this newspaper of record on Dec 17, 1971? ‘War till victory’. And below it, a small two-column headline, ‘Fighting ends in East Wing’. The accompanying story began: “Latest reports indicate that following an arrangement between the local commanders of India and Pakistan in the Eastern theatre, fighting has ceased in East Pakistan and Indian troops have entered Dacca.”
Lest you missed it, Pakistan had just lost the war to India and Bangladesh was born.
What we saw and read in the media in May has never happened before.
The army still has many tools in its box to recover from the pummelling it has received since last month.
But if the first step to bringing an unaccountable military under civilian heel is dismantling the myths around it, we’ve now seen the outlines of just how that can be done.
The writer is a member of staff.
cyril.a@gmail.com

Are all ‘houris’ female? By Nilofar Ahmed - Friday 10th June 2011


IT has traditionally been believed that good men who go to paradise will be rewarded with the beautiful women of paradise known as houris. Women throughout the centuries never thought of asking, ‘what about us?’
But in this century of women, this question keeps coming up, even in the most conservative of circles. In several places in the Quran, where the blissful condition of the dwellers of paradise is described, mention is also made of houris. In Surah Al-Dukhan it is said, “We will pair them with large-eyed companions (44: 54).” In Surah Al-Tur, it is said, “They will be resting against pillows on couches arranged in rows. We will pair them up with beautiful companions with big, beautiful eyes (52:20).”
In Surah Al-Rehman, the Quran says, “The houris will be protected in tents, whom neither humans nor jinns have touched before (55: 72).”
According to Surah Al-Waqia among the blessings of paradise will be “…houris with beautiful eyes like hidden pearls” (56: 22).
In the same surah, the Quran goes on to describe the conditions for the righteous in paradise: “With companions most refined; Whom We have created in the best of form; We made them virgin; loving, well-matched; For those on the right” (56: 34-38). Even though the word ‘virgin’ is most frequently applied to women, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it is applicable to both males and females.
In An Arabic-English Lexicon, Lane gives the definition of ‘hur’ or ‘hurun’, which is the plural form of haura, and can be both masculine as well as feminine. ‘Hawar’ means, “the intense whiteness of the white of the eye and intense blackness of the black of the eye, with intense whiteness or fairness of the rest of the person”. ‘Ahwariyyun’ means “a man, white or fair of the towns or villages”. The word ‘hawariyyun’ means, “those who whiten clothes etc. by washing and beating them”. Or, “one who is freed and cleared from every vice, fault or defect”, or, “a thing that is pure and unsullied”.
According to Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani, it is a misconception that hurun means the females of paradise who will be reserved for good men. He says that ‘hur’ or ‘hurun’ is the plural of both ‘ahwaro’, which is the masculine form as well as ‘haurao’, which is feminine. It means both pure males and pure females. He says that basically the word ‘hurun’ means white.
‘Alhawarriyat’ means the women of the towns and cities who are comparatively fairer. The word ‘al-hawariyyun’ has also been used in the Quran to refer to the disciples of Jesus, who used to wash clothes white. By whiteness here is also meant the purity of their personalities or souls.
Another word in the Quran, which has been widely misinterpreted, especially in Urdu translations and commentaries, is ‘zauj’, whose plural is ‘azwaj’. In Arabic this word means “a pair” or “one of a pair”, or “a spouse” (36:36). In Urdu, this word has come to refer to wives only. Sometimes it can also mean “various kinds”, or “variety”. Since ‘zauj’ is also used to refer to the female partner, the wives of the Prophet (PBUH) are referred to as ‘Azwaj-i-Mutaharrat’, or pure companions.
In the Quran when mention is made of those who will go to paradise, it is stated, ‘Wa lahum fiha azwajum mutaharratun’ (2:25).
‘Hum’ is a masculine preposition, but this is used as a common gender and is the manner of address adopted throughout the Quran. It actually means, “And for them will be pure companions”. Pick up any Urdu translation of the Quran and you find something like, “And for them will be pure wives”, and sometimes, “pure women”, assuming that only men will go to paradise and be rewarded with pure and beautiful wives or women.
There is also the belief that good wives here will be transformed into the women of paradise for the benefit of good men. In the case of ‘zauj’, the word itself belongs to the group of words which come under the heading of ‘ghair zawil uqool’, meaning “those without intelligence”. For the plural of this group, the grammatical female form is used.
There are numerous examples in history and the Quran of women who will go to paradise. One example is that of Hazrat Aasiya, the wife of Pharaoh. She was an extremely pious woman and did not support her husband in his cruelty, false pride and shirk. When it became clear to him that she was a staunch believer in one God and would never accept him as her god, he punished and tortured her.
At this she prayed, “O my Lord, make for me a house near You in Paradise and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds and save me from the people who are unjust” (66: 11). At this God showed her her heavenly abode and she became blissful. One wonders what the reward for Bibi Aasiya would be: would she be turned into a houri for some man’s pleasure, or would she be rewarded with pure companions, just like the male dwellers of paradise?
Since loneliness is a blight and no one likes to be alone for a long period, those who are successful will be provided with companions for their eternal life in paradise. Thus houris and azwaj in the Quran refer to the pure, chaste and beautiful companions that both good men, as well as good women, will be rewarded with, without discrimination.
nilofar.ahmed58@gmail.com

Sovereignty and taxation - By S. Akbar Zaidi - Friday 10th June 2011


THE biggest cheer which the new budget and what constitutes the government’s economic policy has brought is that there will be no new taxes in the next fiscal year.
One can understand why representatives in parliament and the elite and growing middle classes would welcome such an extraordinarily short-sighted and disastrous move: no one wants to tax themselves and voluntarily give up their income or
wealth, howsoever it may have been accumulated and earned.
However, by ignoring Pakistan’s core and chronic development problem — a shortfall in revenue — our elected representatives have done a great disservice to us, and continue to compromise Pakistan’s developmental prospects, as well as that ill-defined, increasingly sacred, though hollow, word so bandied about in parliament, ‘sovereignty’.
Sovereignty is not about foreign militaries transgressing borders arbitrarily drawn on a map, but the ability to identify and resolve issues and problems which affect the people of a country. In today’s world, unlike the 18th, 19th or even the 20th century, sovereign nations are not necessarily military powers; they are economic powers. Japan and Germany come to mind.
Both have US troops based there and are part of military alliances and pacts, but no one questions their claim as sovereign powers. Additionally, sovereignty is not simply about economic wealth — pace Saudi Arabia — but about the ability, desire and responsibility to take unpopular and difficult, though necessary, decisions. All aspirations to be a sovereign nation must at least be based on this premise, and the ability to meet one’s needs based on one’s own resources must be central to this understanding.
A few numbers about taxation will emphasise the point about the atrocious state of revenue collection. The tax-to-GDP ratio fell from an already low 11.4 per cent in 2003, to 9.5 per cent in 2009 despite the fact that the economy grew by almost six per cent per annum, and has fallen further to 9.1 per cent this fiscal year.
The finance minister in his budget speech last week, stated that the target for next year would not be much higher than this based on the fact that only 1.5 million of Pakistan’s registered 2.8 million income-tax payers have filed their returns this year.
This means that the proportion of those paying income tax this year is way less than one per cent of Pakistan’s population.
Since the taxable income level is a mere Rs25,000 this fiscal year, it is clear that many millions of Pakistan who can pay their taxes are not doing so. This is not simply because of tax evasion or ‘corruption’, but also because of parliamentary legislation which exempts certain sectors. Rough estimates suggest that at least five to six million Pakistanis, if not more, earn more than Rs25,000 a month. Clearly, there is a major problem regarding the country’s revenue and taxation structure to which
everyone, including the finance minister, agrees.
What is quite astonishing then is in his budget speech the finance minister decided to raise the taxable income to almost Rs30,000 per month which means that the number of registered income-tax payers will fall further. Despite the inflationary adjustment, there is no sense in this extremely illogical and irrational move, especially when there is some recognition regarding the scale of the problem. Rather than get more people to pay their taxes, parliament made sure that fewer will do so — ‘many lakhs’ fewer, as the finance minister gleefully stated in his speech.
While attempts are being made to perennially reform the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) and to address leakages in the existing tax system, the FBR acknowledges that 79 per cent of revenue goes uncollected, a figure which translates to around Rs1,200bn. Even within the existing taxation system, the entire debt repayment for this year (Rs700bn) could be met if all taxes were collected, with Rs500bn still left over. But clearly, this is not going to happen. Importantly, this means taking more money from some who are already paying their taxes. While attempts at reform are worth pursuing, it is more important to bring in many more among the rich and elite, those who ostentatiously flaunt their wealth because they do not have to (or opt not to) pay any taxes.
The easy, though shamefully discriminatory, manner to raise revenue is to raise it through any form of indirect taxation. The Reformed General Sales Tax is a regressive and unfair tax for as long as most of the rich avoid taxes. Once the number of taxpayers is doubled, one could consider raising revenue from indirect taxes. Until then, it is the less well-off who subsidise the rich by being further taxed on consumption and indirect taxes. Tax policy should be as simple as possible, and there can be nothing simpler than treating all income in the same light regardless of the nature of activity or source of income, and taxing all incomes in a manner where the more you earn, the more taxes you pay.
The full-page Government of Pakistan advertisements about the highlights of the 2011-12 budget in all newspapers is a shameful waste of already limited public resources. It celebrates the fact that the government has not imposed any new taxes.
While parliament may pass any number of resolutions about its sovereignty being trampled upon, until it gets its direct/income tax mechanism in shape, it will remain a non-sovereign, subservient, inconsequential and puny actor, dependent on handouts and subject to conditionalities, making a lot of noise but signifying nothing. Before someone says ‘sovereignty’ again in parliament, someone should turn around and say: ‘taxation first’.
The writer is a political economist.

Dangers of the Afghan war - By Khalid Aziz |- Friday 10th June 2011


THE US Defence Department’s quadrennial review for 2006 defined the security threat facing the US in the following words:
“The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life. …Currently, the struggle is centred in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we will need to be prepared and arranged to successfully defend our nation and its interests around the globe for years to come….”
The review highlighted areas that required strengthening; one of these advocated the shift of emphasis from “conducting war against nations — to conducting war in countries we are not at war with (safe havens)”.
This means fighting war by stealth, while maintaining the fa├žade of peace. In this sense, the Defence Department has entered an Orwellian construct where we live in a world of, “doublethink [that] means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”.
In 2006, we find the US military seeking a solution to fighting a war within the territory of a country with whom it is at peace — Pakistan. However, by 2011, the US had developed the capacity to execute that kind of war with success, through pilotless aircraft, special forces operations, pursuit teams in Fata, electronic surveillance and false-flag operations — like the Raymond Davis affair. They all add up to a formidable capacity to fight such a war within the territory of an ally.
The operation to kill Osama bin Laden was the latest and not the last example of this new approach. Both the US and Pakistan are allies in the war on terror; that is where the agreement ends, as Pakistan is beginning to lose cohesiveness. If it becomes ungovernable, then the chaos will dwarf any gains made by the new US strategy.
The Pakistani political-military elite supports the overall objective of defeating Taliban radicalism and countering extremism; yet the population is not really concerned with this goal being more worried by the daily business of living under increasingly gruelling conditions. Pakistani public sentiment is seen to largely support the Taliban perceived as fighting a war of liberation against a foreign ‘aggressor’.
As long as the US remains in Afghanistan, it will feed that perception. Therefore, improved US metrics in Afghanistan don’t really add up to much. The situation in some ways resembles the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The US won but ultimately lost the Vietnam War.
Military logic says that if you kill enough of the enemy you can dictate the terms. Yet this is not how it works in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The counterintuitive war on terror creates the following logic. Pakistan is a huge country with a population of 180 million and a military strength of around 500,000.
Large tracts of the country that provide the soldiery for the military are also regions that have over the last 20 years become the hotbed of radicalism and contributed fighters who have battled the US troops in Afghanistan and fought against the Pakistan Army in Fata and Swat. At one time, these forces were used by Pakistan against the Indian forces in Kashmir.
These warriors have now grown numerously over the last three decades and fought first against the Soviet Union and later India. They are now convinced that they are fighting a defensive jihad against the Pakistani and US forces for the freedom of Afghanistan, a Muslim land.
The dangerous consequence is that since 9/11 the contagion of jihad has entered the military at the junior commissioned level, a class whose scions are represented at the highest level in the military thus creating profound doubts and misgivings in this class for launching new operations that the US is demanding so vociferously. They are seen as threatening the unity of the armed forces. Operationally, sympathy for the Taliban cause creates the danger of leakage of battle secrecy.
Secondly, as transpired in the 2009 attack on GHQ and the complicity of some ranks in the Mehran naval base attack last month, there is a real threat of possible fragmentation of the fighting forces. It is these considerations that compel the Pakistan military to avoid new operations. It is this fear that prevents the military from moving against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. The US too faces a dilemma. Should it under these considerations exert pressure on Pakistani decision-makers to launch new operations in North Waziristan or elsewhere? Perhaps the US needs to step back and think. Its unilateral actions in Pakistan may open a can of worms that would be difficult to shut once opened. Pakistanis don’t only live within the country. There is huge diaspora overseas in many countries of the West and the US. They could become a threat.
If the destabilisation of Pakistan is a much more serious danger than the challenge in Afghanistan then does it not call for prudence in handling the situation in Pakistan? Should this not also result in a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Given the threats facing it, Pakistan must seriously undertake de-radicalisation and reintegration of an angry population.
However, a necessary condition for this to happen is leadership.
This analysis suggests that the US needs to phase out of Afghanistan as early as possible. If the fighting continues then Pakistan will become more brittle and the ability of its military on which the US depends heavily will be compromised. This must not happen.
The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.
azizkhalid@gmail.com

Election in Turkey - By Gwynne Dyer - Friday 10th June 2011


TURKEY’S ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is heading for its third election victory in a row on June 12. Its election manifesto focuses not on the near future but on the year 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. And its vision of Turkey’s future in 2023 is bold.
The party’s leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, has set a target of making Turkey one of the word’s ten largest economies by 2023.
Average Turkish per capita income by 2023, AKP’s manifesto predicts, will be $25,000 a year, not far below that of Spain today. There are mega-projects, too: a Turkish space programme, an aviation industry that designs and builds aircraft from scratch, even a 50-km canal west of Istanbul that bypasses the crowded Bosphorus strait and connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
To be fair, the AKP leader’s dreams have some basis in reality. Per capita income in Turkey is already about the same as in Russia or Romania, and it is growing a lot faster. Even if the country is unlikely to reach the goals Erdogan has set by 2023, it will probably be more than halfway there by then. And it seems that Prime Min The AKP manifesto also promises a new constitution, and almost everybody assumes that this would create a powerful executive presidency on the French model.
Then Erdogan, who says he will step down as party leader after this parliament, would run for president instead.
Turkish presidents are elected for up to two five-year terms, so if Erdogan won the new-style presidency in 2015 and retained his popularity, he would stand a fair chance of still being in office to preside over the anniversary celebrations in 2023. He’ll only be 69 then, so why not?
But to change the constitution, Erdogan doesn’t just have to win this month’s election. That is pretty much guaranteed. He actually has to win over two-thirds of the seats in parliament, which is a lot trickier, given Turkey’s unpredictable electoral system.
The key element in that system is that no party gets representation in parliament unless it wins at least 10 per cent of the vote. Two parties, the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), regularly get many more votes than that. The third horse in the race, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), sometimes clears the 10 per cent threshold.
In 2002, the MHP got less than 10 per cent of the vote, and so no seats in parliament. That allowed the AKP to win 66 per cent of the seats in parliament although it only got 34 per cent of the popular vote. All the other seats went to the CHP (left-
of-centre and militantly secular).
Things were different in 2007. The MHP got 14.5 per cent of the vote, and a comparable share of the 550 seats in parliament.
The AKP raised its share of the popular vote to 47 per cent, but it ended up with only 60 per cent of the seats, well below that critical two-thirds majority. So it matters a great deal to Erdogan whether the MHP manages to stay in parliament.
Two weeks ago it looked as if his dearest wish had been granted. A very slick video appeared on the internet showing 10 MHP members of parliament in deeply compromising circumstances with ladies who were not their wives.
They all resigned, and most people assumed that the MHP, a conservative, “family values” sort of party, would be punished by the voters.
Wrong. The last opinion poll in Turkey was published on the first of this month, and it showed the MHP still bouncing along with 11 per cent of the vote. Maybe Turkish conservatives are less prudish than we thought. In which case Erdogan will not get
his two-thirds majority and probably won’t be able to change the constitution.
Does this matter? Perhaps not, for he is still going to win the election, and he can always change his mind about retiring as the leader of the AKP after this parliament. But a lot of Turks still fear that he has a secret agenda to turn the country into an
Islamic state. They are probably wrong, but they will sleep better if Erdogan doesn’t get to rewrite the constitution.