Wednesday, January 30, 2008

AKP's mistakes

Apparently when Cuneyd Zapsu suggested their party to be named "Muslim Democratic Party," Tayyip Erdogan objected, saying religion should not be mentioned in the party's name, because political parties make mistakes. Good foresight.

Back in July, I said I would vote for the Justice and Development Party, had I been in Turkey. Mostly for the lack of a better alternative. Then I got to do research about the healthcare system and the new social security law, and I was impressed by the government's efforts to undertake politically difficult reforms. Now they are working on an employment package to cut social security premiums and severance payments, as well as eliminating bureaucratic obligations, in an effort to reduce the informal economy and create more jobs - the headscarf debate permitting. (The Justice Minister's proposal to change Article 301, too, seems to have been shelved until the dust settles.)

The government's mistakes overshadow the well-meaning reforms. Just a quick laundry list to brush up our memories: The Finance Ministry launched a questionable tax probe on Petrol Ofisi, a privatized oil distributor, after the newspapers and TV channels belonging to its new owner, Aydın Doğan, took a critical stance towards the government. Then, only about a month ago, the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) sold Sabah, a newspaper, and ATV, a TV channel, to Çalık group, which is headed by Erdoğan's son-in-law. The rumor goes that the government is looking to change the law that bans foreign ownership of media outlets, and the Çalık Group will be able to make a decent profit by selling off its stake.

And take a look at the government's Jan. 9 action plan: Most of the items on the list lack clear detail and a timetable, and the few concrete policies lack consensus even within the cabinet. Economy minister Mehmet Şimşek, as well as the State Planning Organisation, had announced that the social security premium cuts would not go into effect until 2009, because the budget does not have any room to compensate for them. Industry Minister Zafer Çağlayan demanded earlier implementation, and Erdoğan announced that premium cuts will come into effect in 2008. It seems unfeasible, and Erdoğan only hurts his credibility by making promises at the spur of a moment.

A similar story goes for agricultural subsidies: The government announced that direct income support, based on land ownership, would be replaced by product price support, but it turns out the preliminary work isn't complete: it is not clear how much each product will be subsidized in each region.

Erdoğan also pledged to move the Central Bank from Ankara to Istanbul. The Central Bank staff, most notably the governor, have voiced their opposition to such a move, and the government has failed to show that such a fait accompli has a clear economic rationale. Now it all seems like stubborn insistence.

All this, including a global economic downturn that will hit emerging markets like us the most, doesn't matter, of course. The most important item on the government's agenda is the headscarf ban in universities. The ideal solution would be if another party, not AKP, lifted the ban, and such a move would give secularists real strength. Because they are not smart enough to do that, AKP drew power from their victim status. I never thought they would take the final steps to lift the ban, but they finally seem to have found the resolve, also emboldened by their election victory.

Of course, devil lies in the extremes: the religious conservative intelligensia is not shy about their dissatisfaction - they think civil servants, and even high school students should be allowed to wear headscarves. That would be going too far.

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