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Samuel F. Mueller: Turkey’s Disappearing Opposition

Since the religiously-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, Islam and secularism have become particularly controversial topics. Political and academic debates are now more often than not framed by questions such as whether a religiously-based party can seriously support a secular democratic order, or even whether Turkey might become a second Iran. Questions about the relationship between religion and politics and the ideology of the AKP are surely important, and many AKP policies must be seriously critiqued. However, these debates do not address the key issues in Turkey’s democratization process. The basic and most crucial problem for Turkish democracy is not political Islam, but the lack of a serious political opposition—a must for every democracy. The recent local elections on March 29 brought no substantial change to the dangerously unsettled balance of power. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the AKP, is a goal-oriented pragmatist who knows how to use religious political language to reach the masses. Islamic symbolism frames Erdogan’s politics—he abstains from alcoholic beverages at state receptions, for example. However, Erdogan’s strength is that he has long been aware that while populist gestures win plaudits, sound policies win votes. When Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s his popular support rested not on his attempts to introduce, for example, gender-separated seating arrangements in public transit, but on his efforts to improve urban infrastructure. Today, the AKP scores points with a neo-liberal economic approach and international-focused policies. Islam is thereby a means of communication and an articulation of specific political interests. This religious symbolic frame should not be confused with an attempt to turn Turkey in a theocracy. An Islamic state in Turkey is not a political goal in itself and therefore not something we need to worry about—at least not now. However, the balance of political power is a major concern. The AKP has become so powerful that we must worry about the democratic culture of Turkey’s party system. Currently, the AKP holds 338 of the 545 seats in parliament. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) holds the second biggest bloc, though only 98 seats. On the local level, though the AKP lost some votes in the recent elections to the CHP and missed its target of 47 percent, it remains basically unchallenged. Apart from the CHP, there is no one else to challenge the AKP’s predominance. But why does the main opposition party lack any real chance at unseating the reigning power?

Peter Wilson: Chávez Ad Infinitum?

Peter WilsonVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez had much to crow about following Sunday's decision by voters to back his proposal to abolish term limits, enabling him to run for re-election in 2012. Chávez, who first won election in 1998, called the vote a fresh mandate for his "socialist" revolution. The victory, which is the fourteenth he or his supporters have enjoyed in 15 elections since 1998, paid tribute to his political skills. When he first announced plans to put a proposal to repeal constitutional term limits (an earlier effort in December 2007 failed) to a fresh vote, polls showed his request likely to be rejected. But with massive state spending, heavy saturation of the country's air waves, and the helpful indulgence of the national election agency, he coasted to a 10 percentage point victory. Chávez was also helped by the lack of a strong strategy from the opposition. And finally Chávez, who remains personally popular—although his government is not—made the issue into a personal referendum. He repeatedly told supporters that if he lost the vote, the opposition would then seek to recall him. "My political future is in play today," Chávez told supporters after casting his ballot.

Caroline Stauffer: Venezuela Votes on Chávez for Life

As voters head to the polls in Venezuela this weekend, the larger-than-life persona of Hugo Chávez looms heavy over the proceedings—now, and potentially, for years to come. Venezuelans will vote on a referendum to abolish term limits, which would clear the way for Chávez to run for president indefinitely. A close vote, leaning either in favor or against the referendum, would inconclusively answer the question of whether elected officials in the executive and legislative branches of government can seek reelection. Yet this is the likely outcome of the February 15 referendum, in which a simple majority of the population could further erode the tradition of single term limits in the country. Under Chávez, who was first elected president in 1998, Venezuela adopted the 1999 constitution that increased presidential term limits to two elected periods of six years. A January poll by the Venezuelan firm Datanalysis found that 51 percent of the population supports amending the constitution to allow officials to seek reelection. The firm has compiled four polls since President Hugo Chávez announced the referendum last December. Two polls indicated a vote in favor of amending article 230 of the Venezuelan Constitution and two predicted an oppositional triumph in a “no” vote. During a panel discussion at the Council of the Americas in New York on Tuesday evening, Luis Vicente León, the director of Datanalysis, said the inconsistencies were unprecedented. A similar referendum was narrowly voted down on December 3, 2007, and Chávez admitted defeat. But almost overnight, Caracas was covered with billboards threatening another referendum with the phrase “por ahora” (for now).  The battle had been lost, but not the war. Chávez says the re-vote is necessary now, just 14 months later, to allow him to stay in power and consolidate his socialist-inspired Bolivarian revolution, which will take at least 10 more years in his estimation.

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