7 MAY, 2016
In a freebie state
It’s only words, but words are all that political parties have (at least legally) to woo the voters once the election process is set in motion. In this a ruling party is at a distinct disadvantage: it is judged not by promises but by its performance in government. Ahead of the May 16 Assembly election, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu is intent on overcoming the trust deficit by offering voters everything from free power and subsidised scooters to unlimited wi-fi and interest-free loans. The party delayed releasing its election manifesto until just 10 days before polling day not so much because it needed time to gauge what people wanted, but because it needed to better the offers made in all other manifestos, particularly that of its principal rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Word for word, scheme for scheme, freebie for freebie, the AIADMK manifesto is an improvement on that of the DMK, which itself is in good measure copied from the programmes of the Pattali Makkal Katchi. Ever since the DMK made a promise in its 2006 manifesto to hand out colour television sets to all, and proceeded to deliver on it after being voted to power, freebies have been an integral part of the manifestos of all parties in serious contention for power in the State. In 2011, the AIADMK promised fans, mixers and grinders, and promptly gave them away over the next five years.
Subsidies and freebies are not necessarily bad; they can play an important role in social welfare if aligned to government policy. Tamil Nadu, under the AIADMK’s first Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, was the pioneer in introducing the noon-meal scheme in schools, which increased enrolment and reduced dropout rates. Ms. Jayalalithaa, during her earlier term between 2001 and 2006, gave away free bicycles to schoolgirls, which again slowed down the alarming dropout rate among girls in schools in rural areas. The free laptop scheme in her current term allowed students greater access to higher education and opened up avenues to enhance their employment skills in the competitive knowledge economy. Free rice under the Public Distribution System was another major initiative that eased the lives of people living below the poverty line. But many of the freebies are not targeted to reach only the poorer sections. TVs and fans were giveaways meant as little more than post-election gifts-for-votes at state expense, and they diverted resources from essential services and development programmes. Competitive populism has the result of hindering important social welfare measures, and investment in infrastructure development over the long term. Ms. Jayalalithaa must be hoping her manifesto will have the effect of helping her party in the home stretch before the election. As both she and her main rival, M. Karunanidhi, know, keeping promises is the easy part. Doing so without affecting investment in critical areas such as health, education and infrastructure, is what is truly difficult.
An authoritarian in Ankara
If any confirmation was still needed about the increasing authoritarianism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it came on May 5. Ahmet Davutoglu’s decision to step down from both the post of Prime Minister and the leadership of the ruling AK Party was the culmination of long-simmering tensions between him and the President. Mr. Davutoglu, appointed Prime Minister by Mr. Erdogan in 2014 when he demitted office to become President, has always been seen to be a loyal AK Party member. There are no suggestions of major ideological differences between him and Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Davutoglu, as Foreign Minister, was instrumental in the Erdogan government’s intrusive regional policy, which has backfired terribly. Nonetheless, as Prime Minister he disagreed with Mr. Erdogan over his quest to grab more power, the crackdown on voices of dissent, and the future of peace talks with Kurdish rebels. Of late, tensions were palpable as Mr. Erdogan accused Mr. Davutoglu of stealing the spotlight when the latter successfully concluded a visa-free travel deal with the European Union. When the AK Party’s executive body last week stripped Mr. Davutoglu of the right to appoint provincial party officials, it was clear the President was acting against the Prime Minister.
Mr. Erdogan, who as President is supposed to be above party politics, has never shown any inclination to end his partisan manoeuvring. He (Mr.Erdogan) used his popularity to overcome the constitutional limitations of the largely ceremonial presidency. This allowed him to manipulate government decisions despite the Prime Minister being more powerful than the President under Turkey’s Constitution. Even when Mr. Davutoglu was technically the head of the AK Party, there was no doubt who the boss was. Now with Mr. Davutoglu on his way out, Mr. Erdogan has got the last prominent voice of resistance in the party silenced. He can now continue with the military operation against Kurdish rebels and embark on this plan to rewrite the Constitution. It is not clear yet if Mr. Erdogan’s latest actions will cost him politically. His brand of Islamist politics has a constituency in Turkey. But his drift to authoritarianism is causing serious damage to the Turkish state and democracy. His attempts to undercut the parliamentary system are unprecedented in the country’s recent history. Attacks on free speech, media freedom and dissent are on the rise. Mr. Erdogan’s Syria policy was disastrous; it made Turkey further vulnerable to jihadist violence, while leaving a massive refugee problem. The war on Kurdish militants is turning ugly with government forces facing allegations about targetting Kurdish civilians. The priorities of a responsible Turkish leader should be to take immediate steps to address these challenges. Unfortunately, Mr. Erdogan’s primary focus is on seizing more power, never mind the damage he is doing to his country.