Turkey’s Economic Success As A Model For The Middle East

Turkey’s Economic Success As A Model For The Middle East

Amidst the tumult from Tunis to Cairo, the turnaround in Turkey offers lessons for the future.

Bosphorous Bridge, Istanbul (Tasslehoff Burrfoot)

While demonstrators in Egypt are still busy trying to get rid of President Hosni Mubarak, others are beginning to ponder the trajectory of the country's future. For many, Turkey comes quickly to mind. "As a successful democratic country with a predominantly Muslim population, Turkey is a model for the Middle East," says Ercan Güner, equity strategist for Turkey at HSBC Global Asset Management.

Only ten years ago, the country on the Bosphorus was plagued by runaway inflation. Living expenses rose 50 to 70 percent annually. Last year, the inflation rate fell below seven percent, and this year the central bank expects it to drop to 5.9 percent. This was all achieved with the moderate Islamic government's current economic policy - a feat that many thought impossible.

Güner credits the government with implementing far-reaching structural reforms over the past decade. Public debt has fallen to only 42% of GDP from nearly 80% of GDP in 2001. The Turkish economy is opening up, its exports increasingly integrated in the world market.

Although the recent economic crisis did set Turkey back, it recovered quickly. For several years now, the Istanbul ISE 30 Index has consistently outperformed the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, which covers all developing countries.

The progress has tapered off in recent weeks. A major reason for this was the Central Bank's decision to cut interest rates - most people had expected the opposite, given the current rise in global inflation. The bank's decision was aimed at slowing down the inflow of speculative capital into the country. At the same time, the bank also drastically increased the reserves that banks are required to file when issuing credit.

Recent declines in the Istanbul Stock Exchange were actually brought about by the decisions of the Central Bank, and most experts believe that the market's weakness is likely to last another few weeks. But at that point, they may bounce back quickly. After all, Turkey faces a crucial step this year that may pay for the reforms of the past years: it may qualify for an investment-grade rating.

Currently, the country still has a rating that prohibits many big companies from investing. But in past months its ratings have improved steadily, and it now stands poised to enter the big leagues. Most observers expect that this may happen after the elections in June, when at least one agency may support it.

"For many globally oriented institutional investors, this is one of the last barriers to their investment in the Turkish stock market," says Robert Bonte-Friedhelm, responsible for the Magna Turkey Fund. This pattern has also played out similarly in the past, figures the investment bank Morgan Stanley. It notes that excess returns are always the greatest before an upgrade and after the second upgrade. The inclusion of Turkey in the Olympus of ratings could therefore give new impetus to Turkish equities. It would be one more affirmation of the country's image as a model for the modern Arab world.

Read the original article in German

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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