Turkey: A Democracy in Danger?

Turkey(Source: Rand McNally)

This post was researched and written by Nina Mast, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern

Last fall you may have read about or even participated in the World Affairs Institute titled “Turkey: A Bridge or an Island?” This blog post intends to supplement the Background Paper and World Affairs Institute blog by providing an update on domestic issues in Turkey. The range of current events covered below were chosen by the author to be the most compelling. Because this does not cover Turkey’s current foreign policy or even exhaust the realm of domestic issues, links to further readings have been provided at the end of the post.

Prime Minister Erdoğan: The Next Putin?

In a departure from Turkey’s secular, democratic roots, experts argue that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent actions in government reflect a more heavy-handed approach to state control over daily life and Turkish politics. This approach has recently manifested itself in a new National Intelligence Organization (MIT) law drafted by the Prime Minister which stipulates any investigation of the intelligence chief must first be approved by the Prime Minister. The bill, signed into law in late April, gives the MIT total immunity in situations of both external (foreign) and national security. While supporters of the bill claim the MIT’s increased power will build organizational transparency, opponents fear the government will no longer be held accountable for cases of intimidation against individuals who oppose the government.

Learn more:
Is Turkey reverting to a ‘muhaberat’ state? (Al-Monitor, article)

The Upcoming Presidential Election

To the surprise of Erdoğan’s growing opposition, the March 2014 municipal elections resulted in a significant local victory for the Prime Minister who secured around 45 percent of the popular vote—just six percent more than his Political Party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), received in 2009.  Erdoğan’s recent victory in the local elections has generated three major conclusions.

  • The victory delegitimizes charges of authoritarianism and corruption placed on Erdoğan by his opponents.
  • It has proven that growing domestic challenges, in addition to general popular unrest and intimidation of the media, are not sufficient reasons to deny Erdoğan reelection.
  • It has served as a dramatic defeat for the Gulen movement, which identifies itself largely in terms of its basic rejection of everything that is the AKP.

The assumption that Erdoğan will win the presidential election after being so successful in the local elections is widespread. Nonetheless, there is still significant uncertainty surrounding the format of the upcoming elections. A general election based on popular vote has never before been conducted in Turkey. Additionally, the new law passed by Erdoğan’s government, which expands presidential powers, raises questions and concerns about the future of Turkey’s political system. In the coming election, Erdoğan faces both an opportunity to lead by strong public mandate and a challenge to adopt a more liberal and inclusive understanding of the democracy demanded by his people.

Learn more:
Turkey: Local Elections Gave Huge Victory to Erdogan (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, article)
Hard choices for Erdogan as he mulls candidacy for president (Al-Monitor, article)
Erodgan v judges, again (The Economist, article)

Syrian Refugees

With respect to the current civil war in Syria, a significant concern for Turkey is the increasing number of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Southern Turkey. In November, Syrian refugees in Turkey numbered around 500,000 and were claimed by the Turkish government to have cost Turkey almost $2 billion in housing and food-related needs. As of March, the number of refugees has climbed to upwards of 1 million, with a total cost to Turkey reaching as high as $3.5 billion. This does not even take into consideration the increasingly high numbers of unregistered refugees living throughout the country. Much to the dismay of the Turkish authorities, many refugees have fled Southeastern Turkey in search of better prospects in large cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Their makeshift camps are met with resistance from the municipal authorities who have begun evicting refugees from their tents and subsequently burning them to the ground to discourage refugees from returning. Such drastic measures speak to the growing urgency of Turkey’s refugee crisis, and it remains to be seen whether the rest of the world will provide more than just moral support.

Read more:
The Impact of Syria’s Refugees on Southern Turkey (Washington Institute, policy paper)
Syrian Refugees in Turkey and the Need for International Burden-Sharing (Daily Sabah, article)
Turkey’s endless Syrian refugee crisis (Al-Monitor, article)

The Kurds

Since the founding of modern-day Turkey in 1923, the Kurdish population of Eastern Turkey has posed a political threat to the central government. Kurds demand greater autonomy along with increased civil and cultural rights. In early 2013, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish political organization in Turkey with a violent past, and the leading political party (AKP) negotiated a peace agreement. This included an agreed upon ceasefire and withdrawal off PKK forces from Turkey with a promise that the Turkish government would improve Kurdish rights and allow Kurdish children to be educated in their own language. The PKK has since ceased its withdrawal, highlighting the government’s resistance to follow through with its promise for greater equality and the release of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from prison.

Notwithstanding its historically violent relationship with the Turkish government, Kurds are expected to vote disproportionately in favor of Prime Minister Erdoğan in the presidential election. Despite frustrations with the slow progress of reforms and Erdoğan’s fervent Turkish nationalism, Kurds see Erdoğan as the only modern leader strong enough to make the substantive changes for which Turkish Kurds have been fighting.

Learn more:
Turkey’s Kurdish peace process key to Erdogan’s presidential hopes (Reuters, article)
Erdogan’s Kurdish Electoral Gamble Will Reverberate in Turkey and Iraq (World Politics Review, briefing)
Is fate of Kurdish issue tied to Erdogan’s future? (Al-Monitor, article)
What do Kurds in Turkey Really Want? (Vocativ, article)
Kurdish PKK rebels ‘halt Turkey pull-out’ (BBC, article)
Syria’s Many Battlefields: Islamist Rebels Wage War Against Kurds (Time, article)

Other Events of Interest

There are news stories about events in Turkey published every day by major news outlets. Below are some articles about prominent recent events not covered in the content of this blog post:

Twitter Ban
Twitter Accounts Frozen (Daily Sabah)
Twitter Ban Condemned (CNN)

Press Freedom
Turkish Media Censorship (Al-Monitor)
Turkey Press Freedom

The Gulen Movement
The US, Turkey, and the Gulen Movement (Reuters)
Understanding the Conflict (Middle East Monitor)
Gulen vs. Erdoğan (Al-Jazeera)

The Crisis in Ukraine
Turkey and the Russia-Ukraine Crisis (Turkish Weekly)
Turkey and the EU (Hurriyet Daily News)
The Ukraine Crisis and Turkey’s Economy (VOA News)

Additional Resources

Want to follow the news on your own? Here are some resources that publish Turkish news stories and/or analyze current events as they unfold in Turkey: