international analysis and commentary

Inside the “New Turkey”: not so dazzling


During his campaign to become Turkey’s first president elected by popular vote, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised a “new Turkey” resting on four pillars: furthering the country’s democracy, political and societal normalization, welfare and becoming one of the leading nations of the world.. So far, the picture has not been so rosy. While the country is in dire need of reform in all of these fields, judging by the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) track record of governing the country for the last three terms, there is little room for optimism.

Although there had been some improvement during the party’s first two terms (in part due to the country’s desire to join the European Union), the situation has regressed in its third term. This is also reflected by the country’s human rights rankings. According to the 2015 Freedom House “Freedom in the World” rankings, Turkey has gone back to where it was in 2003 – scoring, on a scale of 1 to 7 (where 1 is the best rank achievable), 3.5 in freedom , 4 in civil liberties and 3 in political rights. The 2015 report notes that President Erdoğan has “waged an increasingly active campaign against democratic pluralism” and that “he formed a “shadow cabinet” that allows him to run the country from the presidential palace, circumventing constitutional rules and the ministries of his own party’s government”.

According to Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, the country was ranked 154th out of 180 countries in 2014, down from 99 out of 139 in 2002. The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015 ranked Turkey101st out of 144 countries in judicial independence, down from 85 a year ago. Meanwhile, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the country 64th out of 175 countries. And, according to the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, the country ranks 125th out of the 142 countries indexed. The only area where it improved since 2006 was in the health and survival rate of women, but the country lags behind tremendously in the economic participation, educational attainment and political empowerment of women. These concerns were also reflected at the latest United Nations Universal Periodic Review session, where Turkey has come under significant heat.

Yet these issues are hardly unique to the AKP and Erdoğan. In large part, these are merely recent manifestations of the endemic issues with Turkish democracy that have persisted over decades. While there have been improvements in some areas, such as removing the army’s influence on politics, taking measures against torture, creating more room for religious freedoms and minority rights under the AKP’s leadership, there gradually has been an overall regression in the main pillars of democracy – including, but not limited to, those mentioned above.

So what’s really new about the “New Turkey”?
For starters, there is an unchecked and unbound consolidation of legitimate power in the hands of the few. Due to its swooping successes at the ballot box, the AKP enjoys exclusive control over the executive and legislative branches. Moreover, with numerous changes to the structure of the judiciary – such as an increase in the number of seats in presiding authorities, arguably with the hope of appointing judges who sympathize with the AKPs – the government has managed to increase its influence over judicial decision making. Furthermore, there have been cases in which the government has interfered and appointed like-minded judges when court proceedings did not go according the leadership’s desires – as was exemplified last year in a high-profile corruption scandal. In other cases, it has simply ignored court rulings, most notably on major construction projects that are prioritized by the government. And finally, the so-called fourth branch of checks and balances, media freedom, is in a dreadful state.

This consolidation was achieved through the appointment of ideational affiliates to every imaginable rank of public office, ranging from ministries to supervisory bodies such as the Higher Education Board. Although nepotism, clientelism and favoritism have always been systemic issues with Turkey, the current levels seem unprecedented. Furthermore the party has come to see all forms of dissent, in some cases quite justifiably, as an existential battle and has fiercely combated a variety of actors through the years, ranging from legitimate and democratic actors such as opposition parties and peaceful protestors to undemocratic actors such as the army, and more recently with the Gülen movement – with which it once collaborated closely. As the government struggles to purge Gülen movement sympathizers from public offices, it resorts to more and more “extra-democratic” measures. While some commentators argue that these are only temporary measures and will be reversed after the “battle is won”, critics are not so optimistic.

Through the virtual freeze of Turkish-EU relations and without the pressure of adopting the EU acquis, the government has also been exempt from external pressures to relinquish power and reverse the trend of deinstitutionalization.

Power is consolidating more and more at the hands of the President, who has made it clear that he will not be satisfied with the traditionally symbolic powers vested in his office and desires to have a direct influence on Turkish policy making. The up-coming general elections in June will also determine whether the country will shift into the presidential system desired by Erdogğan and his close allies or remain de jure parliamentary but with a de facto presidential system where Erdogğan will retain his influence over policymaking through the appointment of a prime minister (who would of course work closely with the President). In the off chance that the AKP is forced to form a coalition or is defeated by one, it is unclear how the President will coexist with the new government.

Another protruding difference in the so-called “new” Turkey is the increasing role of Islam in both politics and daily life. “Cultivating a religious generation” has been a priority of the AKP government, which has focused more on increasing the number of religious schools, mandatory religious classes, Koran training courses and religious extracurricular activities, than on fixing the country’s defective education system. Women’s role in society is also framed in Islamic terms by members of the AKP, where the emphasis is on motherhood and it is argued that women are not equal to men. This religious outlook was highlighted during the latest round of discussions that were sparked after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris. Although Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu attended the memorial rally in Paris, upon his return to Turkey, he was severely critical of a Turkish newspaper that printed the subsequent edition of Charlie Hebdo, arguing that this was an open provocation and would not fall under freedom of press.

Still, core voters of the AKP continue to be supportive of the official tone that marks any public and political opposition as foreign plots against the stability of the state, the surfacing of corruption scandals as a civilian coup attempt, and any judicial ruling against AKP policies as a move against the “national will”. Fueled by the increasingly more divisive rhetoric employed by the AKP leadership, especially after the Gezi protests in 2013, the “common ground” for Turkish voters continues to erode. For some, Erdoğan is the usher who will guide Turkey back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, for others, he continues to lead the Republic astray from its European-oriented progressive agenda. The “social contract” of the country, which had already been problematic in many aspects, continues to disintegrate.

The lack of feasible political alternatives to the AKP has granted the party a virtual immunity to backlash for its political errors. Mainstream political opposition parties have been unable to offer satisfactory agendas for their electorates, let alone attract dissident AKP voters. The continuing insufficiency of the mainstream opposition and increasing authoritarianism of the government have resulted in the birth of several new opposition parties. Still the 10% electoral threshold (the percentage of votes required to gain parliamentary seats)  continues to be a major obstacle against newcomers. Opposition parties are trying to find ways of forming coalitions, yet what will emerge out of these attempts remains to be seen. It is quite certain that the AKP will once again receive most of the votes in the upcoming general elections.

What about the Kurdish issue?
Meanwhile, the Kurdish peace process continues to be fragile. Although the lagging negotiations picked up some pace in the last few months following the presidential elections, the disgruntlement that Ankara’s ambivalent stance on the ISIS siege on Kobane has caused amongst the Kurdish youth has yet to wane. Furthermore the PKK continues to show its presence in its traditional areas of influence and there recently have been distressing signs of escalation in the southeastern town of Cizre. Moreover, although they continue to be small scale, the tensions between PKK-affiliated Kurds and ultra-religious Kurds affiliated with offshoots of Hezbollah continue to be a worrisome trend in the region. Still, there is reason for optimism as both the Kurdish leadership and the AKP government have a lot at stake to ensure that the peace process is resolved successfully.

Traditionally the Kurdish movement would prefer to enter the elections through independent candidates to circumvent the 10% electoral threshold, which ensured that the movement had some representation in the parliament but with a lower number of seats than their potential. The current representative of the Kurdish movement in the parliament, HDP, has attempted with some success to accommodate the left political movement and broaden the originally Kurdish-centric agenda of the party. As a result, the HDP’s candidate in the presidential elections of last year, Selahattin Demirtaş, has managed to gain 9.75% votes, an unprecedented rate for the Kurdish movement. Hence the party has announced that it will enter the elections as an official party and aim to cross the 10% threshold in the upcoming general elections. If successful, the Kurdish political movement would have a much stronger voice in the parliament, and this would come at the expense of AKP seats. If unsuccessful, however, the Kurdish movement would remain unrepresented in the parliament at an especially sensitive stage for the peace process and of course for regional developments south of the border.

The way forward
For the country to progress in the four pillars promised during Erdoğan’s presidential campaign, the AKP government needs to reverse the trend of “de-institutionalization”. The decision-making process of the country has come to rest on the shoulders of fewer and fewer trusted advisors and ministers and the adverse effects of groupthink and “tunnel vision” are becoming more and more apparent. Furthermore, the AKP needs to understand that transparency and accountability are not conditions that hamper the government’s ability to make decisions, instead they are factors that increase the quality of the decisions by opening them to public scrutiny and therefore outside views. It is true that being the party with most of the votes gives the government the mandate to enforce decisions, yet it does not give it the right to make decisions exclusively at the expense of the rest of the society. The AKP has been able to further the country’s democracy only at times that it accommodated the views of other domestic and external actors (such as the EU) in its decision-making process. If it wants to play that role again it needs to do so by embracing, not alienating, the people that have opposing views to the government.

The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.