The Current Political Climate in Turkey
Tori Breese - VCWA Intern*
On July 15th, 2016, Turkey’s political stability was shaken as the Turkish military attempted a coup d’état against democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although ultimately unsuccessful in removing Erdoğan from power, the coup resulted in the death of 241 citizens and law enforcement personnel. The government declared a state of emergency following the coup, allowing for the imprisonment of thousands of soldiers and the removal of over 100,000 public officials from their jobs (Human Rights Watch). The initial governmental crackdown was just the beginning of a rising authoritarian movement in Turkey. The state of emergency allowed the president and his cabinet to enact decrees without the approval of parliament, several of which conflicted with human rights standards and Turkey’s domestic laws (Human Rights Watch). The government then extended the state of emergency through the end of the year, raising questions about the legitimacy of democracy in Turkey.
Many Turks who were jailed or fired were alleged to be followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen. Gülen advocates for Turkish nationalism, a conservative Islamic lifestyle, the importance of education, and a worldview that aligns with the West. Gülen was exiled from Turkey and currently lives in Pennsylvania. The government accuses Gülen’s followers of enacting the coup and categorizes it a terrorist organization. Because of the Gülen movement’s association with education, about 28,000 teachers have been labelled as terrorists (Human Rights Watch). According to the AKP, Gülen’s followers do exactly as he says, and so all, even those who couldn’t possibly have been behind the coup, are legally considered terrorists. Gülen-affiliated schools and universities were shut down. Media outlets and civic organizations, some of which were only judgemental of the Turkish government, were also terminated. By broadly defining his enemies, Erdoğan seizes the opportunity to remove not only Gulenists, but also any other opposition, including the press, academics, liberals, and Kurds. As he continues to act in a more authoritarian manner, Erdoğan further secures his power by removing any who oppose his regime.
On April 16th, 2017, Turks voted “yes” on a referendum that allows Erdoğan extensive executive powers, including the authority to dismiss Parliament at will. The decision effectively changed the government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Following this referendum, Erdoğan can now run for re-election, extending his time in power until 2029 (Fox, McLaughlin, Masters). Having him in power for so long could result in the triumph of authoritarianism in Turkey. The government argues that the reforms will result in quicker governmental decision-making by avoiding slower parliamentary procedures. The president himself stated that the referendum was “the most important governmental reform of our history” (Kingsley). This increase in power has allowed Erdoğan to continue to arrest and suspend his opposers. In May, the president made the executive decision to extend the state of emergency indefinitely until Turkey has reached “welfare and peace” (Kingsley). Although the coup that occurred over a year ago was the original reason for the state of emergency, Erdoğan now has the authority to extend it for however long he wishes, allowing him to keep a tight grip on power. The Council of Europe has warned Turkey that, if it governs using emergency powers for too long, the government will eventually lose its democratic legitimacy (Kingsley).
So, why did the majority of Turks vote “yes” on this referendum that allowed Erdoğan even more power to arbitrarily arrest and fire people? Supporters hope that a more powerful executive will lead to a stronger Turkey. In the 1990s, the country suffered through a devastating recession and inflation issues, so many want to avoid a repeat economic crisis. Another key issue of concern to citizens is the threat of terrorism, which has been a huge problem in the past year for the country. Many Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey. This migration is a threat to national security, as Erdoğan has brought Turkey to be deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, backing the rebels to fight against Assad. In addition, the Kurds, who are also fighting in Syria, have been pushing for autonomy in Turkey. Finally, Turkey’s polarized political climate has made it a hotspot for terrorist attacks.
The main opposition party of parliament, the Republican People’s Party, began a 280-mile march from Ankara to Istanbul on June 15th, 2017 (Kilicdaroglu). Marchers carry signs stating the purpose of the march: “Justice.” Along the way to Istanbul, thousands of Turks of various political affiliations have joined. Marchers are protesting Erdoğan’s recent anti-democratic tactics and violations of the rule of law. Erdoğan, on the other hand, described the march as “a march for terrorists and their supporters” (Kilicdaroglu). On July 9th, marchers finally reached Istanbul and rallied for the state of emergency to be lifted and the rule of law to be restored. The rally remained peaceful, as police officers monitored protesters but did not interfere. The march was successful in raising awareness for injustices going on in Turkey; however, it is not yet clear whether the demonstration will cause a significant change in the Turkish government. Following the march, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican people’s party, said “Nobody should think this march has ended; this march is a beginning” (Gall).
Fox, Kara, Eliott C. McLaughlin, and James Masters. "Turkey Referendum: Erdogan Declares Victory." CNN. N.p., 17 Apr. 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
Gall, Carlotta. "‘March for Justice’ Ends in Istanbul With a Pointed Challenge to Erdogan." The New York Times. N.p., 09 July 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
Kilicdaroglu, Kemal. "A Long March for Justice in Turkey." The New York Times. N.p., 07 July 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
Kingsley, Patrick. "Erdogan Claims Vast Powers in Turkey After Narrow Victory in Referendum." The New York Times. N.p., 16 Apr. 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
Kingsley, Patrick. "Erdogan Says He Will Extend His Sweeping Rule Over Turkey." The New York Times. N.p., 21 May 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
"Turkey Country Chapter." Human Rights Watch. N.p., 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
"Turkey: UN Human Rights Council Should Address Continuous Deterioration of Freedom of Expression and Other Human Rights." Human Rights Watch. N.p., 17 May 2017. Web. 25 July 2017.
*Opinions expressed in think pieces do not necessarily represent the views of the VCWA