Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Behind the Headlines: Turkey

by Saara Ilmonen



Similarly to Egypt, Turkey has often been presented as a model to the rest of the Muslim world in how to successfully strike a balance between religion and secularism, Islam and democracy. In the 2000s, following the coming to power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, Turkey made significant progress in transforming its political system and, until up to a year ago, many would have viewed Turkey in a much more positive light than they do today. The signs of increasing authoritarianism since Prime Minister Erdogan took office have been visible since the last general elections in 2011, however, it took the Gezi Park protests last summer and Erdogan’s response to them for the rest of the world to wake up to what is going on in Turkey. His handling of the recent corruption allegations as well as the introduction of laws limiting Internet usage, extending the powers of the intelligence agencies and interfering with judiciary, all have made many of Turkey’s Western partners worried. The fears are that the country still on the way to democracy and fostering closer ties with the European Union has become the newest state to turn to authoritarianism.


The decade under the AKP rule has made Turkey prosperous as well as politically and socially stable, at least until the past year. Turkish politics used to be under a constant threat of military coups and a strong presence of military in politics has been reversed under Erdogan. Even though the removal of military from politics has been a positive step, the way it was done through courts was problematic with the evidence of the coup plots presented to the court being weak.[i] Such a use of judiciary to remove a political foe can be a sign of Erdogan’s tendency to use whatever means to undermine the opposition. Political reforms and improvement in the rights of the Kurdish minority, in combination with an economy that has seen significant growth, have made a large part of Turkish population to be better off under the AKP. Health care reform has expanded coverage to 90 per cent of the population and increased the foreign investment attracted by political reforms, these measures enabling the AKP to build airports, highways and hospitals.[ii] Such improvements in the daily life encouraged many in the Turkish population to overlook the recent abandonment of democratic values by the government in favour of continuous economic improvements. Which is why the recent economic forecasts predicting slower growth for Turkey are worrying for the Erdogan’s government.

After significant progress towards a more democratic Turkey during the decade of Erdogan’s premiership, the past year has made people doubt his democratic credentials. There are increasing attempts to influence journalists and newspapers through intimidation and Turkey remains the country with the largest number of journalists in jail. As well, the government has tried to step away from a secular state and to increase the role of Islam. To top it all, the alleged widespread corruption among the government was brought to surface in December 2013 when several high-level businessmen and three sons of current government ministers were arrested following a 15-month investigation. Later, it surfaced that even Erdogan’s son was involved and, in February, a phone call allegedly held between the prime minister and his son, discussing how to get rid off millions of dollars of incriminating cash, was leaked to the press.[iii] Erdogan has disputed the whole corruption probe and claimed that it is an attempt to undermine him and the government by a parallel state of police officers and judges, led by religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who is currently exiled in the United States.[iv]

The corruption allegations have been the clearest indication of Erdogan’s dismissal of the separation of powers. Following the arrest, hundreds of police officers involved in the investigations were dismissed and a large number of judges and prosecutors reassigned. The government also introduced a new law attempting to limit the judiciary influence by requiring them to inform their superiors of all investigations. In addition, a law on internet usage allowing increased surveillance and limitations as well as one expanding the powers of domestic intelligence agency have since been passed.[v] In attempts to limit the spread of bad publicity following leaked tapes of government officials’ discussions implying further corruption in the lead up to the elections in March, the government also banned Twitter and YouTube. However, the Constitutional Court overturned a part of the law on judiciary that would have given Erdogan a greater control over the courts, as well as the Twitter ban, citing them as unconstitutional. The rulings have been celebrated as a sign that the Court remains an advocate for the separation of powers and independent from the government.[vi]

This is a big year for Turkey. Municipal and presidential elections are to be held this year and, in combination with next year’s general election, they will decide the direction of Turkey for the next few years. With increasing authoritarian tendencies demonstrated by Prime Minister Erdogan, his continued support is under threat. The young, increasingly urban Turkish population is not willing to give up their freedoms or turn their backs to widespread corruption. Still, the municipal elections at the end of March were not such a clear signal of distrust towards Erdogan than was expected and hoped for by the opposition, with the AKP receiving approximately 45 per cent of votes and the party winning the mayoral race in both major cities of Istanbul and Ankara. This is, however, a 5 per cent drop from the party support in the last general elections in which AKP got 50 per cent of the vote.[vii] Even though Erdogan was not personally running in the elections, the March elections were seen as a referendum on the AKP following the corruption scandal and the prime minister actively took part in the campaigning. In his speeches, he repeatedly claimed that Turkey is under an attack from spies and traitors and that there is a conspiracy led by Gulen to overthrow him.[viii]

The Turkish society is becoming increasingly polarized and it seems evident that Erdogan has forgotten his pledge from 2007 that he “would be a uniting force for the nation.”[ix] The AKP is mainly supported by the working class and in the countryside, where the influence of Islam is stronger, whereas the middle class, secular, urban population is becoming more and more exasperated with the current government. How Erdogan has handled the crises from the past year has increased divisions among the population. He has claimed that there is a conspiracy and a parallel state in Turkey with the aim of removing him from power. This ‘parallel state’ is supported by countries such as the United States and Israel, and orchestrated by Gulen. The continued AKP support can also be seen in the light of lack of a better option. The opposition parties in Turkey lack a national support base, with the second largest party, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), being mainly supported by the populations in the large Western cities. In the eastern part of Turkey, the Kurdish nationalist Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) receives the majority of the vote. However, neither one of these parties is able to gather nationwide support.

Turkey is a member of NATO and has aspired to become a member of the European Union since the 1970s. Turkey’s relationship with the EU has had its ups and downs but in 2005 Turkey was finally given a candidate status. The negotiations have continued after being frozen and in spite of the events of the past year, the EU opened a new chapter in the accession negotiations in November. Arguably due to the prolonged negotiations, there has been a significant drop in the support of the EU membership in Turkey from 2004, when 73 per cent of Turkish population were in favour of it. Today, only 44 per cent are so according to a recent Transatlantic Trend survey.[x] Furthermore, even the prime minister is less committed to gaining entrance to the EU than previously stated, on February 2014 in Berlin stating that, “The financial crisis, the global crisis, the Arab Spring and the events in Syria and Egypt show that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey does the EU.”[xi] It can be argued that the importance and influence of Turkey in its region and to the EU is often exaggerated. Despite its ideal strategic location as a gateway between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has bad relationships with several of the Middle Eastern states, including Israel and lacks the influence to their policies. However, Turkey is still a important country in the region, especially due to its large population and growing economy and due to the strategic advantage of its location at the Turkish Straits but maybe not as a significant actor as it hopes to be.

Despite continued support for the AKP and Erdogan in the face of their authoritarian tendencies, the future of Turkey does not look completely bleak. Even though the opposition continues to be weak and scattered, the Turkish civil society is relatively well developed and has the ability to challenge the government’s policies. This offers a hope for continued progress towards democracy in Turkey. A lot depends on the upcoming presidential elections. Erdogan is likely to run for the presidency as he is banned by internal party rules from staying as the prime minister and it is speculated that he will try to extend the powers of the presidency from the current figurehead position to make the institution similar to the one in France for instance. Who will run against him will determine the outcome a lot. If the current president Abdullah Gul decides to run as well, he will offer a proper challenge to Erdogan. Gul is widely supported over the party lines in Turkey thanks to his moderate and constructive tone during the Gezi park protests and the corruption scandal.[xii] And as it has already been demonstrated by the continuously taking to the streets, the Turkish population will not turn the blind eye to the government’s actions. Even though the AKP received the majority of the vote in the latest elections, there is an increasing share of Turkish people who do not support the party’s authoritarian tendencies.

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