Critics of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have for years been warning that the country, under the leadership of now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken an authoritarian turn after several years of reform-minded action. Supporters of the AKP and Erdogan, meanwhile, have denied the charge, accusing the critics of being disgruntled supporters of a previous status quo who are simply upset with seeing their once privilaged position in society disappear.
A new report issued today by Human Rights Watch goes a long way towards settling this debate, accusing the Turkish government of "taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protestors." From HRW's report:
Turkey is undergoing a worrying rollback of human rights. In office for twelve years under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—elected president in August 2014—the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has shown increasing intolerance of political opposition, public protest, and critical media. Over the past nine months, in an effort to stifle corruption investigations, the AKP government has sought to curb the independence of the judiciary and weaken the rule of law. The erosion of human rights through limitations on media freedom, clampdown on protest, and further loss of trust in Turkey’s politicized criminal justice system have deepened political polarization in the country.
By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
As part of the effort to boost its image and role on the world stage, Turkey has over the last decade made a push to host a bigger number of international meetings and conferences, especially in Istanbul.
The setting makes sense, considering the city's obvious charms. But sometimes Ankara's eagerness to play host doesn't quite match the reality on the ground. Case in point: the ninth annual Internet Governance Forum, a large United Nations-mandated gathering, which is currently taking place in Istanbul at a time when Turkey is increasingly under fire for curtailing internet freedoms within its own borders.
In a sharply worded briefing issued ahead of the Forum, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish government of having an "abysmal record of protecting free expression online." From HRW's report:
Turkish authorities have blocked tens of thousands of websites under the country’s draconian Internet Law 5651 over the last few years. The exact number remains unclear since the judicial and administrative procedures for Internet blocking are not transparent. In February, the government passed amendments to the law that expand censorship powers, enabling authorities to block access to web pages within hours, based on a mere allegation that a posting violates private life, without a prior court order.
It says something about Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political audacity and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) marketing chutzpah that despite the Turkish leader having served as prime minister for some twelve years they were still able to sell his victory in yesterday's presidential election as the starting point for a "New Turkey." After over a decade of thoroughly dominating Turkey's political scene, there is certainly very little that is new about Erdogan.
Erdogan's win does signal something new, and that is another chapter in what by now is the long-running story of the mercurial leader's very public quest for increased power. With his ascendancy to the president's office assured, Erdogan is now faced with some new challenges: namely, how to enhance his powers despite the constraints placed on the president by the constitution and Turkey's existing parliamentary system, and how to restructure the government so that this goal is best served and the AKP stays in power past the next parliamentary elections.
In a new briefing, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Turkey expert, Soner Cagaptay, lists the current powers available to the Turkish president -- from chairing cabinet meetings to vetoing bills -- and suggests Erdogan will push those to the limit (if not beyond) to maintain his dominance:
Late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part in the opening ceremony of a new soccer stadium in Istanbul. Rather than simply cut a ribbon, Erdogan -- a standout amateur soccer player in his youth -- put on a team jersey and went down to the field to play a friendly match. After his team fell behind by three points in the match, which was being broadcast live on television, the 60-year-old PM incredibly found a way to score three goals in 15 minutes, against a goalkeeper who plays in Turkey's top tier professional league no less.
As Turkey heads towards a presidential vote this Sunday -- the first one in which the people, rather than parliament, will elect the new president -- Erdogan's hat-trick performance seems emblematic of the way the campaign has been playing out. Despite the presence of two other substantive candidates, Erdogan has been dominating the field, receiving the lion's share of the state television broadcaster's attention. A fawning pro-government press, meanwhile, has been dutifully reporting about the PM's every move and utterance, imbuing them with an almost otherworldy quality (in the case of Erdogan's soccer game performance, one paper declared "his style was likened by some....to Barca star Lionel Messi.").
In a blog post in May, I described the "urbanization" of Turkey's Syrian refugee population -- which now numbers over one million -- and the potential problems this development poses for Ankara, especially in economic terms, with the potential for conflict as struggling Syrians moving into Turkish cities start competing with locals for work.
In recent days, this kind of potential conflict appears to have become a reality. On Sunday, some 1,000 people in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş marched against the presence of Syrian migrants in their city and then reportedly went on to remove Arabic signs from stores and attack a car with Syrian license plates. And today in Adana, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a group of masked men armed with knives and sticks attacked Syrian-owned businesses and shattered their windows.
Writing for the Al Monitor website, Turkish journalist Mehmet Cetingulec provides statistics from southeast Turkey that give some context for the growing tension:
Unemployment is rising faster in provinces where Syrians congregate. Employers prefer to employ Syrians, who make half the average Turkish wages and cost them about a third as much as a Turkish worker overall.
As he had long suggested he would do, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday announced his candidacy for the presidency in a splashy ceremony in Ankara. Expected by most observers to win (the question for now is really whether he does it in the first or second round), Erdogan would become Turkey's first directly elected president, a move his supporters say is a natural step for a man who is the country's most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and which critics say will only lead towards a more authoritarian government. Either way, while the road towards the office of the president appears open for Erdogan -- despite the opposition's intriguing candidate choice -- the PM faces some major challenges in his quest to turn the presidency into an even more powerful position than it already is.
Up until now, Turkey's president has been chosen by Parliament. Like in many other parliamentary systems, the Turkish president is something of a figurehead, with the Prime Minister wielding the real power. But the Turkish presidency, as defined by a constitution written by the military after the 1980 coup, has been something of a hybrid office, with the president wielding some important powers designed to make him a kind of ultimate guardian of the state (that is secularist and Kemalist) structure. For this reason, there has long been a demand in Turkey for a new constitution, one which redefines and limits the powers of the president, making it one that's more in line with other parliamentary systems.
On August 10 Turks will for the first time have the opportunity to directly elect their president, a mostly ceremonial position (though one that has some notable hidden powers) that was previously earned through a parliamentary vote.
Perhaps it's an indication of what Turkish parties think of their voters or of their country's political system that up until earlier this week, none of them had declared who their candidate would be for an extremely significant election only a few weeks away. Although it is widely expected that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run as his party's candidate, the fact that he has yet to make it official only makes the situation odder.
On June 16, though, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (CHP) joined forces and announced a consensus candidate: Ekmeleddin İhsanoglu, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and, until last year, someone considered to be close to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Ekmeleddin who, you might ask? That's certainly the question many Turks asked when his candidacy was announced. A mild-mannered academic with an old world demeanor, İhsanoglu is far from a household name and has not had any previous experience with domestic Turkish politics. Still, the surprise choice is an intriguing one, a move that doesn't necessarily spell victory for the opposition, but that will certainly force Erdogan and his party to rethink their strategy and which tells an interesting story about the AKP's own evolution over the last decade.
Last October Amnesty International released a report looking at the summer's Gezi Park protests, concluding the government's harsh response resulted in "gross human rights violations." Today, the organization released a followup report, one that looks at the situation in Turkey a year after the Gezi events. Like the first report, this one also finds much to criticize regarding the government's actions, suggesting its "approach to demonstrations is as abusive as ever while impunity for police violence is rampant."
To get a better sense of the report and its findings, I spoke today with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher, about some of the main points raised in the document. An edited version of our interview is below:
What led to Amnesty creating this report?
It was really to do a follow up on the last report. What we found in the first Gezi report, which covered the events of the protests themselves, was there was really unnecessary, abusive use of force by the police, not to disperse people but to directly injure and punish people for going on the streets. The government’s policy for people taking to the streets was extremely restrictive and very much about keeping people from taking to the streets in any way they can.
The annual Washington conference of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), perhaps the best-known group lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests in the United States, is usually an occasion for both sides to boast about the strength and importance of the Turkey-US relationship. This year's conference, though, turned out to be a showcase for the deep divisions and political dysfunction gripping Turkey.
On June 1, the day the annual conference started, the ATC's long-time president, former US ambassador to Turkey James Holmes, submitted his resignation along with several other top executives. As reported in the Turkish press, Holmes -- whose organization counts among its members numerous corporations, especially in the defense industry -- had been feeling some heat from Ankara in connection with the political divisions currently gripping Turkey. In particular, it appears supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were upset that the ATC had sent out a news bulletin which included articles from Today's Zaman, the English-language newspaper affiliated with the Gulen movement, which is currently locked in an intense political battle with the AKP.