Back in the summer of 2010, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies bombarded the country with ads in support of a referendum on a constitutional amendment that the government billed as one that would create a more independent judiciary, part of what was supposed to be a larger effort at creating a new constitutional order that would emphasize the rights of the individual over the Turkish state's traditional impulse to protect itself.
The referendum succeeded and the amendment was made into law, but Turkey's constitutional reform drive has since then faltered. So much so that on Feb. 15 the AKP-dominated parliament approved a new law that essentially undoes the changes approved by the 2010 referendum. In a heated debate that ultimately ended with members of the AKP and the opposition coming to blows, the government succeeded in passing a bill gives it far greater control over judges and prosecutors and how they are appointed, and which has led to increased concerns over the growing lack of separation of powers in Turkey. "Most of the steps taken in the direction of judicial independence with the 2010 referendum are being taken back with this law," wrote veteran columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Over the last decade, the Turkish government has instituted a series of increasingly problematic internet laws which, according to watchdogs, have given Ankara greater and greater control over online activity (Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Turkey 154th out of 179 in its "Press Freedom" index, has a good primer on the country's internet laws, here).
In recent weeks, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been fighting off a major graft case that has targeted now former ministers and several businessmen close to the government, has proposed new internet legislation that has raised even more concern and that led to a large protest this past Saturday in Istanbul's Taksim Square which was broken up by police using water cannons and tear gas.
To get a bit more background on the new law, I reached out to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University and a leading expert on Turkey's internet laws. Below is our exchange:
Can you describe some of the more troubling aspects of this latest internet law?
Since becoming foreign minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has used the annual gathering of his diplomatic corps as a way of pushing his new vision of Turkey's role in the world and for encouraging his ambassadors -- a notoriously stuffy bunch -- to think outside the box a bit.
A good example of that was the ambassadors' 2010 meeting, which Davutoglu held not in Ankara, but in Mardin, a historic hilltop city not far from the Syrian border in Turkey’s southeast region, which, along with Kurdish and Arabic speakers, is also home to an ancient though dwindling Christian community. Once there, the FM admonished his ambassadors to go out to the city’s teahouses and bazaars and mingle with the (mostly bemused) locals.
Davutoglu, at the time drawing early plaudits for his now failed "zero problems with neighbors" policy, drew on the town’s historical setting to deliver a philosophical – even mystical – look forward to his diplomatic corps. “By 2023, when the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding, I envision a Turkey that is a full member of the EU after having completed all the necessary accession requirements, living in full peace with its neighbors, integrated with neighboring regions in economic terms and with a common security vision, an effective player in regions where our national interests lie, and active in all global affairs and among the top 10 economies in the world,” he told them. In order for that new vision to happen, Davutoglu said, his ambassadors first "need to understand Mardin’s soul."
The Turkish diplomatic corps has been holding its annual meeting over the last few days, but they seem far removed from those heady days in Mardin. Rather than looking hopefully outward, this year's gathering seems to be gazing defensively (even paranoically) inward, offering a very good opportunity to understand the current state of Turkey's tortured political soul.
Thanks to the continuing domestic strife created by the massive ongoing graft probe in Turkey, the country is about to have what may be the world's most highly-trained traffic police force. The reason? As the corruption investigation continues, targeting current officials, former ministers, their relatives and businessmen close to the ruling Justice and Development Party -- the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting back with a wholesale reassignment of police chiefs, many of them being demoted to work in traffic divisions and in other less desirable places.
The police purge has been striking: yesterday, in Ankara alone, some 350 police chiefs and officers were reassigned, many of them from high positions in departments investigating terrorism, corruption and organized crime. Since the large corruption case started last month, close to 1,700 police commanders all around Turkey have been either fired or reassigned.
Without a doubt, 2013 will be a year Turkey’s powerful leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will do his best to forget.
Prior to this year, Erdogan – in power since late 2002 – had gotten used to seeing things go his way. Rivals, in the form of the military and the old secularist establishment, had been vanquished. Plaudits for Turkey’s foreign policy and economic growth were coming in on a regular basis. And, following a third straight victory at the polls in 2011, Erdogan was being hailed as one of the political giants of the modern Turkish Republic, perhaps even an invincible one.
Things have worked out a bit differently in 2013. On the foreign policy front, Turkey found itself increasingly isolated in the Middle East this past year, as its aggressive policies regarding Syria, Egypt and Iraq, accompanied by ever tougher talk from Erdogan, failed to deliver tangible results (of the positive kind, that is). On the domestic front, the summer’s Gezi Park protests and Ankara’s heavy-handed response to them presented the most serious homegrown challenge Erdogan had yet to face, while his insistence that the protests were somehow part of a shadowy international conspiracy to topple him seriously tarnished his reputation abroad. Meanwhile, the PM’s effort to have a new constitution passed this year that would provide for a more powerful office of the president that he would assume failed, leaving Erdogan with a less clear path forward (the bylaws of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) forbid him from serving more than three consecutive terms as PM).
Considering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gotten involved in telling Turks how many children they should have (at least three), what they should drink (the non-alcoholic ayran) and what kind of bread they should eat (whole wheat, preferably), it would seem unlikely that the opinionated leader could still shock with his intrusions on people's private lives.
But, true to form, Erdogan again stunned the nation, telling members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) today that the government is not only working towards creating segregated dormitories for male and female university students (known as "adults" in many parts of the world) but that it is also working to ferret out any instances where members of the opposite sex may be living together off campus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The prime minister said the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had been completed in around three quarters of all dorms.
“There are some troubles concerning the share of houses in some places since we could not meet needs at the dormitories,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the Anadolu Agency on Nov. 5 as he addressed a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
For its 90th birthday, the Turkish state Tuesday gave itself and its citizens a fine present: a brand-new commuter rail tunnel that runs under the Bosphorus and links Istanbul's European and Asian sides.
The Marmaray tunnel, as it is called, is a historic achievement certainly worth celebrating. First dreamed up some 120 years ago by Sultan Abdulhamid, the underwater Bosphorus crossing that just opened is the world's deepest immersed tunnel, a technologically sophisticated $2.8 project that serves as a potent symbol for both Istanbul's and Turkey's dynamic growth.
For the ruling Justice and Development Party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the tunnel's opening was an opportunity to once again assert themselves as the succesful builders of a new and more advanced Turkey, while at the same time describing the Marmaray project's significance in rather grandiose terms.
At the tunnel's opening ceremony in Istanbul's Uskudar neighborhood, for example, Erdogan said Marmaray "is not a project only for Istanbul Marmaray is a project for whole humanity." Other Turkish officials suggested the tunnel is the linchpin of a "New Silk Road" that would, as signs at the opening ceremony promised, connect "Peking with London." (Never mind that one can already travel from China to England by train, using existing tracks that go through Russia.)
Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
In a comprehensive report released today, Amnesty International takes a look at this summer's Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, concluding that the government's heavy-handed response resulted in "gross human rights violations." The report, which can be found here, includes several interviews with protestors and others who were victims of police violence during the protests and is well worth reading.
To get a bit more background about the report's finding, I spoke with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher. Below is an edited version of our conversation:
How did things the Gezi events, in terms of the government’s response, get to the point that they did?
I think there are a couple of points to discuss. One is that there isn’t anything especially remarkable about peaceful protest in Turkey being broken up by police, them using excessive force and the government denying the rights of protesters to gather peacefully. The difference with the Gezi events was the scale and the constituency – there were plenty of middle class Turks involved in the protests – and the fact that there was so much exposure of the events in the mainstream international process. What happened was remarkable in terms of its scale and the government reaction was, unfortunately, similar to what has happened in the past.
I think the way the government looks at opposition is to really try to crush dissenting opinions and to see all dissenting opinions expressed as representing illegal organizations or those looking to undermine Turkey. So the response is to try to crush any effort to oppose the government.
For months now, Turkish officials had been promising they would soon unveil a significant new democratization package, building it up with the kind of hype reserved for Hollywood summer blockbusters. The package, meant to move Turkey further down the democratic road and restore the ruling Justice and Development Party's reformist image after the summer's bruising Gezi Park events, was finally released yesterday, though -- at first blush -- it appears to have failed to live up to the hype, as if it had been cobbled together from outtakes and recycled footage.
The early reviews of the government's package, presented in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, certainly have been mostly neutral to negative. "Package proves disappointing for non-Muslim communities" and "Turkey's Alevis disheartened by democratization package" were two headlines found on the Today's Zaman website yesterday. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also expressed disappointment with proposed reforms. "This is not a democratization package but an election package,” said Gultan Kisanak, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party.