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Turkey

Slowly But Surely

November 14, 2012 | by FRÉDERIKE GEERDINK

Container cargo ship crossing the Golden Horn along Istanbul ©Anibal Trejo/veer

In Turkey, the need for reform is large – as is the country’s capacity to implement these reforms. So, how effectively does governance in Turkey serve the needs of present and future generations asks Fréderike Geerdink.

Let’s start with the good news. Starting with the bad news would mean stating that Turkey is performing rather badly when comparing OECD countries in terms of governance and quality of democracy. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2011 rank Turkey at the very bottom of 31 nations in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). This might give the impression that the country is making no progress whatsoever – and this isn’t true.

Turkey is making good progress in some economical fields and in social affairs when it comes to creating a more equitable pension system, for example. These issues contribute to the state of democratization and sustainability of a country – and that is what the SGI is about.

The SGI is a cross-national survey of governance in the OECD that identifies reform needs and highlights forward-looking practices. Whereas the Status Index examines states’ reform needs in terms of the quality of democracy and performance in policy fields, the Management Index focuses on governance capacities in terms of steering capability and accountability. The survey was done for the first time in 2009; this article is based on the 2011 report. The next edition will be available in 2014.

31 developed, industrialized nations, committed to human rights, democratic pluralism and with an open-market economy were selected. The overall winner in the Status Index to date is Sweden, followed by Norway. The overall looser, however, is Turkey mainly due to some deficiencies in terms of the quality of democracy..

Fiscal Targets

Let’s talk about the economy. Turkey hasn’t been hugely affected by the global economic crisis. The government was optimistic about its own economy, based on for example having a healthy banking system and following prudent fiscal and monetary policies over the past few years. Nevertheless, Turkey’s economy didn’t do well in the first half of 2009 and the government decided to take measures to deal with the effects of the global crisis on the economy. A medium-term program was announced in the same year, outlining fiscal targets, proposing an exit strategy from the crisis and providing forecasts for major macroeconomic variables. The purpose is to achieve a sustainable growth rate in the aftermath of the crisis and to raise society’s welfare. The program runs till the end of 2012.

Moreover, policies regarding the budget composition led to a raise in the budget share dedicated to social security spending. That turned out to be a serious step in the direction of more social equality as well as sustainability. For the first time in the history of the republic military expenditures were cut in favor of spending on health and education.

Since 2007, Turkey’s budget deficit has grown: from 1.6 per cent of GDP to 5.5 per cent of GDP in 2009. In this field Turkey is doing better than other countries examined in the SGI such as Ireland and Italy. Turkey is also in better shape than Portugal and Spain, and the country has managed the financial crisis without help from the International Monetary Fund.


Thus, regarding the question as to whether budgetary policy is fiscally sustainable
Turkey scores 6.5 points out of 10: better than Germany and Austria, but slightly worse than Canada, Denmark and Australia.

Turkey is Aging Fast

Turkey’s pension policy is also making progress. It scores 6 points out of 10, leaving a whole list of countries behind it, for example Greece, Portugal, Italy, Mexico, France and Belgium. But it’s still doing a bit worse than Poland, Hungary, Austria and South Korea.

With the Social Security and General Health Insurance Law, which went into force in October 2008, the pension and health system was radically modified. The new law embraces all social groups, including those not formally employed, and assures universal access to health services on equal terms. Those under the age of 18 years are covered by the health insurance scheme without having to pay premiums.

The pension system was changed with the new law as well. And there was dire need for this: Turkey’s population may be young, but it is aging fast: In 2001, 4 million people received pension benefits, in 2010 that number grew to 7.25 million. Groups that were not entitled to any pension security before do now get a pay-out, although the payments are far from assuring a livelihood. Further reforms are needed, if only to close the financial gap in the system: the revenues by far don’t meet the expenses.

Media Freedom

In many fields where Turkey is not doing well, however, good policies on paper don’t always lead to good practice. This is true, for example, when examining media freedom and pluralism.

For example, the Turkish law restricts media owners’ shareholders rights, but Turkey’s biggest media owners have substantial investments in other sectors, including energy and construction, which undermines media independence. The government appoints the general director of the public broadcast institution which makes it possible for the government to exercise tutelage over the administration of the public media.

Media companies are split into “proponents” and “opponents” of the government. It is argued that the government has facilitated the establishment of “proponent” media organizations by providing easy credit and also by indirectly threatening “opponent” media owners by opening tax-related procedures against them.

As of February 2008, there were 24 business groups in the national print and broadcast media; two of them control the majority of the sector which leads to the dominance of certain ideas and opinions. In short, the SGI state that the current media structure has nothing to do with the principles of the Council of Europe on promoting media pluralism.

Turkey does leave some other countries behind, though, when discussing the question if the media are independent and express a diversity of opinion and if government information is accessible: Here the SGI awards Turkey 6 points (the same as Greece, France and Austria), with South Korea scoring only 4.7 points and Slovakia 5 points out of 10. Better than Turkey? Among others Canada, Mexico and Spain.

Graveyard of Political Parties

Another interesting question that SGI discusses is if the Turkish state protects political liberties. A striking description of Turkey here is that the country is the graveyard of political parties. It was so in the past, and it is today. The Constitutional Court has banned 25 parties since it was established in 1961. Outlawed parties are usually accused of pursuing Kurdish nationalist or Islamist politics. In 2008, the court stopped just short of outlawing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Furthermore, Turkey still uses a 10 per cent election threshold for parliamentary representation. This represents the most significant legal obstacle to fair political representation. Smaller groups are not represented in the parliament, and also in other ways they are often not taken seriously. That becomes clear when examining the anti-discrimination policies of Turkey.

Article 10 of the Turkish constitution states that “all individuals are equal without any discrimination before the law, irrespective of language, race, color, sex, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion and sect, or any such considerations.” Besides that, however, there are no laws to fight discrimination, affecting mostly ethnic and religious minorities, disabled persons, persons with non-mainstream sexual orientations, women and elderly people.

How deeply discrimination against, for example, gays and lesbians is rooted in society became apparent when the Court of Cassation ruled against the closure of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transgender “Lambda Istanbul Solidarity Association”. And it added a statement saying that the association should not “encourage lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual behavior with the aim of spreading such sexual orientations.”

Good Outlook

However, let’s end on an encouraging note: Firstly, when examining how effectively the Turkish government develops strategic policy solutions and fosters dialogue in the process, Turkey scores rather well: SGI ranks it on place 19 of 31 nations in the OECDahead of Belgium, France and South Korea, for example.

Secondly, comparing the SGI 2009 and 2011, Turkey made improvements in all fields in the survey except security policy. Also regarding the quality of democracy Turkey’s score rose slightly. Yet several minor improvements in areas such as economy and employment, social affairs and environmental and education policies have been achieved, particularly with regard to improving the sustainability of public budgets and creating a more equitable pension system. Turkey is making progress, albeit slowly.