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Protests in Turkey

Who Will Promote Democracy?

August 13, 2013 | by HAKAN DEMIR

Taksim Square, June 2013 © Mstyslav Chernov (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The recent anti-government protests in Turkey show that the country’s quality of democracy is the worst in the OECD. Brussels must treat Turkey’s bid for EU membership seriously to support reforms and the rule of law.

Since June, hundreds of thousands poured in the streets of Turkish cities and protested against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The events are perceived as the worst political upheaval in years.

What first began with a small demonstration in Gezi Park in Istanbul, stirred large riots in almost all cities in Turkey. The events started with protesters who opposed the government’s plans to build an Ottoman-era barrack in the park adjoining Taksim Square at end of May. The protests then developed into larger riots as a group occupying the park was violently attacked by the police. The police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the demonstrators.

Despite weeks of unrest the demonstrators are still keeping their protests alive, in which at least five people died and eight thousand were injured. In addition, in Istanbul alone more than 800 demonstrators were briefly arrested, including lawyers and physicians, according to Turkish newspapers. The number of people still in police custody remains unclear.

Above all, this social movement is not only against the destruction of Gezi Park, it is rather a fight for freedom of expression, assembly and for the rule of law, accompanied by the frequently repeated charge that Mr Erdogan’s manner has been becoming authoritarian.

Turkey lacks democratic structures

Indeed, for the government "central order and direct control are more effective than interplay and cooperation between the administration and economic and other civil society actors", according to the Turkey report of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project. The events in Gezi Park underpinned this: Civil society actors were not involved in the decision making process of local administration. So it is no great surprise that Turkey ranks last place in the assessment of the quality of democracy in the OECD.

One reason for this is that Turkey is a graveyard of political parties. Since 1961, 25 parties have been banned due to Islamic or separatist politics. In addition, a 10% threshold for parliamentary representation poses a huge obstacle to fair representation and is a relic of the 1983 military constitution. The AKP is not willing to change this threshold.

The media independence is generally not perceived to exist due to the presence of "economic and financial relations between the government and media owners", according to the SGI report. Indeed, at the beginning of the riots the Turkish media broadcasted penguins and cooking shows rather than the events on Taksim Square. However, the protesters used the social media like Facebook and Twitter in order to circumvent this censorship.

A €2.3 billion tax fine against the Do?an Media Holding in 2009 further exemplifies the pressure on the press in Turkey. The media group had been one of the most critical of the government.

Moreover, even before the Gezi protests making a speech or writing an article could land journalists in prison in Turkey. In April 2012, for example, 95 journalists were incarcerated, according to a report of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. As of June 5, 2013 29 people were arrested for messages they posted on their Twitter accounts.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found 160 cases of Turkish human rights violation

What further exemplifies Turkey´s democratic weaknesses is that in the first ten months of 2012 397 cases of torture and ill treatment were reported to Turkey´s Human Rights Foundation (HRF). But there is no judicial police force leading "to administrative investigations into allegations of torture or ill-treatment being carried out by fellow police officers, putting at risk the impartiality of the investigation", according to the European Commission’s Turkey 2012 Progress Report.

Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights delivered judgment on 160 applications that found that Turkey had violated human rights. As of September 2012, over 16.000 applications were still pending.

Ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are also facing serious problems in Turkey. Although the talks with the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, led to a hold of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government, there are still upheavals in the Southeast of the country.

At the end of June, for instance, a group of 200 protesters marched onto a construction site in the city of Diyarbakir where a new military outpost was built, and led to a riot. The Turkish state has still a long way to go to boost the rights of Kurds in Turkey, who make up about 20 percent of the population of 74 million inhabitants.

The Alevi community is also experiencing discrimination. Their cem houses, Alevi places of worship, are not officially recognized and the government hampers the establishment of new houses.

Who will promote Turkey's democracy?

Despite the excessive and disproportionate use of force by the security forces during the recent protests, the EU General Affairs Council agreed on 25 June 2013 to open another chapter in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. Ankara had not been able to open any accession talks for three years. This can be seen as a right step because Brussels’ interest in Turkey’s EU membership has led to several democratic reforms in the country in the past.

The Gezi Park protests have become a symbol of a rising and strong civil society in Turkey which is not only willing to vote every five years, but to participate in the decision making processes. This is a strong evidence of Turkey’s will to democracy. But the country is in dire need of a democracy promoter. The EU could fill this vacuum if it treats Turkey´s membership bid seriously.

Hakan Demir is a political scientist and editor-in-chief of MiGAZIN, journal for migration and integration in Germany.

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