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Are reports of Turkey’s ‘authoritarianism’ overblown?

Statistics from the European Court of Human Rights indicate Turkey’s current human rights record is better even than the early years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.
Opposition members of the Turkish Parliament protest Deputy Chairman of the Parliament Sadik Yakut (rear, C) during a debate in Ankara March 19, 2014. Parliament convened in the capital Ankara for the hearing of a prosecutor report allegedly outlining the role of four former ministers in a corruption scandal that became public in December 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3HR3K

Over the past two years, Western media have been awash with criticism that Turkey is growing authoritarian, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) neglecting democratization and flouting human rights. Such harsh articles have appeared on Al-Monitor, too. On Feb. 20-21, a conference was even held in Portugal under the title “The Gezi Protests and Beyond: Contesting AKP Rule.” It seems some Western quarters are convinced that the AKP powerhouse must be toppled.

From my liberal democratic vintage point, I also see many mistakes by the AKP government. I, too, believe the AKP is authoritarian in certain aspects. For instance, it has failed to resolve the Alevi problem and advance the rights of Alevis. The state-media relationship remains very problematic. There are shortcomings on freedom of expression. Despite government efforts to resolve the Kurdish problem, Kurdish rights remain incomplete. The same goes for the rights of Christians and Jews.

Yet, I don’t see a drastic authoritarian shift over the past two years. The AKP of the 2012-14 period is what the AKP used to be in the 2010-12 period. A Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition, which may eventually succeed the AKP, would take Turkey further back. Such a coalition is what the Gulen movement wants, because only a weak government will allow the Gulenists to preserve unchallenged their penetration of the state. Otherwise, they are widely believed to be facing a looming Ergenekon-like anti-state investigation for their parallel structure within the state.

Is Turkey really growing authoritarian? Measuring this is quite difficult, but not impossible. There are certain data we could use, primarily Turkey’s record at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the bulwark of basic rights and freedoms, including the number of cases brought against Turkey, the record of other countries and the nature of the court’s denunciations of Turkey. Furthermore, we can also take up the constitutional and legal reforms and other structural changes that Turkey has introduced to advance its democracy.

Until 2009, Turkey topped the 47 Council of Europe members in terms of the number of cases brought against it at the ECHR. In 2009, it moved down to second place behind Russia. In 2013, the statistics show, it dropped to fifth place behind Russia, Italy, Ukraine and Serbia. However, Turkey remains on top in terms of the average number of cases lost per year. Yet, in recent years it has fallen to second place in this regard. What is important here is the nature of the violations.

On torture, for instance, the ECHR has censured Turkey a total of 279 times, but not even once in 2013. Government interference in the judiciary has been a major topic in recent weeks. Yet, the number of cases Turkey lost in 2013 for unfair trials dropped by more than a half to 15 from the annual average of 31. Turkey has been sentenced seven times for violating freedom of religion and conscience, but not once in 2013. Sadly, Turkey remained true to style in violating freedom of expression, getting censured in nine cases. Another important figure is the number of cases per 10,000 people of a country’s population. In 2012, Turkey held 13th place among the 47 Council of Europe members with 1.2 cases. In 2013, the figure dropped by about 60% to 0.47, moving Turkey down to 29th place.

All those figures show that Turkey’s human rights record in recent years has been the best ever, especially with respect to fair trial, the prevention of torture and the number of cases. And fair trial in particular is a key indicator of the rule of law, one of the fundamentals of democracy.

Democratization record

Second, Turkey has introduced significant constitutional, legal and structural reforms to improve democracy. Standing out among those efforts is the peace process to resolve the Kurdish conflict, which has claimed 40,000 lives, shattered internal peace and snagged progress in democratization and human rights. The process has been begun and sustained despite various provocations.

Even more important is the latest democratization package, unveiled in September and adopted recently in parliament. The package provided solutions — though partial — to chronic issues and intractable problems like the headscarf problem, demands for education in mother tongue (within a limited scope), the right to public meetings and demonstration, political propaganda in mother tongue and interference in lifestyles. Most notably, it explicitly criminalized hate speech, a widespread phenomenon in Turkey and a major threat to social peace.

An even bolder democratization move was the proposal to amend the electoral system, including the introduction of the narrow constituency system, but the opposition did not even bother to respond.

And while so many things were being accomplished, what were the contributions of those who insist that Turkey is growing authoritarian? Do they have any vision for a democratic Turkey? If they do, has anyone heard of it?

An analysis of their rhetoric and actions and a study of their political, social and historic background will reveal a great discrepancy with what they say and write today. Do their past actions and rhetoric amount to anything more than conflict, chaos, the continuation of the Kemalist diktat, a tutelage mentality and oppressive methods? They raised objections to the democratization package, the criminalization of hate speech and the peace process, and continue to voice their objections today. They nourish hopes for the failure of the peace process, seeking constantly to undermine it.

In short, those quarters have fed on diktat ontologically and epistemologically, building their ideology on totalitarianism. And when they speak of authoritarianism today, it amounts to nothing but an oxymoron. There is much to be done for democracy and freedoms, but such oxymoronic attempts are backfiring and only consolidating the masses behind Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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