"Republic Protest second rally Petates 3" by Miguel Carminati. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

On 14 May 2023, Turkish citizens will go to the polls in parliamentary and presidential elections. Simply put, it might be the most important election that the country has ever faced. 

The frontrunner candidates for the presidency are Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and in power since 2002; and Kemal Kiliclaroglu, current leader of the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP). 

The election is taking place against the backdrop of national crises, with inflation draining the savings of many Turks, an earthquake that has destroyed infrastructure and killed tens of thousands, and a country hosting over 6 million refugees. However, arguably the most concerning of these is the democratic backsliding and erosion of the rule of law that Turkey has endured under Erdogan and the AKP.

The Birth of the Republic

Turkey rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, after its virtual elimination at the Treaty of Sevres in 1919. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military man of humble origins, led the country through the Turkish War of Independence in 1923, defeating the allied powers, and established a democratic republic. Ataturk’s vision, known as Kemalism, saw Turkey and its governmental institutions as Western, secular, and patriotic, with a strong military. For the first 30 years of its existence, especially thanks to its neutrality in World War II, it proved to be exactly that. However, many underlying problems remained unresolved. The rapid change from a theological empire to a Western republic did not convince everyone, and created a split between the western, coastal, and urban elite, which largely benefited from Ataturk’s reforms, and a rural, more religious lower class.

Ataturk tasked the military to look after Kemalist ideals, and this call was not taken lightly. Over the course of the republic’s turbulent history, the military staged 3 coups, often taking down more Islamist governments, with the justification that they were undermining fundamental Kemalist values.

The military coups, the divide between secular and Islamist Turks, and ethnic and religious tensions, particularly between the Kurdish and non-Kurdish population, remained as underlying problems throughout the course of the republic. These inevitably led to political violence and widespread corruption. That being said, it is arguable that Turkey retained, to at least a reasonable degree, democratic legitimacy and an independent judiciary. Elections could be said to be free and fair, and in general the country’s media could criticise the government. The country made progress towards joining the European Union (EU) and civil liberties, at least at various points, were upheld.

Injustice and Development

After years of weak coalition governments, Erdogan and the AKP were swept into power in the 2002 elections. The AKP had branded itself as a conservative, yet democratic party, with a uniting rather than dividing manifesto. They aimed to reconcile the secular and Islamist divide by ensuring that Islamist voices were heard, whilst adhering at least somewhat to Kemalist principles. Although the rise of AKP could be seen initially as an undermining of the secular democracy on which Turkey was founded, many felt that it had ended an era where democratically elected governments were continuously overthrown by the military. In fact, in the first few years of AKP’s reign, Turkey adopted a new criminal code that was in line with the European Convention of Human Rights and gave the European Court of Human Rights supremacy in Turkish law. Erdogan strengthened the ministry in charge of EU accession negotiations and respected civil liberties.

However, as Erdogan’s time in office was running out, it was clear that he was not ready to go. In 2008, Erdogan’s government changed the way in which judges are appointed through the Judicial Appointments Commission (HSK) by giving oversight to the Minister of Justice, as well as giving the president the power to directly appoint 25% of the judges on the constitutional court, without any further checks and balances. Within the same reforms, judges were given the power to close proceedings on “public morality” grounds, decreasing the transparency of the courts. Through this, Erdogan began to slowly dismantle the judiciary. This was largely a response to an alleged coup to overthrow the government, and in the trials that followed, prosecutors manufactured evidence, and judges refused to hear from key witnesses. The government also began to crack down on Kurdish organisations and suppressed opposition to the trials. These helped Erdogan to eliminate many of the strong secular generals and consolidate his grip on power.

In 2013, Erdogan fell out with one of his key allies, Fetullah Gulen, which led to a major corruption scandal being revealed through Gulen-affiliated prosecutors, where Erdogan’s son in law allegedly embezzled money into overseas banks. A furious Erdogan retaliated, investigating those who were prosecuting him, and removed hundreds of judges through the HSK. Erdogan released many of those involved in the corruption scandals and brought further reforms to strengthen his grip on the HSK by the Minister of Justice to replace the entirety of the judicial branch. That same summer, anti-government protests began at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which grew into a nationwide movement. Instead of respecting the right to protest, the government tear gassed and forcibly removed the protestors. 

Erdogan also began to crackdown on freedom of press. In 2016, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper was arrested. The constitutional court dismissed the charges, but Erdogan said that he would not respect the decision of the court. Moreover, hundreds of journalists have been arrested from actions as simple as liking an opposition facebook post. Many of the traditionally neutral or even opposition newspapers have been restaffed with pro-government leaders, or have been heavily fined for any negative coverage of the government.

The Nail in the Coffin

In 2016, Gulen’s supporters made a failed coup attempt to overthrow the government. Erdogan declared a state of emergency and using his powers, completely purged the entirety of the public sector. More than two thirds of new laws were passed through emergency decree rather than being voted on by Parliament, where the AKP lacked a majority and was in a coalition agreement with the ultra-right nationalist party (MHP). The constitutional court refused to even hear any arguments against the government. 4,000 judges were dismissed and replaced with inexperienced and politically loyal appointees. The opposition was completely suppressed, with all remaining publications being threatened and journalists fleeing the country. The leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish centre-left party which became the fourth largest party in the 2015 elections, was jailed, where he remains to this day. The 2016 coup could be seen as a turning point, because even the Constitutional Court, which was slightly more sceptical of Erdogan pre-coup, completely reversed its attitude and began to almost always side with the government.  

This anti-democratic and anti-rule of law culture that has been nurtured by Erdogan and his allies led to the 2017 constitutional referendum, which was approved by 51% of the electorate, which completely replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with the current executive presidency. Now, Erdogan has complete power to appoint or dismiss ministers, Parliament having virtually no power to propose its own laws and becoming a rubber stamp, Erdogan having wide powers to rule by decree. The independent auditing agency, the military generals, and the budget office are directly answerable to Erdogan as a result of these reforms, including the HSK, allowing Erdogan to appoint and dismiss judges unilaterally.

Although one could argue that all of this was brought about “legally”, as Erdogan won all of the elections in which he ran and has a mandate, it is important to recognise democracy as not confined to an election day, but a product of all of the surrounding circumstances leading up to it. The political opposition not being represented in the Turkish media leads to government propaganda and does not allow citizens to truly consider the merits of an opposition. A lack of judiciary means that Erdogan can subvert any and all election laws, leading to unfair campaign conduct. The arrest of anyone who criticises the government creates a culture of fear of even voicing a vote against the government. These are tricks from a playbook that is reminiscent of the start of the worst dictatorships in the 20th century. 

Most importantly, however, is the subversion of human rights that has come with this suppression of the Rule of the Law. Freedom of speech, right to a fair and free trial, freedom to protest, freedom from torture has already been discussed. However, through the lack of any accountability, Erdogan has fulfilled his extremist ideology by withdrawing from the Istanbul convention, undermining women’s rights, arresting LGBTQ+ rights activists at Bogazici University protests, and suppressing the Kurdish population. For all the academic debates about whether or not the rule of law includes the upholding of human rights, perhaps no better example is given for seeing a substantive nature of the rule of law than the dismantling of democratic institutions in Turkey.

What was once supposed to be a Western, secular, and modern thriving democracy, now ranks 116th out of 140 countries by the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law ranking. It ranks 137th in terms of independent auditing, 135th in terms of constraints on governmental power, 134th in terms of respect for fundamental rights, and most tellingly, 137th in terms of the independence of the judiciary.

Hope for the Nation

The elections this Sunday present Turkey with two choices. One choice is the continuing of the current regime. The other, even if not perfect, a way out.

Kiliclaroglu’s main platform is to restore Parliamentary democracy in Turkey and restore the rule of law. Despite having his own flaws and the fact that he has lost almost every election in 10 years, Kiliclaroglu is at least a step in the right direction.

The tides seem to have turned too. In the 2019 local elections, AKP lost its control over four of the five largest cities in Turkey, including Istanbul and Ankara. Opinion polls are suggesting that the race is neck and neck, suggesting that even despite the complete erosion of a democratic culture in Turkey, the public has had enough. 

The biggest factor for this change and strength in opposition is due to the economic crisis in Turkey, further deepened as a result of the 2023 earthquake. However, as much as these issues are pressing, we must remember that the rule of law is just as much on the ballot, and will have a lasting effect on all of the issues that face our country – how can we solve the economy if the existing tensions and problems are not at least reconciled through having a fairer political system? How can we bridge divides if there is no guarantee of human rights? The country will merely continue to be divided and distrust each other. Without the rule of law in Turkey, any hope of change or long term stability is illusory.