Democracy, Rights and European Hopes in Turkey

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of individuals being able to both chasten and challenge political leaders. Constitutionalized liberal democracy, I suggested, is valuable primarily – though not solely – as a means of doing this. The right to vote in regular elections, along with rights to assembly, speech, protest, and closely related rights to bring formal challenges in courts, all are means of holding those who govern us to account.

Today I want to shift the focus from India and the Dalit (former untouchables) human rights struggle to Turkey. The two may not be obvious cases to treat in the same book or blog series, but in fact, some important issues intersect in both. In the Dalit human rights case, activists struggling on behalf of a category of persons within a country assert that those persons’ rights are being systematically violated. They believe that India’s democratic institutions and courts remain stacked against Dalits, despite anti-discrimination laws on the books. At the same time, the Indian government strongly resists ‘outside interference,’ or outreach by such activists to global human rights actors. It reserves the right to interpret rights standards and rights fulfilment to itself.

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Protestor, Turkey, July 2013

In the Turkish case, similar claims are heard about democratic institutions and leaders who are increasingly unresponsive to opposition voices. Turkey has long been noted as a secular country, observing strict separation between state and Islam, the religion ascribed to an overwhelming majority of its population. One of the consistent complaints from opposition and activist leaders has been that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced ER-doh-WAN) has been incrementally introducing religious values and behavioural restrictions into law. Activists also complain of a creeping authoritarianism, on which more below.

The Turkish case, like the Indian one, has a significant international, or supranational, angle. Where the Dalit human rights activists have sought to reach out to the global human rights community in the absence of anything like a Global Court of Human Rights, Turkey has long held hopes of joining the still-expanding regional governance project just beyond its own borders.

For me, the Turkish case has been of great interest for the ethical questions it raises about obligations across borders. My basic presumption has been that Turkey stands to receive the same human rights benefits as other less-rich countries had on joining the European Union in the last several decades. These would include particularly Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. Spain and Portugal were not only relatively poor countries at the time of accession, but they also faced steep challenges to democratization and democratic consolidation. Many observers see European Community membership as an important factor helping them develop stable, rights-respecting democratic institutions.

Of course, few would suggest that membership in the now-European Union is a cure for all political ills, or that the EU itself has developed into a fully defensible set of democratic institutions. EU leaders are still dealing with the fallout from the global economic crisis, which revealed some cracks in institutional design that may need more than a quick plaster-over. Yet, longtime EU observers will note that this is far from the first crisis, and that in fact the EU’s demise has been predicted many times.

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Istanbul Police lined up, July 2013

In relation to Turkish accession, my presumption remains that it would deliver significant additional rights benefits to Turks. It would further integrate the country into the EU common market, give it a much stronger political voice in helping to shape and set the direction for that market, while enhancing economic opportunities for individual Turks, not least free movement across borders. It also should help to better ensure robust democratic rights.

I went to Istanbul for the first time last summer, to interview government officials, activists and think-tank representatives about prospects for Turkish accession. Full accession for Turkey has long been a controversial issue in some EU states, of course. This is because first, important issues remain unresolved around EU member state Cyprus. Turkey holds half of Cyprus’ territory in circumstances that continue to draw protest from several quarters. Turkey also would become the second largest EU country, behind Germany, giving it instant political clout in the union. And, a factor which is generally whispered about except by far-right factions, which tend to shout about it, Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country in the EU. Even so, there is significant support for Turkish accession within the EU, along with opposition, notably within Germany and France.

When I arrived in Istanbul, after an earlier trip to Brussels to interview Turkish and EU officials, I found that few had EU accession foremost in their mind. Rather, they were focused on the flashpoint of Gezi Park. That park – an urban oasis in a city notably lacking in greenery – had become the focal point for demonstrations against the Erdogan regime, stemming from plans to let developers raze it for a shopping plaza.

I took a hotel near the park, which had been cleared of activists not long before in a police crackdown which saw three protesters and one police officer killed. The government response brought harsh criticism from the European Parliament. That was rejected by Erdogan, who questioned the Parliament’s legitimacy and blamed the protests on outside influences.

I spent several days interviewing leaders of activist groups that were focused on democratic governance, with emphasis on those which also interacted with EU institutions, as well as some political party and policy officials. On two nights, I joined the protesters who still filled the streets of the posh shopping district near Gezi Park. In interviews, they expressed their anger at what they saw as authoritarianism and religiosity gradually but relentlessly taking over their political institutions. Few mentioned the EU without prompting. Support for accession in polls of Turks has steadily dropped in recent years, as frustration has grown over the slow pace of accession talks – even while Croatia, which was given permission to move toward full membership at the same time as Turkey, was admitted. Yet, when asked, most saw EU membership as providing additional resources to challenge the government.

After a few dozen interviews, and being water cannoned and tear gassed by police, I decided I had collected enough from the protesters themselves (!) I did, however, join them another night, after they had quietly walked back into Gezi Park, police standing by, and turned it again into a site for singing, chanting, and expression of views.

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Protestors filling Istiklal St., July 2013

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Woman in goggles, July 2013

Now, six months later, EU leaders are again laying charges of authoritarianism, this time in response to a stringent law pressed by the Erdogan government on internet usage. Critics charge that the law amounts to bald censorship. At the same time, there were hopes for progress on EU accession talks, after years of virtual standstill. The struggle to shape the country’s democracy undoubtedly will continue, though it remains to be seen whether it will be conducted more firmly in the EU context.

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

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