Middle East & North Africa

Elections in Turkey: Longing for Democracy


June 14, 2011 09:30 EDT

Ozsel Beleli looks at recent elections in Turkey and reviews the degree to which Turkey is really a democracy.

On June 12th, 87% of registered voters in Turkey placed their votes in ballot boxes across the country. If elections or impressive turnout rates were the primary indicators of a flourishing democracy, Turkey would clearly deserve high marks. However, much more is necessary to create and sustain a political system where democracy can flourish.

Does Turkey have a democratic government? Recent events indicate that Turkey’s democracy is at best flawed, and possibly under significant threat. If democracy was indeed flourishing, the ruling AKP would not publicly seek a super-majority of 367 out of 550 seats in the Parliament to enable the unilateral preparation and approval of a new constitution. AKP urged the people to give them the power to change the constitution without first gaining the approval of the people themselves or any other political parties – hardly a democratic act. Fortunately, the people gave them neither this power nor the power to bring a draft constitution to referendum without the consent of at least one of the other political parties in the Parliament.

If Turkey did have truly democratic government, its people would be enjoying the fruits of democracy, fundamental freedoms and rights, rather than seeing them violated over and over again. Some of the more recent actions against citizens in Turkey have been characterized by use of excessive force and demonstrate the prevalence and extent of human rights and freedom violations in the country, and the weakness of its democratic institutions:

Democracy Tents

As part of the Kurdish movement’s recent decision to organize civil disobedience actions, ‘tents for a democratic solution’ were set up in 26 provinces, under the leadership of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Congress of Democratic Society (DTK). In violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly, police forces intervened against the tents 56 times during March and April. According to report of the Association of Human Rights (IHD), they arbitrarily detained 872 people, arrested 36, wounded 63, and killed two.

The Kurdish tent movement was trying to demand democratic solutions in four areas: establishing the right to education in Kurdish, releasing over a hundred Kurdish activists and elected local officials some of whom have been detained for over a year, changing the law that requires a political party to get at least 10% of all votes to have representatives in Parliament, and ending all military and political operations in the east of the country.

Imprisonment of Journalists

There are 70 journalists currently in prison in Turkey and cases against more than 100 journalists are underway. Convictions may lead to imprisonment, reflecting the thin ice on which journalists skate in order to fulfill their role as watchdogs for democracy. Demonstrations against this blatant violation of the freedom of expression have gained momentum in recent months following the arrest of two investigative journalists, Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık.

Take Me In Too Campaign

Hüseyin Edemir, a graduate student at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), has been detained for over a year on the grounds of his alleged membership of DHKP-C, a leftist group on the Turkish government’s list of terrorist organizations. During the most recent hearing in March, even the prosecutor requested Edemir’s release. Despite this, his detention was still extended by the court council, according to a news story in Bianet, an independent network of journalists. A group of ODTÜ students are organizing various demonsrations and an online petition campaign as well as trying to get the word out by a video titled “Take Me In Too” to demand the right to fair and speedy trial of their colleague. Currently, prisons in Turkey hold more detainees than convicts.

Right to Water, Freedom of Assembly and Metin Lokumcu’s Death

On May 31st, Prime Minister Erdoğan arrived in Hopa, a town in the north-east of the country, as part of his election campaign travels. A group of people gathered to protest the government’s policies on hydroelectric plants posing a threat to the environment and water resources in the region. The police intervened forcefully and used pepper gas excessively. As a result, Metin Lokumcu, a 54 year-old retired teacher, had a fatal heart attack. In trying to demand his right to water and environment through his freedom of assembly, Lokumcu lost his right to life. Lokumcu’s death triggered numerous protests across the country. In response to a question about Lokumcu’s death on a televised interview, the Prime Minister defended the police forces and deemed Lokumcu’s behavior to be “inappropriate.”

“We Will Not Give Up Anatolia Walk”

In April 2011, hundreds of people started marching across Turkey to raise awareness about the mounting threats to their health, environment and livelihoods – mining operations, hydroelectric, nuclear and coal plants. Their plan was to walk in groups from their home towns for 40 days and eventually merge for a grand gathering in Ankara. They arrived in Ankara on May 21st and since then have been confined by the police forces to a small piece of land outside of the city with limited access to even the most basic facilities. As of June 14, their wait to use their freedom of assembly continues.

The issues taken up by these citizen actions, represent only a few of the rights and freedoms continually violated on a mass scale in Turkey. Until the day the basic rights and freedoms of individuals and groups are unconditionally protected, and the government’s response to these struggles is not destructive force but respect, no honest person can claim that Turkey has a truly democratic government.

I continue to be hopeful for the prospect of a flourishing democracy in Turkey. The source of that hope, however, is not the recent elections, but the determination of activists in Turkey to strive for the rights and freedoms of all.


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