Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree in the early hours of March 20 withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe treaty — dubbed the Istanbul Convention — on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention sets comprehensive standards for protecting women against all forms of violence.
The withdrawal prompted widespread protests from women’s groups and an uproar on social media, criticizing that it signals a huge setback for women’s rights in a country with high rates of gender-based violence and femicides. Just in 2020, at least 300 women were murdered in Turkey.
Turkey Doubles Down on Hard Power
Following the public outrage over the withdrawal, government representatives unconvincingly responded that women’s rights are guaranteed in national laws and that there is no need for international laws. The Directorate of Communications defended the decision with the claim that the convention was “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality,” and that this is incompatible with the country’s social and family values.
Turkey was the first state to ratify the Istanbul Convention and became the first to pull out. What lies behind the withdrawal?
Erdogan’s Rationale: To Remain in Power at All Costs
In August 2020, officials in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) signaled that Turkey was considering withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention after religious conservatives began an intense lobbying effort against the convention, lambasting it for damaging “traditional Turkish family values.” Although they claimed that the treaty destroys families and promotes homosexuality, conservative women’s groups supporting the AKP defended it. The row even reached Erdogan’s own family, with two of his children becoming involved in groups on either side of the debate. Due to these internal tensions within the AKP and the symbolic achievement with the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 2020, the debate was postponed.
Although opinion polls had shown that 84% of Turks opposed withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention and a majority of conservative women were in favor of it, Erdogan decided to pull out of the treaty, thereby disregarding not only the international law anchored in the constitution, but also the legislative power of parliament. This move comes amid significantly eroding support for the president and his informal alliance with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The withdrawal from the convention gives Erdogan three political advantages that will help him retain power.
First, Erdogan and his AKP aim to reenergize their conservative voter base, which has been dissatisfied with the economic downturn — a reality that has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The ruling AKP government cannot curb the high level of inflation, and unemployment and poverty rates remain high. Leaving the convention is a symbolic gesture to his base, but it will bring short-term relief, as did the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia.
Second, with a potential electoral defeat in mind, Erdogan is looking for new allies. He thus made an overture in January to the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), which is in an oppositional alliance with secularist, nationalist and conservative parties. With its 2.5% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections, the SP shares the same Islamist roots as the AKP and is popular among ultraconservative voters, who enthusiastically back the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.
In his meeting with the SP, Erdogan used the withdrawal as a bargaining chip for a possible electoral alliance in the future. He is not only aiming to strengthen his own voting bloc, but also to break the oppositional alliance, which has increasingly gained confidence since its success in the 2019 local elections and been effective in challenging Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Third, to bolster his image as a willful leader, the Turkish president has intensified the level of repression by suppressing democratic civil society organizations that dare to challenge his rule. This time, he has targeted women’s rights advocates, who frequently criticize the government for not strictly implementing the protective measures of the Istanbul Convention.
Political Conditionality as a Necessary European Reaction
While increasing the level of repression in domestic politics, Turkey intensified its diplomatic charm offensive to reset Turkish relations with the European Union. Against this background, Brussels should not only condemn the decision, but also revise its EU-Turkey agenda by imposing political conditions regarding human rights and the rule of law, which have once again been breached with Ankara’s withdrawal from the convention.
This approach is necessary for two reasons. First, the EU can send a motivating message to democratic segments of civil society and the opposition by underlining that the Istanbul Convention is an issue of human rights and that its sole purpose is protecting women from violence rather than undermining Turkey’s national values and traditions. Second, calling Ankara out is also in Europe’s own interest. The withdrawal can have spillover effects on other member states of the Council of Europe.
Considering the latest attempts by the Polish government to replace the Istanbul Convention with an alternative “family-based” treaty that also finds support in other Central European governments, the backlash against women’s rights in Europe is not a myth, but rather a reality.
*[This article was originally published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions related to foreign and security policy.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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