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4 Critical Issues to Watch in Turkey Following Local Elections

By Blaise Misztal, Jessica Michek

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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Turkey’s March 30 local election, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) earning 45.5 percent of the vote, revealed a country deeply divided. How Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan interprets these results will determine how he approaches the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and whether he pursues a policy of conflict or compromise: continuing the repressive practices that characterized the lead-up to the local elections or abandoning them now that he’s secured his party’s rule.

At a discussion of the significance of Turkey’s local elections and a subsequent analysis, the Bipartisan Policy Center identified four critical issues to monitor that would indicate the path that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government intends to take: 1) electoral irregularities 2) social media bans 3) the pending intelligence law and 4) relations with Israel.

With the elections nearly a month ago, we evaluate the AKP’s recent actions in each of these areas.

Electoral Irregularities

As Turkey approaches presidential and parliamentary elections in an increasingly tense domestic environment, addressing concerns about the fairness of March 30 elections is critical to limiting growing polarization in Turkish society and reassuring Turks that their votes will be counted in the two upcoming elections.

Charges of electoral fraud challenge the validity of the March 30, including:

  • Electricity blackouts that interrupted polling in several provinces,
  • Instances of ballot tampering reported by the opposition.

Accusations of electoral fraud coming from the opposition have been swept under the rug. Here is what has happened since the elections:

  • Numerous requests from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to recount or cancel the results of the election for mayor of the capital, Ankara, ranging from local election boards all the way to the Supreme Election Board (YSK), have been denied. While the AKP seems determined to quash disputes over the Ankara vote, the CHP has not been dissuaded. On April 21, the CHP applied to the Constitutional Court to order a re-run of the election and, if that fails, reportedly plans on appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. However, the CHP’s prospects in the Constitutional Court may be dim, as Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ has said that any YSK decision would be final.
  • The YSK, while denying the CHP’s petitions in Ankara, has proven willing to hear AKP petitions. While a CHP petition in the northwestern province of Yalova led to a recount, changing the mayorship from the AKP to the CHP by a margin of 6 votes, the AKP then filed a complaint to the YSK, which annulled the results of the Yalova election, which will now be re-held in June.
  • CHP candidate Vefa Salman decried the decision as politically motivated, saying “I don’t believe that the decision was based on the law…Yalova residents elected me to be their mayor, but the YSK made an unfair decision.”
  • The AKP continued to challenge the results in the eastern province of Agri, despite a clear victory by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). After numerous recounts failed to change the result, the BDP requested the results be annulled and the elections reheld “due to the tension in the city and the sensitivity people” arising from the continuous recounts, according to BDP candidate Sirri Sakik. The provincial elections board accepted the BDP’s request, and the election will be repeated on June 1st.
  • The YSK did, however, accept a petition from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), ordering the Provincial Election Council to investigate the results in Kastamonu province, the results of which have not been announced, where the MHP, who had governed there for 20 years, lost the municipal elections to the AKP by 245 votes.

Social Media Bans

Under the recently passed Internet law, the Turkish government censored social media platforms just days before the local elections, blocking first Twitter and then YouTube.

How the U.S. Responded: The United States expressed its disapproval of its NATO ally’s actions, with State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki saying, “we’re looking to Turkey to uphold its commitment to respect the fundamental freedom of expression. Independent and free media are essential to an open society and an accountable system of government.”

How Turkey Replied: A defiant Erdoğan, however, expressed his disregard for the international community’s condemnation, declaring “I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.”

What’s the Status Now?

  • Twitter is online, Erdoğan is not happy about it. Eventually, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Twitter ban was unconstitutional. Turkey’s government, despite being required to implement the Court’s decision immediately, waited 24 hours before allowing access to service once again. Erdoğan disagreed with the decision, saying “we have to implement [the ruling], but we don’t have to respect it.”
    • On Twitter, another ban may be imminent. On April 10, AKP Deputy Burhan Kuzu applied to the Constitutional Court to block access to Twitter or remove content which allegedly insulted him on the social media website, in response to an insult on Twitter from June 2013. Kuzu went on to say that Twitter could be blocked again at any time, in response to a lower court ruling. Erdoğan accused Twitter of being a “tax evader” and, in meetings with Twitter since the ban, demanded that Twitter open an office in Ankara and begin paying taxes. However, despite reports from Ankara and Twitter and the government had found “common ground,” Twitter representatives said they had no plans to open a local office in Turkey.
    • Erdoğan has also personally applied to the Constitutional Court, seeking 500,000 lira in compensation, on the grounds that court orders to remove content violating both his and his family’s right to privacy and freedom of communication were not implemented.
  • YouTube is still blocked. When it comes to YouTube, the government has decided it needs to neither respect nor listen to the courts. The court that initially ordered the ban on the video sharing service reversed its ruling on April 4 following an appeal, calling its previous decision a “major intervention into freedom of speech, a fundamental value of a democratic society.” Yet access to YouTube remains blocked throughout the country. Turkey’s Information and Communications Technologies Authority (BTK) has refused to comply with the court’s decision, saying that the ban would remain until the offending content—a leaked recording of a high-level government meeting about the war in Syria—was removed from the site entirely, not just blocked for Turkish users. However, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu presented a slightly different justification to the ban, saying that was “a matter of national security” and “should not be perceived as a restriction of freedoms.” With the government disregarding the lower court ruling, YouTube filed a petition with Turkey’s Constitutional Court on April 7.

Intelligence Law

Immediately following the local elections, the AKP moved forward a draft law, shelved before the elections, that expands the powers of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, (MİT).

The draft law contains sweeping powers for Turkey’s intelligence agency. It would exempt the MİT from oversight and increase its immunities and ability to monitor Turkish citizens. Parliament passed the law on April 17, increasing the immunities already contained in the law by adding an amendment that would require the Prime Minister to approve any investigations against the head of the MİT. The bill was then turned over to President Gül, who signed it into law on April 25.

President Gül’s View: Gül, who confounded hopes that he would act as a moderating force in the AKP government when he signed other controversial bills on the Internet and the judiciary, told critics “If there are objections, it is clear to which institution to take the law.”

Former Justice Minister Şakir Şeker said, “The MIT is being made a core of oppression, power and threats. The purpose is to intimidate everyone who is against it. The MIT is about to become a feared terror organization.”

The CHP’s View: CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu also decried the legislation: “The proposal is against the principle of a state of law. No one can be granted such authority. This can only happen under dictatorships. At this point, we are officially handing over the state to an illegal gang,” promising to challenge the law in Turkey’s Constitutional Court.

While there were hopes that the Erdoğan’s draconian measures before the elections were simply a bid to hold onto power and that he would feel more secure after the AKP’s victory, his efforts to pass the MİT bill show that Turkey, for now, seems to be continuing down the path of increasing authoritarianism. The MİT law, coupled with the recently passed laws on Turkey’s judiciary and the internet, further consolidates power in the executive, eroding the separation of powers and independence of Turkey’s institutions.

Normalization with Israel

Prior to the elections, Turkish leadership took a more conciliatory turn in its rhetoric toward Israel, suggesting that negotiations were on track to reach an agreement on compensation for the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident and stabilize the relationship. However, progress stalled as March 30 approached and has not yet resumed. If Turkey were able to normalize its relations with Israel, it would be an indicator of an overall shift in its foreign policy towards repairing its strained ties with the West, moving away from the sectarian slant that put it at odds both with Israel as well as its Western allies in the region. Turkey blames Israel for the lack of progress solely on Israel, with sources saying that the agreement has been submitted for approval by both Erdoğan and Netanyahu, but it’s in Netanyahu’s court and needs to close the deal.

Economic factors, however, may provide new momentum. There are reports that Israel is in talks with both Turkey and Egypt about exporting Eastern Mediterranean natural gas, with construction of a pipeline from Israeli to Turkey beginning as early as 2015. A closer relationship between Turkey and Israel, predicated on energy and economic gain, may provide the boost necessary to get Turkish-Israeli relations back on track.

What does this mean moving forward?

Indeed, the government’s actions in these four areas provides insight not just into its policies in the near future, but into the AKP’s intentions in the looming electoral season. One of the critical questions emerging from the local elections was whether the strong AKP result would embolden Erdoğan to seek the presidency he desires and, if so, what that would mean for the fate of the current president, Abdullah Gül.

Since last summer’s Gezi protests, when his comments suggested a greater willingness to listen to the demands of the demonstrators, Gül has been considered by some a kinder, gentler alternative to Erdoğan, one that could possibly lead a challenge to the prime minister from within the party they both started. The need to avoid turning Gül into an outright competitor and sparking a conflict within his party ahead of important elections, might well be the last restraint on the authoritarian impulses Erdoğan has displayed lately. His government’s actions on these four important domestic and foreign issues are a good barometer of how he is approaching both major policy questions and the pending electoral contests.

The view thus far is not promising; little positive progress has been made in any of these four areas that would suggest Erdoğan is treading carefully. The AKP has been largely unresponsive to accusations of voter fraud that marred the Ankara election results. The government has continued to lash out at social media, railing against the Constitutional Court’s decision to unblock Twitter and maintaining the YouTube ban despite multiple rulings overturning it. Erdoğan has further consolidated power in his hands, moving forward with a resolution hugely expanding the purview of the MİT. Finally, while rhetoric coming from Ankara before the election suggested that reconciliation with Israel was near, the government has been silent on Israel since March 30.

That this continued preference for accumulating power and undermining Turkey’s system of checks and balances translates into a determination to transform, by whatever means necessary, the presidency from its currently mostly ceremonial role into a muscular post has been highlighted by several of Erdoğan’s recent comments. Although his previous efforts to amend Turkey’s Constitution to create a strong presidential system were thwarted, Erdoğan reportedly told AKP deputies that after the elections, Turkey will become a “de facto presidential system” where the president holds executive power. “If I step into [the presidential palace],” he declared, “I will be the president of the people. I will use all my constitutional powers.” Rather than sparking a backlash, this heavy-handed approach appears to be working for Erdoğan. Gül, rather than combat Erdoğan for the presidency or agree to switch places and assume both party leadership and the position of Prime Minister, has instead declared that, “Under the present conditions, I do not have any plans to get involved in politics.”