Jessica Atlas contributed to this post.
In wake of the Twitter and YouTube bans put in place by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan congressional caucus, recently hosted a panel of experts for a discussion of Turkey’s disintegration of human rights and rule of law. BPC’s Turkey Initiative member Aaron Lobel participated in the briefing, along with Dr. Howard Eissenstat, professor at St. Lawrence University, Dr. Kemal Kirisci, director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution. The panel was moderated by James Zanotti from the Congressional Research Service and featured opening remarks from Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL).
Throughout the discussion, the panel focused on the setbacks to democracy in Turkey as a result of several factors, including the lack of media freedom, constitutional checks and balances and religious freedom.
The presenters gave significant background on the journey of the AKP from its inception to today. When first elected in 2001, the panelists felt that the party made significant positive reforms by cleaning up government, supporting public enterprise, liberalizing society and reforming Islam. Unfortunately, the panelists noted that, in their view, the AKP vision of democracy is too narrow and focused on protecting its core constituency as opposed to adhering to a broader liberal democracy. They argued that the AKP has dominated Turkey in a way no other party has been able to, and has cemented its power through controlling all aspects of political life.
Gezi Park Protests
The panelists discussed how the May 2013 protests helped demonstrate the rise of democrats in an “explosion of cultural society” and middle class participation. They noted that while there are protests that occur on a daily basis in Turkey, the extent of the Taksim Square protests had implications for the entire country.
U.S. Response to Turkey
The panelists noted that the Obama Administration has recently been pressured to take a public stance on Turkey’s challenges and Erdoğan’s actions, most notably through a letter to the White House signed by 86 foreign policy experts, organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Center for American Progress, Freedom House, and Foreign Policy Initiative.
Yesterday’s municipal elections in Turkey were also discussed. It was suggested by the experts that the level of support the AKP receives in the elections will play a role in how Erdoğan approaches the presidential elections in the coming months. In the days leading up to the voting, numbers for the AKP were only slightly down, because economic woes have yet to affect the general public and the corruption scandal is not high up on the electorate’s agenda. The panelists believe that if Erdoğan sees a considerable win for the AKP, he will view it as a victory and a public mandate for his party’s rule.
BPC will convene a conversation later this week to discuss the local elections in Turkey. Learn more about the event here.
Laura Hall is a manager for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Advocacy Network and Jessica Atlas and is an intern with BPC’s Foreign Policy Project.