Human Rights and Corruption in Turkey

Two years ago Guy Verhofstadt, European Union Lawmaker, stated the following: “Erdoğan’s Turkey is drifting towards a dictatorship’’. Since then, this statement seems to have only become more valid; an increasingly strict society and firm grip of Erdoğan on this society make this clear.

Three larger developments and events within Turkey will further explain this. First of all, the most recent event; the withdrawal from the Istanbul Treaty. A second development is the corruption that has now reached Turkish universities. But we start with the event that also gave rise to Verhofstadt’s quote: the mayoral elections in Istanbul in 2019.

Istanbul is the city where Erdoğan began his political career as mayor in 1994, and about which he said the following: “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. For a long time, Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, has ruled Istanbul. But in 2019, the opposition party, the CHP with its candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu, increased in popularity during the mayoral elections. After counting the votes, this lead was sealed with 54% of the votes. The AKP lagged behind with 45% of the votes. 

Due to a “slight” difference, the AKP requested a recount; a request approved by the Electoral Council. However, even after this recount, the CHP came out as the winner of the race and Ekrem Imamoğlu was sworn in. The AKP then submits a new request to the Electoral Council. Erdoğan speaks of “organized crime” in the voting process and demands that the results be declared invalid and that a re-election takes place. The Electoral Council approves again and justifies this by stating that an official was not present in every electoral office. Something that has never been proven. And so it happens; citizens take to the polls again. But even after this re-election, the CHP managed to win. It is only now that Erdoğan and his party seem able to accept the outcome. 

However, the first signs of undermining a democratic process by Erdoğan and his AKP have now become visible.

Another controversial example of Erdoğan’s circumvention of the democratic processes is the appointment of Melih Bulu as the new rector of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Melih Bulu, a politician with strong ties to Erdoğan’s AKP, got installed as rector on the 4th of January 2021. Whereas an appointment usually happens through a democratic election, Erdoğan installed Bulu through a presidential decree. 

Students as well as faculty at Boğaziçi, one of Turkey’s most elite educational institutions, demanded Bulu’s resignation and a democratic election of appointed rectors. They protested Bulu’s appointment, declaring that their “academic freedom and scientific autonomy, as well as the democratic values” had been violated. As students and faculty gathered in protest, heavily armed police responded violently. Snipers were placed on university buildings, students were pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets and beaten. As many as 560 students were detained. On Twitter, the Turkish minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, referred to four of the detained students as “LGBT perverts”, after which Boğaziçi’s LGBT-club was disbanded. The government justified this intense reaction, stating that they will “not surrender to the language of terrorism”.

As it stands, Bulu is still the rector of Boğaziçi – and it does not appear as though this is likely to change anytime soon. This is, unfortunately, not an isolated event; the appointment of Bulu at Boğaziçi is definitely not the first time Erdoğan’s government infringes on academic and personal freedom, and probably won’t be the last.

What’s more is Turkey’s withdrawal from the treaty on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, named after the city where it was signed in 2011. Drafted by the Council of Europe, an international organisation which aims at upholding and advocating human rights, the treaty sets legally binding standards on punishment of perpetrators of crime against women, the prevention of domestic violence and protection of victims. When President Erdoğan issued a decree in March this year, annulling Turkey’s ratification of the Convention to become the first country to leave it, demonstrations broke out in multiple Turkish cities. 

Opponents of the convention state that divorce is encouraged and traditional family values are undermined by the treaty, and are mostly worried that it will lead to gay marriage as victims are protected regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to the Turkish government, the promotion of women’s rights has been ‘hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality’, which conflicts with its countries social and family values. Whereas the AKP at first considered issues of diversity and anti-discrimination to be an asset and positively influenced their international appearance, it has now become incompatible with the party’s current polarising rhetoric. 

These three relatively recent developments thus show how Turkey is becoming less and less democratic and more and more strict. However, Imamoğlu’s eventual victory as mayor and the many protests surrounding the university events and the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention show that there is a lot of resistance from society – something that hopefully will not be in vain.

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