The upcoming elections in Turkey are of utmost significance, as their results will undeniably set the tone for the country’s future. Will Turkey continue on the path towards authoritarianism, or will it take another direction?
ARTICLE 19 and Freedom House hosted a Twitter space discussion facilitated by ARTICLE 19’s Suay Boulougouris to explore the main threats to electoral integrity in Turkey’s upcoming elections. Distinguished speakers examined the environment of intensified centralised control stemming from the ‘super presidency’ system and its role in the ongoing erosion of fundamental rights and the rule of law. The conversation revolved around how the Erdoğan government uses its extensive power to shut down critical coverage, harass and persecute independent journalists, and jail political opponents.
Nate Schenkkan, Senior Director of Research for Freedom House;
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Europe and Central Asia Associate Director and Turkey Director for Human Rights Watch;
Kerem Altıparmak, Co-founder of Freedom of Expression Association in Turkey, IFOD
Key takeaways from the panel
In the lead-up to crucial elections, the crackdown on free speech and civil society has intensified. This is characterised by arrests of journalists and activists, constant repression on the online environment – with social media users facing grave consequences over as little as a post, share, or like – and the October 2022 amendments to several laws pushed through with no proper consultation. The climate for those who challenge Erdoğan’s rule has become suffocating.
The super-presidency system
‘Over the years, increasing repression against freedom of expression, association and assembly, including the emblematic Gezi Park Trial that saw prominent human rights defenders put in jail on nonsensical charges, has been exacerbated by the super-presidency system. It puts the presidency in a centralised role and diminishes the independence of other institutions and their ability to act as a check’, said Nate Schenkkan.
Emma Sinclair Webb noted that the upcoming elections will take place at a time when the super-presidency system has been in place for 5 years, and illustrated how various institutions, and therefore democratic procedures, have become heavily dependent on Erdoğan’s decisions.
‘The massive advantage held by the president and the consolidation of power cannot be underestimated. Erdoğan managed to take over the state media and the courts. The super-presidency system works in a way that appointments to the body that runs the judiciary and appointments to the constitutional court are all tied to the president. The president is also the head of the ruling party. Parliament’s role is much diminished, and many of the prerogatives that parliament has are in fact in the hands of the president as he is the head of the ruling party.’
Pressures on the right to freedom of expression
Kerem Altıparmak referred to the October 2022 amendments that introduced new requirements and heavy sanctions for social media platforms that fail to comply, as well as a new offence of ‘spreading false information’, further entrenching online censorship and restricting access to information.
‘The opposition has used social media very effectively. However, in the case of Erdoğan’s electoral victory, with the new provisions added to the internet law, it’s possible there will be no freedom on social media during the next elections. This might be the last election period in which people still have relative freedom.’
In the aftermath of the disastrous earthquakes in February, we have witnessed how the new law that criminalises ‘spreading false information’ can be used to restrict access to information.
‘In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, one journalist was asked whether he had confirmation from authorities about the fire in a prison during the earthquake that he had reported on. If there is a conflict between the narrative of the government and what a journalist says, the journalist may be asked to secure approval from the authorities’, said Altıparmak.
As traditional media is largely under control of the government, the internet remains one of the last instances where people can access independent information. The ongoing process of expanding censorship on social media platforms is therefore a threat to the accurate coverage of the elections. With the October 2022 amendments, if Twitter does not comply with a single content removal or user data request, it can be throttled up to 90 percent.
‘The government could use the pretext of old content that has not been removed on request to partially restrict social media platforms’, pointed out Sinclair Webb.
‘After the earthquake, Twitter was throttled based on article 60 of the Electronic Communications Law, which basically only says that the president may ask the telecommunication authority to throttle platforms where necessary. We might expect these vague provisions to be used during and immediately after election day’, added Altıparmak.
A Question & Answer document prepared by ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch examines possible threats to Turkey’s online environment in the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections.
While Sinclair Webb and Schenkkan explained the trajectory of the onslaught against opposition and tactics to demonise political rivals over the years – including jailing party leaders such as Selahattin Demirtaş, Altıparmak enumerated the main five types of pressures on journalism and journalists in Turkey.
- Internet restrictions, blocking orders, removal of content decisions
- Decisions by Turkey’s broadcast regulator RTÜK
- Repression of Kurdish journalists, mainly relying on anti-terror legislation
- Misuse of several provisions of criminal law, in particular insulting the president and insulting a public official because of their duty
- Civil cases brought against alternative media sources and the journalists working for those publications.
Politicisation of the judiciary
Schenkkan and Altıparmak also highlighted how the high politicisation of the judiciary can impact the counting of the vote.
‘The YSK (Supreme Electoral Council) that oversees elections in Turkey is heavily influenced by the president. YSK can basically change the rules, even on the day of the election. In the case of the 2017 Turkish Constitutional Referendum, after the ballots had been closed, YSK decided that ballots that weren’t stamped could actually be counted. As appeals about the elections are also made to the YSK, we can’t be sure how concerns over electoral fairness might be resolved’, said Schenkkan.
‘Erdoğan has been in power for two decades now. Around 13,000 new judges were recruited after 2016, as around 4,300 were dismissed following the coup attempt. The government changed the structure of the province election boards as well. Previously the most senior judge would chair the board in provinces, and now, the chair of the board will be decided by a lottery. Keeping in mind that this government has appointed 90 percent of the current members of the judiciary, one can understand the meaning of the amendment. The chance of a government alliance judge chairing a provincial board is 90 percent’, added Altıparmak.
The speakers agreed that the most significant driving force for change among the electorate might be young voters, in particular those for whom this will be the first time to cast a ballot.
‘Even though there is an enormous economic crisis, a lot of messaging by the ruling party is not referring to people’s economic interests. They are constantly focusing on terrorism and the LGBT [community]. These issues do not match the reality of ordinary people. We have to trust the emerging active citizenship model that we see embraced by a lot of young people in Turkey today,’ said Sinclair Webb.
‘The result of this election will be determined by children of conservative families. You can’t change the minds of devoted AKP voters, but their children wanting a better life could change the trajectory’, said Altıparmak.
Nate Schenkkan reminded the Twitter space audience of the inspiring resilience of Turkey’s human rights activists.
‘There is a long history of independent thought deeply rooted in the fabric of the society in Turkey. People in Turkey have repeatedly shown strong resistance to the consolidation of power. They really don’t back down’, he said.