Key Challenges

Polarization of society used to secure power; opposition gaining
Turkey’s main problems are political and social. There is a trade-off with each of these challenges – whether its political stability versus political competition and participation, freedom of religion versus freedom from religion, or majority-minority cleavages versus an integrated state and society – that bears political, social and international repercussions. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has leveraged societal polarization as a means of securing and holding on to power. Legal uncertainty, distrust in the judiciary, the deterioration of fundamental rights and freedoms, and inefficiency in governmental sectors have increased in the aftermath of the averted military coup of 15 July 2016. However, the victory of CHP mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu – who ran on a platform of unity rather than division – in the 2019 Istanbul election rerun suggest a shift is taking place. Since then, opposition parties that have formed an electoral alliance have been gaining ground, signaling a rise in local democratic activity.
Centralized model
already fraying
The new presidential system, introduced in the wake of the April 2017 referendum and the 2018 general elections, marks an attempt to promote efficiency and coordination in governmental processes, particularly in decision-making and implementation, through the use of government offices, councils and ministries. However, placing the powers of centralization and decision-making in the hands of the president have raised doubts about the sustainability of interministerial coordination, coherence, adaptability and accountability. Only one year into the current system, the AKP has begun discussing possible revisions that might include giving parliament more power and removing the restrictions placed on ministers’ appointments.
Persistent civil-rights shortcomings
Shortcomings with regard to civil rights persist. The incumbent AKP government should expand minority rights for Kurds, Alevis, Christians and other groups in order to increase the visibility of minority groups within society and foster their identification with the state. The government has also done little to address the legal status of the Syrian population and other nationalities, most of whom are unregistered and therefore excluded from social and economic participation. This failure on the part of the Turkish government, the EU and the United Nations to take action on this issue will have a negative impact on Turkey’s social and economic development in the medium and long term. In addition, the Turkey’s deficit budget, high unemployment rate, and the high cost of living for Turkish nationals are in urgent need of attention.
Authoritarian drift a serious concern
At the same time, the AKP should take seriously the domestic and international concerns raised about the continued growth of authoritarianism and exclusionist conservatism, and the decline of pluralism and liberalism within society. The impact of religiosity in government and society, coupled with the continued violations of religious pluralism in education and public spaces, are increasingly important problems to be addressed. The divisions within the governing party may, however, lead to new developments and an election in 2020 rather than 2023.
Demographic shifts pose growing problem
During the review period, Turkey’s gradual demographic shifts and the country’s economic slowdown have driven other problems to the fore. While the country’s young and well-educated population offers enormous potential, financial and social provisions for the elderly need to be addressed. The government should continue to reform the pension system in order to tackle social exclusion and poverty. The government should also do more to improve its record on environmental issues, education and innovation by increasing spending on these areas that are key to driving much-needed sustainable growth for its growing population. It must also address illegal immigration and the refugee situation if it is to mitigate social tensions and effectively combat discrimination.
As key regional power, should pursue dialogue
Turkey has become a major emerging economy and a key regional power. However, it increasingly struggles with the repercussions of internal conflicts in neighboring and regional countries as well as the attempted coup of 15 July 2016. In order to regain credibility and influence, Turkey should use diplomatic means to re-establish trust, peace and security in the region, and pursue dialogue with reliable regional actors and Western partners. Turkey’s international influence and credibility would further increase if the government became more involved in and implemented more international agreements such as those proposed by the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the EU.

Party Polarization

Polarization a chronic condition; use of “us” vs. “them” rhetoric to drive support
Polarization, fragmentation and instability have been chronic maladies of the Turkish party system, especially in the 1970s and 1990s. After winning the general election in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was able to rule the country as a single-party government until the 2015 general election. However, since 2007, the AKP government has continually challenged the parliamentary party system and proved able to strengthen presidential powers through a 2017 constitutional referendum. The AKP has also capitalized on the re-emergence of traditional cleavages between, for example, Kurdish and Turkish populations, Alevis and Sunnis and those who advocate a secular state and those who prefer a religious state, increasingly engaging in polarizing rhetoric in public discourse. It draws on a discourse of “us” (the oppressed) versus “them” (those who oppress) to consolidate its support. The exclusion of various social, economic and political groups is a key driver of party polarization. Other factors include the country’s majoritarian governance model, the lack of democracy and rule of law, permanent campaigning, and a lack of transparency, meritocracy and accountability within the state system.
Opposition has no voice
in public discourse
Elites in Turkey are so polarized that they can’t reach a consensus on whether or not polarization even exists. Ideas regarding elites vs. the people have fostered the emergence of a dualistic society. In Turkey’s majoritarian governance system, the opposition is provided no voice within public discourse and has little recourse to exercising fundamental rights and freedoms within a democratic space. Pro-government elites assert that the averted coup attempt of 2016 helped conquer #polarization, while the government’s opponents have argued that it merely divided Turkish society even further. The nationalist discourse accompanying the government’s 2019 “anti-terrorist” intervention in northern Syria was aimed at whitewashing societal fragmentation, particularly with regard to the cleavages between the country’s Kurdish and Turkish populations.
Authoritarian turn stands in way of key reforms
Whereas ten years ago, political polarization in Turkey was considered to pose the biggest obstacle to the country’s turn toward Europe, today, it is the country’s autocratic political institutions that stand in the way of economic and democratic reforms. The majoritarian principle cannot be the solution as institutional reforms to strengthen the democratic system (e.g., lowering the 10% electoral threshold) are needed.
Taking sides only creates further division
The tendency to take sides in this deeply polarized climate is dangerous not only because it entails harsh political debates, but it also creates further division within society and threatens the existence of civil society. Under the successive AKP governments, trade union models based on political interests rather than social and trade union rights, and the governments’ economic policies have increased polarization and negatively affected the trade union movement in Turkey.
Consensus-driven processes now impossible
The consequences of such a polarized environment are profound. Drafting a new constitution through consensus-driven process has become impossible in this toxic environment of “polarization, erosion of a common and good reference and distrust.” This environment provides fertile ground for politicians targeting quick victories in a context of permanent campaigning and who exploit cleavages through their polarizing rhetoric. New political actors find it very difficult to claim ground in this context and voter transition between camps is difficult. As a result, the winners and the losers of these elections will be drawn from the same pool of politicians.
Consolidation of power an obstacle to healthy debate
Growing political polarization, especially in the run-up to the March 2019 municipal elections continues to preclude constructive parliamentary dialogue. The opposition – most notably the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – remains marginalized, and many HDP lawmakers have been detained. The long-standing shortcomings associated with the system of parliamentary immunity remain addressed. The president’s consolidation of power and every governmental action in this direction is an obstacle to healthy debate on any issue. However, the success of opposition parties that formed an electoral alliance in Istanbul’s local 2019 elections and the resounding victory of mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu – who emphasized the need to overcome divisions – suggest a shift is underway. (Score: 3)
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“CHP official: Istanbul result signals end of polarization,” 24 June 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/chp-official-istanbul-result-signals-end-of-polarization/av-49328004
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