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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey’s first president to be elected by popular referendum. Three-time prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the past decade, Erdogan’s leading place in Turkey’s modern history is guaranteed. That should not obscure the fact that the country has seen a very real erosion of human rights and the rule of law over the past two years as Erdogan has consolidated power.
If the days of military tutelage in Turkey are thankfully over, that doesn’t yet mean that Turkey has a government that is fully accountable to the people or a justice system that is independent and can guarantee that the law applies to everyone.
Since a corruption scandal implicating government ministers and their sons broke in December 2013, Erdogan and his ruling party have sought to change laws to suit their own agenda and muzzle social media. They have interfered repeatedly in the corruption investigation, reorganized entire parts of the criminal justice system, and in the process pursued a politically polarizing discourse rounding on opponents and critics. All of that came on the heels of Erdogan’s demonization of the Gezi protestors last year and repeated expressions of support for violent police tactics and a clampdown on demonstrations.
At his victory speech on Sunday, Erdogan declared, “I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million.” Will that include people who criticize him on Twitter? His rivals in government? If Turkey is to embrace its place as a democratic country where everyone’s human rights count, it is essential that all political players, including the new president, take urgent steps to address the rights crisis. A successful Kurdish peace process in the absence of a democratic and rights-respecting environment for all citizens seems a contradiction in terms: a human rights and justice deficit after all lies at the heart of Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
As journalists debate how Erdogan will maintain power as president and attempt to control the AKP, in the longer term will Turkey’s citizens demand an accountable government, and the right to scrutinize the conduct of their political leaders? The answer will be key to Turkey’s democratic future.