Background Briefing


The parliamentary elections were called early in Turkey after a political impasse caused the parliament to be unable to elect a new president in two rounds of voting in late April and early May, as current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s term was about to expire. Current Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, of the ruling AKP, was the government’s presidential candidate.

The Turkish military, which had in recent years refrained from direct involvement in politics, has grown vocal in claiming that the AKP government poses a fundamental threat to the secularist order in Turkey and that it favors Islamist ideology over Turkish nationalism. The miliary issued an unsigned statement on April 27, underscoring its concerns and making clear that the military is ready to intervene “when necessary”—without specifying how—as the “defender of secularism.”1 Only a few days later, Turkey’s Constitutional Court annulled the first round of the parliamentary elections for a new president, ruling that a quorum of two-thirds (367 out of 550) of all members of parliament was required. The court’s controversial decision—the first time in its history that it had annulled a presidential election—effectively blocked the election of Abdullah Gül, who had received 357 votes (of 361 present) in the first round.  Gül was ultimately forced to withdraw his candidacy after the opposition boycotted a second round of voting on May 2, thereby preventing the necessary quorum, and early parliamentary elections were then scheduled for July 22.

In claiming that the secularist order is under threat, the military specifically appears to fear the prospect that a president drawn from the ranks of the AKP would oversee the de-secularization of state institutions: presidents in Turkey play an important role in the appointment of the senior state bureaucracy (with the power to influence boards such as the Higher Education Council, and the judiciary). In its stance toward the AKP government the military has been supported by elements of the state bureaucracy as well as by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The AKP government rejects the military’s characterization and denies that it has any hidden Islamist agenda.  Government officials point to the fact that since the AKP came to power in November 2002—the first party in 11 years to be able to form a government alone—it has overseen important reforms, including significant human rights reforms, and brought Turkey closer than ever before to EU membership.

After years of gross abuses committed by state forces and armed opposition groups, Turkey became a candidate for EU membership in 1999 and carried out important human rights reforms between 2002 and 2005. This resulted in significant improvement in the country’s human rights record. The reform process was driven partly by Turkey’s quest for EU membership, but also by growing domestic pressure for greater protection and empowerment of all citizens in Turkey.  In the past two years, however, this reform process has faltered and been accompanied by a worrying deterioration in Turkey’s human rights record.

The reform process in Turkey was never expected to be straightforward or rapidly achievable. A number of laws and provisions in the constitution, such as those that continue to restrict freedom of expression and have a particularly harmful impact on Turkey’s minorities, remain in place despite repeated calls for their repeal. Such laws represent an obstacle to further democratization in Turkey. The systemic failings of state institutions pose an even greater obstacle to reform.  Turkey’s judiciary lacks independence, and elements of the judiciary and other state institutions remain strongly resistant to reform.

There are also troubling indications that the Turkish armed forces and armed opposition groups, notably the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), are deliberately trying to undermine the reform process. In 1999, after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK declared a ceasefire. The ceasefire ended in 2004, followed by a gradual resumption of armed clashes, although not a return to pre-1999 levels. In 2006 the number of armed clashes rose, but dropped again after the PKK renewed its ceasefire in October. In 2007 the number of armed clashes has risen once again: according to official figures, 64 military personnel were killed in the first six months of 2007, and the PKK reported that 96 of its members were killed in the same period. The number of clashes and ensuing deaths is significantly higher than for the same period in the previous year. The PKK has apparently also renewed violent attacks on civilians. Most recently, on May 22, a suspected PKK suicide bombing killed eight civilians and injured over 100 in a busy shopping district in Ankara. Such violence has inevitably increased political tensions in the pre-election period and risks further undermining the Turkish population’s trust in the democratic process and human rights reforms.

During the period 1999 to 2005 Turkey’s EU accession process provided an important incentive for reform, resulting in significant legislative changes and a reduction in reports of torture. Today, however, some EU member states appear to be wavering in their commitment to Turkey’s EU candidacy or are explicitly intent on reversing the EU Council of Ministers’ December 2004 decision to open membership negotiations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed a “privileged partnership” as an alternative to full membership, while newly elected French President Nicholas Sarkozy has clearly and repeatedly stated—without relating the issue to human rights reform—that Turkey does not belong in the EU.2 Recent equivocal signs from the EU, which some believe is applying a double standard to human rights in Turkey, have undermined the reformists in Turkey and may have strengthened the hand of those opposing reform.  What is more, such equivocation may undermine the leverage that the EU might otherwise have to promote human rights progress in Turkey.  Human Rights Watch believes that the EU should send a strong message to Turkey that it  can and will be accepted for membership as soon as it fulfills the main criteria set by the EU for all candidate countries. Keeping Turkey’s candicacy on track remains an important means of securing fundamental and hopefully irreversable progress on human rights.  

1 “Basın açıklaması BA 08/07” (“press release BA 08/07”: unsigned), website of the Office of the General Chief of Staff (Ankara), April 27, 2007, (accessed on July 17, 2007).

2 “Frances snubs Turkey on EU talks”, BBC News 24 website (London), June 25, 2007, (accessed July 18, 2007).