World Press Freedom Day and Turkey
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the November 2002 election against a background of recurrent economic crises (in 1994, 1999, 2000 and 2001). Turkey’s economic situation deteriorated in the 1990s due to populist policies that prevented structural reforms.
The February 2001 economic crisis not only hit the daily lives of ordinary citizens, it also strengthened voters’ frustration about the short-sighted policies of the ruling elites of the time.
The electorate’s preference in favor of breaking with the past was so strong that none of the ruling coalition parties was able to pass the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament. The AKP ended up coming to power after a campaign based on a pro-reform, pro-stability and pro-European Union platform.
After winning the election the AKP remained loyal to an IMF-designed stabilization program that was put into force a few months before the 2002 election. Fiscal discipline, Central Bank independence, flexible exchange rates, and extensive structural reforms were among the essential tenets of that program. For the first time in decades, Turkey’s economy became stable and predictable.
On the political front, the AKP passed a series of reforms to harmonize Turkey’s judicial system, civil-military relations and human rights practices with European standards. Improving the rights of Kurds and non–Muslim minorities became a priority. Emergency rule in the southeast was lifted and the Kurdish political movement was able to function in a much freer environment. Turkish journalists could write and talk about the most taboo issues, from criticizing the army to describing as genocide the killing of Ottoman Armenians in 1915.
The AKP was able to win consecutive elections, each time increasing its votes.
Although democratic backpedalling started from 2007 onward, the AKP tried until the end of 2010s to stick to macro-economic balances. It succeeded in creating the impression that it would refrain from “populist” policies, especially ahead of elections.
But ironically the AKP is now undoing most of what it once praised itself for achieving. Looking at Turkey in 2018 is like looking at Turkey in the 1990s. Listening to Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announcing on April 30 an economic package that included various pre-election goodies - such as handing out extra cash to pensioners and declaring an amnesty for tax evaders - prompted a feeling of deja vu.
On the political front, the list of bad old habits is much longer. Emergency rule has been reinstated and keeps being extended. Pro-Kurdish politicians are back in jail and the Kurdish political movement has much narrower breathing space. Prisons are full of political prisoners.
And when it comes to press freedom, unfortunately the facts speaks for themselves. With more than 100 journalists in jail and many on trial with flimsy charges there is not much room for optimism in Turkey on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
Will it be different on May 3 next year? What will happen if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the presidential election and the AKP wins a parliamentary majority thanks to its alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)? After finally centralizing all powers in his hands will the president endorse a more liberal approach towards journalists who may be critical of his policies?
Few feel optimistic, as polarization is expected to continue after the elections as well. The opposition may continue to challenge the president, especially if there are many irregularities during the snap elections, during which many rules will be put into practice for the first time.
In addition, as the nation will be facing dire economic conditions after the election, a critical press will not suit any administration forced to take measures that will hurt the ordinary person on the street.