Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Turkey's Challenges

Prof Kirik of Istanbul University (left in photo) contributed with a piece on Turkey

This chapter was written at the beginning of 2015 and appeared in the book "Governance and Participation" ed Dr Melanie Sully

A Yes to Majoritarianism, not to Consensual Democracy


Hikmet KIRIK

Assoc. Prof. Istanbul University, Political Science Faculty


In political terms, Turkey is still in the process of transition from a traditional government concept to one of governance. Moving from a highly centralized, representative government to de-centralized participatory politics, requires changes in various levels comprising the mechanisms, processes and institutions, through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences. Today the great majority of Turkish citizens keenly support the basic principles of inclusive participation in politics, as well as responsiveness, transparency and accountability of their governments. Hence, citizens’ empowerment is already on firm ground in political language. Nevertheless in a multi-layered society like Turkey, transition as such is questioned in an ongoing power struggle including political, institutional and procedural levels. This article will argue that such complexity seems to be the biggest challenge for Turkey in transition towards good governance. 


The process of transition in Turkey can be traced back to the 1980s during which the country underwent structural transformation. The governments of Turgut Özal and his Motherland Party (MP) justified the stabilization-cum-structural adjustment programme under the banners of “effective state” or “service state” supported by key international institutions such as the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank.[1] Hence Application for Accession to the then European Community (EC) in 1987 should also be taken into account despite the negative response from the European Commission.[2] Later, these concepts became buzz words for good governance -hence new criteria were set by international organizations and the European Union as a response to financial globalization. When the idea of good governance emerged in the West, this neo-liberal vocabulary had already been reflected in Turkish political language. However, what they understood by it was radically different in Turkey than countries in Western Europe.

As major beneficiaries of financial globalization, for western democracies, effective state or service state meant a shift in emphasis from a traditional dichotomy between government and the governed towards “the widest possible participation of the population, including civic networks in local affairs, and presupposes an institutionalized dialogue between state and civil society.”  Instead of traditional “majoritarian” forms this shift “leads to a new form of democracy, which “involves the establishment of consensual democracy.”[3] For Turkey, financial globalization through its institutional as well as discursive capacity played a positive role in shaping the democratization process during which the country was undergoing a transition from authoritarian rule and created new political openings. However, Özal’s understanding of democracy reflected the new rights approach “to limit the powers of representative institutions such that the natural workings of the free market could be protected and insulated from the detrimental effects of powerful interest group pressures that can be exercised through representative institutions.” Hence, “the notion of limiting the domain of representative democracy for the benefit of the market was an idea that Özal clearly favoured”, not a shift from majoritarian to a consensual democracy.[4]

During the 1990’s the liberal discourse lost much of its relevance as Turkey confronted economic crisis, weak governments and most importantly an armed conflict in its Kurdish dominated southeast region. Altogether, these factors undermined Turkey’s political and institutional capacity to reform in substantive measures which was required if democratic deficits were to be narrowed. In 1994, the economy was hit by a currency problem followed by the fall of İslamist government. The terror problem reached its peak as the state developed various means to create a “terror from above” in response to the PKK’s “terror from below.[5] When the country hit by a powerful earthquake claiming tens of thousands of lives in 1999 followed by yet another severe economic-cum-political crisis starting in November 2000, people realized that their government had only made few or ineffective efforts in such disastrous situations. Questions were asked such as how should our government govern us? However, no proper answer came from existing political parties, in the eyes of the people at least. In the 2002 general election, voters punished all of the political parties, which had participated in governments during the previous decade. The major beneficiary was the newly established Justice and Development Party (JDP) with a landslide victory. Akarca and Tansel have concluded that voters react with such drastic measures only when “the corruption is massive, the information on it highly-credible and well-publicized, involves large number of political parties, not accompanied by competent governance, and a non-corrupt alternative is available”.[6]

Properly understanding people’s demands for changes on the way in which the country is governed, the JDP, a self-proclaimed “conservative democratic” party, adopted an ambitious development agenda.  To a certain extent economic liberalization went hand in hand with political liberalization. During the past decade or so Turkey focused on implementing reforms related to decentralization, public administration reform, and reforms improving civic engagement. Until recently it seemed a success story combining a realistic (or pragmatic) visionary politics, backed by decisive and persuasive leadership, supported by the majority of voters.  Last but not least the EU, notably since it granted candidate status to Turkey in 1999, exercised leverage in the hands of JDP governments for assimilation of rules and norms of liberal (majoritarian) democracy.[7]These reforms included constitutional changes, reforms in public administration, comprehensive reform of rules and procedures of the parliament to improve parliament’s democratic functioning, a new law on the Intelligence Service, and the creation of an ombudsman institution.

The authoritarian nature of the regime in Turkey is best reflected by the 1982 Constitution. As commonly argued, the underlying philosophy of the 1982 Constitution is illiberal in the sense that primacy is given to the state rather than guaranteeing the fundamental rights and liberties of the citizens. Therefore, quite understandably, the 1982 Constitution became “the subject of heated debate and controversy almost from its inception” and later amended, “sometimes fairly radically … parallel to the social and political developments.” According to Özbudun, “the general directions of these amendments were to improve the protection of fundamental rights, to bolster the rule of law, and to limit the military’s prerogatives in government.” He further argues that the so-called “harmonization laws” are noteworthy that were passed between February 2002 and July 2004 in nine reform “packages.”[8]

Despite all these amendments the core issue of the 2001 general election was to draft a new constitution. Aktar summed up the general feeling when he said that "this country needs a new social contract which would describe the way it intends to go ahead and to make sure that all its constituencies will coexist and perform together without any of them feeling excluded, which is the case now."[9] In 2012 just after the general election, parliament started to draft a new constitution. A Parliamentary Conciliation Committee was set up based on the equal representation of all four political parties. Civil society organizers arranged public consultation thorough public events around Turkey which stimulated debate. The parties agreed on a number of contentious issues but many failed.  The Cross-party Parliamentary Conciliation Committee was made ineffective by the governing JDP on the grounds that there was no longer progress after consensus had been reached on only 60 articles. It is widely believed that the JDP failed to form a consensus for regime change from parliamentary democracy to some form of semi-presidential system in which the publicly elected president’s executive powers will be extended. The JDP and its leadership seems to believe that the best way to improve the majoritarian/representative democracy is by eliminating the anomaly of Turkish democracy by preventing non-majoritarian institutions like the constitutional court and the military to intervene in politics.  

A number of important reforms, including the 4th Judicial Reform Package improved parliament’s democratic functioning.[10] Accordingly special courts and prosecutors have been abolished. Hence the maximum ten-year detention period for crimes under the scope of special courts has been limited to five. Last but not least, The Law on Metropolitan Municipalities, extended the scope of local governments’ competences, thus partially addressing the Council of Europe’s criticism concerning some small municipalities’ weak capacity to deliver public services. It did not, however, implement Council of Europe recommendations on strengthening municipalities through devolution of powers or enabling them to raise their own revenue. Therefore failures in areas such as social division reflected by the political process still remains as one of the major problems particularly taken together with the lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise among political parties. Preparation and consultation with the stakeholders remained insufficient, not only in terms of drafting the constitution but prior to the adoption of key sensitive legislation. There was no progress in the long-standing discussion on the need for systematic consultation with civil society and other stakeholders in law-making. It also failed to improve Parliament’s capacity to monitor performance and audit public expenditure. According to a recent report the procedural aspects of policy making need to be accounted for as the way in which reforms were passed did not conform much to the principles of good governance. For example there was an omnibus bill, a set of changes to a number of laws, and a “reform package” which “made it difficult for practitioners to actually enforce the myriad of new changes. Such a method also made it difficult for both the judges and prosecutors implementing the law as well as the citizen making use of the law to fully understand its contents.” It was also noted that, “during the preparation of the reform packages, suggestions of individuals directly affected by the changes as well as NGOs were not adequately taken into consideration”.[11]

In the area of public administration, external audit and public financial management and control still needs to be strengthened. As the 2013 Progress Reported stated, recent proposals for amending the Turkish Court of Audit Law raise serious concerns as to the independence and effectiveness of the TCA’s audit and control in order to achieve transparency and accountability in all public institutions.[12] Opposition parties were critical on government handling of Parliamentary deliberations on the 2013 general budget, held in December, accusing the government of inadequate feedback on previous public expenditure management. This was due to a government initiated amendment to the Turkish Court of Accounts (TCA) Law adopted in July 2012, which arguably weakened the TCA's legal mandate and working procedures, including parliamentary oversight. The Constitutional Court, repealed this amendment in December 2012, and a subsequent draft law, which might result in a distortion of the TCA’s mandate and its ability to carry out independent and effective audit, was submitted to parliament in April 2013. Although the new law mandates the TCA to carry out all types of government auditing, performance audits, which would be an important element to boost public administration reform, do not seem to be carried out. Implementation of the Law on Public Financial Management and Control continued with the introduction of strategic planning and performance budgeting. All line ministries and major public agencies prepared performance programmes and accountability reports. However, such planning activities need to be better coordinated with the respective budgets. The internal audit system is not effective and continues to suffer from confusion between the objectives, roles and responsibilities of internal audit and inspectorate functions. Overall, external audit and public financial management and control need to be strengthened, but recent proposals for amending the TCA Law raise serious concerns as to the independence and effectiveness of TCA audit and control. Efforts need to be made to increase transparency and accountability in all public institutions.[13] Otherwise, the JDP government is likely to be accused of moving away from better transparency and improved accountability in state expenditures and trimming down oversight powers of watchdog agencies.

One step forward in the right direction is said to be the Parliament’s election of Turkey’s first Head Ombudsman in November 2012 and subsequently appointment of five Ombudsmen. The Ombudsman Institution became operational and began receiving complaints in April 2013. The regulation establishing the modus operandi of the Institution follows the recommendations of the European Ombudsman and provides for the final decision-making power to remain with the Head Ombudsman. It also provides for a simple application procedure and the admissibility of applications in languages other than Turkish. Discussions are ongoing on draft amendments encompassing the right of own initiative, on-the- spot checks and the follow-up of the Ombudsman’s recommendations by the parliament. As of December 2013, the Institution had received more than 7 638 applications concerning alleged violations relating to human rights, the rights of the disabled, civil service-related matters, social security, property rights, financial, economic and tax issues and the conduct of local administrations. As regards administrative acts of the Turkish Armed Forces, the Ombudsman considered eligible a number of complaints on dismissal and maltreatment during military service. The new Ombudsman has received 23 complaints relating to the protests and has started inquiries in line with the institution’s mandate.[14] 

Procedures to adopt a draft law establishing a Law Enforcement Monitoring Commission as an independent supervisory body for police offences remain pending. With an independent body, it would be possible to conduct independent, impartial and effective investigations, with the involvement of victims, into all allegations of misconduct by security forces, in accordance with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. In June and July the Ministry of the Interior issued two circulars, which improve procedures for intervention during demonstrations. Turkish legislation and its implementation concerning the right to assembly and intervention by law enforcement officers are still to be brought further in line with European standards, which focus on the peacefulness of demonstrations. Improvements in the legal framework need to be complemented with appropriate training for law enforcement officers.

The distinction between traditional politics and the politics of governance is the involvement of civil society in political decision-making processes. This may be one of the major challenges which civil society in Turkey needs to overcome as was well illustrated during the Gezi Park events. Actors of traditional politics seemed to be reluctant to accept civil society as a legitimate stakeholder in democracy. It began in protest against an urban development project in Gezi Park in the centre of Istanbul; demonstrations were peaceful despite a number of isolated violent incidents during which the police were accused of using excessive force against demonstrators. Later the protests grew, encompassing broader demands and spreading to other cities and becoming more violent. Six people died, including one policeman, thousands were injured, some of them severely, over 3 500 were taken into police custody, of whom over 112 remained in detention on judge’s decision, including members of NGOs participating in the Taksim Solidarity Platform (a grouping of associations active on the Gezi Park issue). Out of these 108 were detained on suspicion of being a member of a terror organization.

Following alleged violations of human rights during the GEZİ demonstrations and complaints lodged in this context, based on information provided by the Turkish authorities, the Ministry of the Interior has so far launched administrative investigations into 164 law enforcement officers including 32 police chiefs and 30 police officers have been suspended from duty. Some cases were transferred to the courts. Recently, several leaders of the Beşiktaş FC Çarşı fan club are among 35 people who are accused in the indictment of plotting to overthrow the government, were now accepted by a court.[15]

As an EU report indicated recently, government-civil society and parliament-civil society relations need to be improved through systematic, permanent and structured consultation mechanisms at policy level.[16]  Another recent report prepared by TASCO cited a number of obstacles and challenges including:

▪the legal framework for associations and foundations continue to be restrictive and bureaucratic, discouraging rather than encouraging people in exercising their freedom of association;

▪the legal framework highly limits the activities of foreign CSOs in Turkey;

▪fundraising activities are severely limited via the Law on Collection of Aid with heavy authorization requirements, bureaucratic obligations, and generous discretionary powers by the administration;

▪the legal framework regarding freedom of assembly has severe obstacles and problems in exercising the right;

▪obstacles to freedom of association and assembly also occur due to interpretations of some laws such as the Anti-Terror Law, the Law on Misdemeanours, the Law on Meetings based on a limiting and negative approach.[17]

The legal framework hampers the functioning of civil society organisations (CSOs) and the extensive bureaucracy often still discourages civil society participation. There are no inherent participatory mechanisms whereby CSOs can voice demands and be involved in policymaking other than what is called şura (council meeting) ad hoc and often limited to specific phases of policy design as opposed to the entire policy cycle (including the monitoring of implementation). The legislation on associations and foundations should be implemented so as to empower them former more. Currently, problems arise in the areas of penalties and auditing. Other legislation continues to be interpreted restrictively vis-à-vis CSOs. This is relevant for example as far as the freedom of association is concerned.[18]

Some civil society activities are regulated by restrictive primary and secondary legislation, e.g. limiting the right to publish press statements and requiring advance notification of demonstrations, which are often confined to a limited number of designated sites and dates. CSOs’ financial environment is characterized by insufficient tax and other incentives for private donations and sponsorship, making many of them dependent on public (often international) project grants. Public funding for CSOs is not sufficiently transparent and rule-based. Public funds are allocated to CSOs via ministries and through project partnership mechanisms, rarely through grant allocations or service contracts. Tax exemption and public benefit status are granted to a very limited number of CSOs by a Council of Ministers decision. Social enterprises are not defined in legislation as a separate form of legal entity. Overall as far as the involvement of CSOs are concerned, the lack of political will may partly be blamed for the regime’s rather slow transformation towards good governance.  Although Turkey is a participant country in the Open Goverment Partnership (OGP),  it failed to produce a report on Turkey. One reason was, both the Support Unit and the IRM team failed to make contact with a government representative although a considerable number of attempts were made during the report research period.  Second, no self- assessment report was submitted on the National Action Plan. Third, other independent attempts to verify activities related to the National Action Plan found little evidence that OGP commitments were being implemented. The IRM therefore concluded there was not sufficient activity related to OGP to produce a report.[19]  

The fight against corruption is one of the key areas for any judgment of good governance. It is even more relevant in a country where the lack of transparency in state institutions is a long-standing problem and financing politics is not as transparent as it should be.  Although the JDP government’s political success largely relies on its promise for clean and honest politics and its effort to implement the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, the country still ranks just slightly above the global average in terms of government corruption. [20]

According to the results of a recent survey TI-Turkey, the country ranks 53rd out of 177 around the world. Turkey's 2012 ranking was one notch below this year's mark, sharing the spot with Malaysia. The index measures the perception of corruption in the public sector. The survey of 177 countries is based on local and international experts’ opinions of public sector corruption.[21]

In December 15th, 2013 opposition parties accused the government of lack of transparency and public accountability based on the Court of Accounts’ report. Just two days later Turkish media broke the news according to which an investigation started involving senior bureaucrats in the government, relatives of four line ministers in the JDP government and some businessmen. The suspects in the probe are accused of accepting and facilitating corruption in tenders, money laundering and bribery to secure construction permits for protected areas. More than $4.5m had been seized at raids on the suspects’ houses.[22]

The then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rejected the allegations and reframed the corruption scandal as a global plot to overthrow his government, orchestrated by “external” and “internal” enemies. The government tried to stop the corruption investigation and related leaks by resorting to controversial measures that subdued the judiciary, controlled the media, expanded the powers of the intelligence agency, limited internet access, banned social media, and suppressed opposition. Altogether the scandal itself and the government’s handling of it raised deep questions about the independence of the judiciary, the accountability of politicians and the transparency of their relations with business.[23]

Shaken by first GEZİ and later the corruption scandal, the JDP government drafted a new law expanding the powers of the intelligence agency (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı–MİT), including eavesdropping.  What is popularly known as the “MİT law” which is criticized for undermining media freedom, freedom of expression, and the right of access to information pertaining to the public interest,finally went into effect on April 26, 2014. Shortly after, in September 2014, parliament adopted a democratization package, which was announced a year earlier. It was part of the government’s constructive policy towards the Kurdish issue but probably it also hoped to repair its troubled image as a result of GEZİ demonstrations and alleged corruption cases. The current 10% threshold for representation in parliament was kept as the incumbent political parties see it working in their favour. Nevertheless there are some important changes, which were included when it was first announced. Here are some of the most important aspects of the adopted bill:

▪political parties and candidates will be able to use any language or dialect in all forms of campaigning, thus legalizing material in Kurdish. Bans on Kurdish names for settlement places are also being lifted.

▪political parties will be able to implement a co-leadership system, on the condition that it is in their party statute and there are no more than two co-leaders.

▪the threshold for budget support to political parties decreased. According to the new bill, political parties that receive more than three percent of the total number of valid votes cast in a general parliamentary election will receive treasury funds. The fund will be no less than one million Turkish Liras. This arrangement will enable the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to receive a treasury fund.

▪preventing the announcement of religious beliefs, opinions and convictions either by force or by other illegal acts will be sentenced with a jail term of one to three years. The same goes for those who intervene in an individual’s choices about lifestyle based on belief, opinion or convictions. Punishments for hate and discrimination concerning different languages, religions, races, nationalities, political understandings and sects will be increased to between one and three years in prison. Religious lifestyles will be protected through constitutional amendments that increase punishment for those who abuse the rights of people for praying and participating in religious ceremonies.[24]

▪as regards freedom of assembly, the democratization package stipulates that the authorities will consult stakeholders before making decisions on rallies and demonstrations, extend the time periods within which rallies and demonstrations can be held, and gives authority for monitoring and terminating the rallies to an ad hoc body including representatives of demonstrators.



With twelve years in power, the JDP government has achieved a remarkable level of economic and political stability especially in a highly problematic region. As a result a new capital and middle class emerged out of conservative, religiously-oriented sectors of society, which in turn formed the social base for the JDP and Erdoğan. As the JDP secures its support, and consolidates its grip on power, it gradually began to develop a form of neo-traditionalism, which contains both the element of religiosity (through its cultural policies) and modernity (crystalized by its pro-democracy, pro-reformist, pro-European image). Because of all this, one should consider the JDP’s single party government as a promising case of majoritarianism which is likely to sustain this position in the foreseeable future. The JDP’s recent local election victory and Erdoğan’s becoming Turkey’s first elected president is clear evidence of this. In both elections, Erdoğan and the JDP managed to secure majority support despite GEZİ and the corruption scandal. 

One can speculate that taking all this in to account the process of transition from a traditional government concept to the concept of governance should be considered within the context of majoritarianism. To put it another way, the power struggle which encompasses political, institutional and procedural levels seems to put the horse before the cart. During the recent presidential election campaign Erdoğan and his political allies often argued that some form of presidential system is better for Turkey for achieving “normalization” which can be interpreted as a further consolidation of majoritarian democracy. Whether so-called normalization could improve inclusive participation in politics and bring more responsive, transparent and accountable governments is somehow a different question. It will largely depend on how future governments handle the economy and the so-called “peace process” with the PKK as well as the future direction of EU-Turkey relations.







[1] World Bank, Governance and Development, Washington, DC: World Bank 1992.

[2] Çelik, Y. Contemporary Turkish Foreign Policy, Westport, CT:,Praeger, 1999, pp. 103-106

[3] A’Gh, A. “Public Sector Reforms, Institutional Design and Strategy for Good Governance in East Central Europe” in  Studies in East European Thought, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 233-255 at. p. 233

[4] Öniş, Z. ‘Turgut Özal and His Economic Legacy: Turkish Neo-Liberalism in Critical Perspective’ in

[5]This was included “legitimazing torture, kidnapping, disapearence , unaccounted murders and forced migration as counter-terror meassures.” See for example Ensaroğlu, Y. ‘Turkey’s Kurdish Question and the Peace Process’ in Insight Turkey, vol.15, No. 2, (Spring 2013) pp. 7-17, p. 8

[6] Akarca, A.T. and A. Tansel., ‘Turkish Voter Response to Government Incompetence and Corruption related to the 1999 Earthquakes’ in MPRA Paper, 2012 Online at MPRA Paper No. 35894, posted 12. January 2012 19:02 UTC, pp. 14-15

[7] Meltem Muftuler-Bac. ‘Turkey’s Political Reforms: The Impact of the European Union’, Southeast European Politics and Societies, 2005, vol.10, no.1, pp.16-30

[8] The 1982 Constitution was amended eight times in 1987, 1993, 1995, twice in 1999, 2001, 2002, and 2004, Özbudun, E. ‘Democratization Reforms in Turkey, 1993–2004’ in Turkish Studies (June 2007) Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 179-196, at p.180

[9] Voice of America, 10 May 2012

[10]“Turkish president approves 4th judicial package”, Hürriyet Daily News, 29th April 2013

[11]Karakaya, N. and H. Ozhabeş  ‘Judicial Reform Packages: Evaluating Their Effect on Rights and Freedoms’ Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) Democratization Program,Policy Report Series, Judical Reform 5. pp.35-37

[12] Turkey 2013 Progress Report Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council ‘Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2013-2014’, COM(2013)700 final)

[13] Soyaltın, D. ‘Turkish Court of Accounts in Crisis: An Urgent Problem, Yet not a Main Concern?’ in

[14] For report see for example,

[15] September 15, 2014, Monday/ 18:58:32/ TODAY'S ZAMAN / ISTANBUL

[16] Turkey 2013 Progress Report Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council ‘Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2013-2014’, COM(2013)700 final)

[17] Civil Society Needs Assessment Report. Turkey, Technical Assistance to the Civil Society Organisations 2  TASCO 2  from the IPA Beneficiaries; EuropeAid/133642/C/SER/Multi, February 2014, pp. 61-65

[18] TASCO 2, p.4


[20] Further efforts are needed to fully implement the Strategy, to follow up policy proposals from working groups on corruption–related issues and to engage effectively with civil society. The institutional set-up needs to be strengthened. Greater political will is needed to achieve concrete results. Alignment with the recommendations of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) also remains a priority. In this context, the financing of political parties needs to be addressed, including provisions on prohibited funding sources, donation ceilings, and obligations on candidates to disclose assets and submit financial information during a campaign. It is recommended that measures are required to reduce the broad scope of parliamentary immunity in corruption cases and to define objective criteria for the lifting of immunity. Arrangements to verify assets declared by political figures and public officials need to be strengthened. Turkey collects certain statistics on court decisions in corruption cases, but efforts are required to develop a thorough track record of investigation, indictment and conviction. Concerns remain about impartiality in the processing of anti-corruption cases. Turkey needs to ensure dissuasive penalties in all corruption cases.Doig, A. ‘Corruption Report :  Findings, Analysis, and Recommendations’  Ethics for the Prevention of Corruption in Turkey, Council of Europe Directorate General of Human Rights and Legal Affairs Technical Co‐operation Directorate Economic Crime Division Corruption and Fraud Unit November 2009.  

[21] Today Zaman English Daily Newspaper, ‘Turkey Budget Debate Exposes Weak Transparency and Accountability’, December 15, 2013.

[22] Hurriyet, Daily Newspaper, ‘3 Sons of Ministers 3 Bombshell’ 23 December 2013.

[23] Gürbüz. M. ‘The Long Winter: Turkish Politics After the Corruption Scandal’, Rethink Institute, Washington DC, Rethink Paper 15. May 2014