Erdoğan’s Ambiguous Decade | Freedom House

Erdoğan’s Ambiguous Decade

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Photo Credit: Senat RP/Polish Senate

Ten years ago, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored an overwhelming victory in elections for the Turkish parliament. Its triumph represented much more than a normal rotation of power between one traditional party and another. As a party—or, perhaps more accurately, a movement—with roots in moderate Islamism, the AKP stood poles apart from the secularist parties that had dominated Turkish politics for much of the previous century.

The AKP’s charismatic leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has pushed through policies that have substantially transformed many of the country’s political institutions. Most significantly, he has succeeded in reducing the military, long regarded as the ultimate source of political power and the guarantor of Turkish sovereignty, to a position that is subservient to civilian authorities. Under the AKP, elections have become more competitive and fair, prison conditions (notoriously poor in Turkey) have been improved, and, for a while at least, rights for Kurds were enhanced. Turkey’s economy has grown even as Europe’s has declined, and the country’s influence among Arab states has expanded. Moreover, Erdoğan has built a personal reputation as a pivotal world leader.

But there is a darker side to the AKP record. The reformist bent of Erdoğan’s early years in office has been replaced by policies that are meant to entrench AKP power. The government has launched mass prosecutions against military officers, journalists, academics, and political figures accused of involvement in a deep-state conspiracy, called Ergenekon, that allegedly sought to bring down the government. AKP loyalists have increasingly come to dominate the judiciary. Erdoğan has intimidated the media through legal cases brought against outlets that supported the opposition, pressure on editors to muzzle or fire critical commentators, and multiple arrests of journalists. Indeed, the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists has marked the AKP’s 10th anniversary in power with a scathing report on the state of Turkish press freedom.

Perhaps most worrisome is a sense that despite its own history as a target of repressive efforts, the AKP is now embracing methods—the prosecution of political adversaries, stifling of the media, misuse of the legal system—that have been employed with considerable effectiveness by outright authoritarian regimes. Turkey’s 10-year democratic balance sheet under the AKP is still more positive than negative. But the current trend is clearly in the wrong direction, and prospects for the future are troubling.

One important inducement to democratic reform has been the prospect of European Union membership. In its first years in power, the AKP pushed through a number of laws that were designed to bring Turkish practices into line with EU standards. More recently, interest in EU affiliation has cooled, in large measure due to anti-Turkish sentiment expressed by a number of European leaders, but also because of a sense among Turkish officials that EU membership no longer offers the benefits it once did. German chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated a renewed interest in holding EU membership talks with Turkey. Hopefully, those talks will be conducted in good faith by the Europeans. At the same time, Merkel and others should insist that the current retreat from democratic standards by the AKP government be reversed as an absolute precondition for membership.

Below is a chronology that focuses on Turkey’s record of adherence to democracy and human rights norms during the period of AKP dominance, drawn from reports published in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties.


The AKP wins an overwhelming victory (363 of 500 seats) in parliamentary elections.

Freedom of expression: Writers, journalists, and newspapers editors are arrested on a variety of charges. Three journalists are arrested in October for “insulting the army.”


Spurred by the prospect of possible EU membership, the AKP seeks to reform some of Turkey’s harsher laws. Changes include the easing of restrictions on use of the Kurdish language, curbing of the military’s role in politics, and an offer of amnesty to some Kurdish militants.

Civilian rule: The National Security Council, dominated by the military, has its policy-setting role downgraded to a purely advisory capacity.

Freedom of expression: Some legal restrictions are relaxed. Advocating for school instruction in Kurdish is no longer necessarily regarded as a crime. Laws against “insulting” the state remain, and it is still illegal to defame Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. One journalist is threatened with imprisonment for writing about abuses committed by the military. The government does not restrict access to the internet, but it reserves the right to require internet service providers to submit advance copies of content.


Turkey continues with a reform agenda as part of its effort to gain EU membership. Constitutional reforms strengthen gender equality and civilian oversight of the military, and the Turkish penal code is overhauled for the first time in its 78-year history. An EU report cites continued shortcomings, including corruption, inequities in the status of women, and problems with the role of the military.

Kurdish minority: The militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ends its five-year ceasefire. Clashes with government troops increase over the summer, with deaths on both sides. The EU adds the PKK to its list of terrorist organizations. Leyla Zana and three other Kurdish former members of parliament who were convicted in 1994 in what was widely condemned as an unfair trial are released from prison.

Civilian rule: A civilian is chosen to head the National Security Council, and constitutional reforms increase parliamentary oversight of military expenditures.

Rule of law: The death penalty is abolished, as are the State Security Courts, where many human rights abuses occurred.

Freedom of expression: New laws allow broadcasts in minority languages. The military will no longer have membership on the Supreme Council of Radio and Television.

Women’s rights: Constitutional amendments grant women full equality before the law. In February, the government instructs prayer leaders to state that honor killings are a sin, and revisions to the penal code include an end to sentence reductions for these crimes. AKP leaders attempt to include an amendment criminalizing adultery, without success.

(For the less significant events of 2005–06, see the Freedom in the World reports for those years.)


The AKP wins a solid victory in parliamentary elections. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s term ends in May, and the prime minister nominates AKP stalwart Abdullah Gül to replace him, in spite of explicit objections by the military. Opposition boycotts of the April presidential vote in the parliament lead to the invalidation of the results by the Constitutional Court, but Gül triumphs in a subsequent election.

The EU opens a new stage of membership talks with Turkey. In an October referendum, voters approve constitutional amendments that reduce the presidential term to five years with a possibility for re-election, provide for future presidents to be elected by popular vote rather than by parliament, and cut the parliamentary term to four years.

Freedom of expression: A nationalist murders ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink for his views on the Armenian massacres during and after the First World War. The offices of the weekly Nokta are raided following a complaint by a military prosecutor, and Nokta subsequently chooses to suspend operations. A new law allows the state to block access to websites deemed to insult Atatürk or whose content includes criminal activities. A March court order briefly bans access to YouTube over a video insulting Atatürk. The broadcast authority bans coverage of PKK attacks.


The reform process begins to stall, and Turkish popular support for EU membership declines to about 50 percent, with an apparent parallel rise in Turkish nationalism.

In January, alleged members of an ultranationalist group called Ergenekon are arrested. A trial of 86 people charged with plotting attacks to provoke a military coup begins in October. Critics accuse the government of using the case to punish its opponents.

Rule of law: New laws and training to prevent torture, including a policy involving surprise inspections of police stations, are announced.

Corruption: Outlets owned by media mogul Aydın Doğan accuse Erdoğan of involvement in a scandal over the misuse of funds at a charity called Lighthouse. The prime minister in turn calls for a boycott of Doğan publications, and the national broadcasting authority orders the closure of 11 unlicensed Doğan television channels.

Freedom of expression: The penal code section on insults to “the Turkish nation” is revised, reducing the maximum sentence from three to two years in prison. A publisher is sentenced to five months in prison for releasing a book about the 1915 Armenian massacres, and the owner and editor of a Turkish-Armenian newspaper are sentenced for reporting on the views of murdered journalist Hrant Dink. In a positive development, a court overturns a government ban on reporting about Ergenekon.

Freedom of religion: The Constitutional Court rules narrowly against banning the AKP for alleged antisecularist activities, though the court does cut the party’s treasury funding in half. An AKP-sponsored constitutional amendment that would have allowed simple headscarves to be worn in universities is struck down by the Constitutional Court.


The Ergenekon investigation continues with 194 people now charged, including military officers, academics, journalists, and union leaders.

Kurdish minority: The state’s relations with the Kurdish minority suffer a serious blow in December, when the Constitutional Court bans a leading Kurdish party on the grounds that it had become “a focal point for terrorism.”

Rule of law: A scandal reveals official wiretapping of judges.

Freedom of expression: A journalist who wrote an article denouncing what he said was the unlawful imprisonment of his father, also a journalist, is himself sentenced to 14 months in prison. Another journalist is shot near his office. The Doğan holding company is ordered to pay crippling fines for tax evasion in what is widely described as a politicized case stemming from Doğan’s criticism of the AKP. Blocking of websites continues. Kurdish-language television broadcasts, which had begun in 2006, expand with a 24-hour news channel, and the last restrictions on Kurdish broadcasting are lifted. However, Kurdish newspapers are often closed down and their websites blocked.

Women’s and LGBT rights: The European Court of Human Rights rules that a 2002 honor killing constituted gender discrimination. In response, the government introduces a new policy whereby police officers responding to calls for help regarding domestic abuse will be held legally responsible for any subsequent abuse. The gay and transgender organization Lambda wins an appeal against its closure.


The Ergenekon trials continue, with many more arrests and the release of only three suspects. The chief prosecutor investigating the Ergenekon case is himself arrested in February for allegedly helping to establish the clandestine group. He is released in June.

In September, the government calls a referendum on a new package of constitutional amendments. They include an increase in the memberships of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, opening the way for more AKP appointments. Voters accept the amendments by a wide margin.

Kurdish minority: Two bombings in Istanbul are attributed to the PKK, and bombings by various other radical groups occur. The Diyarbakır city council votes to restore Kurdish names to villages. However, some municipal officials in the southeast face criminal proceedings for communicating in Kurdish. A total of 151 suspects, including 12 mayors, are put on trial for alleged ties to a group called the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an urban extension of the PKK.

Civilian rule: The constitutional amendments limit the jurisdiction of military courts to military personnel.

Rule of law: In September, a former police chief is arrested for ties to an outlawed group called the Revolutionary Headquarters, for whom he allegedly conducted wiretaps. It is revealed that more than 70,000 telephones are currently being tapped by court order.

Freedom of expression: A journalist faces 12 separate cases and the possibility of 97 years in prison over a series of Ergenekon-related articles. The European Court of Human Rights rules that Turkey is guilty of violating the right to life, freedom of expression, and effective remedy for its handling of Hrant Dink’s 2007 murder.


The AKP wins a strong majority in parliamentary elections, securing another term for Erdoğan. In July, Turkey’s top military commanders resign en masse following the arrest of officers in an ongoing case called Sledgehammer, which involves allegations of a coup conspiracy.

Kurdish minority: The government steps up nationalist rhetoric and cracks down on alleged PKK collaborators. By the end of 2011, roughly 4,000 people have been arrested in an anti-KCK sweep that began in 2009. About 1,000 Kurdish officials are detained in raids on party offices. The PKK, meanwhile, continues a campaign of violence.

Freedom of expression: Two prominent journalists are arrested for alleged connections to Ergenekon, though critics say they are being persecuted for their political reporting. Roughly 100 journalists are behind bars in Turkey by the end of 2011, with most in pre-trial detention and charged under antiterrorism laws. About 40 are arrested in December during a series of raids targeting suspected members of the KCK. An internet filtration system is introduced in November despite widespread criticism over its lack of transparency and blockage of innocuous sites. Scholars linked to the Kurdish issue by academic interest, political solidarity, or humanitarian concern are subject to increased intimidation and in some cases detention.

* Zselyke Csaky is a human rights graduate who specializes in minority rights, privacy, and European affairs.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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