Turkey’s snap elections come at a critical moment. President Erdogan aims to avoid the hung parliament from the June vote, but polls show no clear winner.
With billions in promised EU funding, his government has agreed to improve conditions for refugees and crack down on the illegal immigration that aggravated the migrant crisis.
The government is under fire for cracking down on ethnic Kurds and the media, and for airstrikes against Kurdish fighters in Iraq. Though NATO depends on its support in the Syria conflict.
How could these elections impact Turkish-EU relations? How much must the EU look the other way on civil rights issues to maintain Turkey’s support in the region?
Taking part in the deabte were Marietje Schaake, a Dutch Liberal MEP; a member of the International Trade Committee, and a substitute member on the Human Rights Committee; Zafer Sirakaya, the chairman of the AK Party in Brussels; that’s the governing party of Turkish president Erdogan, and Nikola Dimitrov, Hague Institute for Global Justice, which promotes conflict resolution, and good governance.
Chris Burns: “How much does the Turkish election campaign affect the refugee crisis and vice-verse? Is the government seen as doing the right thing? With refugees and securing their borders?
Marietje Schaake: “I think that both in Europe and in Turkey people are very concerned about the enormous amounts for refugees fleeing a terrible war that has to be stopped first and foremost. And I do see in the opinion polls that also the Turkish people are increasingly concerned about the high numbers of refugees and the way in which – not only in the short term but in the long term too – this has to go forward. So it is very important that the circumstances of their shelter improve.”
Chris Burns: “Zafer, how is that playing at home? How much is this an election issue?”
Zafer Sirakaya: “Currently we are still hosting 2.5 million refugees in Turkey and if it is possible we will host more people coming from Syria because we cannot simply leave them to be bombed with barrel bombs. This doesn’t play any role in our election campaign.”
Chris Burns: “Nicola, do you think Turkey is doing the right thing? Not only by the refugees but with dealing with the Kurds, securing their borders? Are they doing the right thing?”
Nikola Dimitrov: “It’s really key that this process is back on track. On the Kurdish issue. And there is this dangerous tendency of divide and rule, and polarising people, before every election. And it’s a very dangerous game to play.”
Chris Burns: “Zafer, on that issue the government is under fire from the Europeans for cracking down on the Kurds. How do you see that?”
Zafer Sirakaya: “The first thing is to differentiate between the Kurds and the PKK terrorists. The PKK is accepted as a terrorist organisation, not just in Turkey but also in European countries. Now a peace process was started by the AK party and we are still interested in continuing it. But you can’t continue it when the PKK are still trying to harm you and nearly 150 police officers and others have been killed by the PKK and so we have to say openly that we have to fight against them.”
Chris Burns: “In cracking down on the PKK though, isn’t the government also seen in some way as also cracking down on the Kurdish party, HDP?
Marietje Schaake: “Well absolutely, I think that the lines are unfortunately too blurred. Nobody disputes that terrorism is unacceptable and should be fought if necessary. The attack on the peace parade was terrible. I was in Turkey when it happened. But I do worry about the aggressive language, the blurring of HDP members and voters with terrorists. I think that they should be absolutely separated, and that the government and the AK Party of president Erdogan, has a key responsibility in stopping the personal and aggressive language and attacks on journalists and minorities alike.”
Chris Burns: “Nicola, cracking down on the media and journalists as well? How do you see that? Should the government be easier on that? Is that not complicating its efforts to get closer to the EU?”
Nikola Dimitrov: “Turkish democracy is under a big threat, and you have to try really hard to find good news in all the international reports about the state of freedom of the press in Turkey. And actually the situation deteriorated after the corruption scandal in December 2013. So talking about the elections, it’s not a very level playing field.”
Chris Burns: “Zafer, how do you answer that?”
Zafer Sirakaya: “The first thing is that HDP has to show a huge distance from the PKK terrorists. We cannot hear from the HDP that they are really against the PKK terrorists’s activities in the last six months. The other point is, insulting the prime minister and the president is a different thing from freedom of the press. You cannot, in any country in Europe, call the president a murderer.”
Marietje Schaake: “The media is under serious and systematic pressure in Turkey. This is not just about insults, in fact it is about personal attacks on journalists, intimidation, excessive, politically-motivated tax fines on media companies, raid of media companies, personal violence used against a columnist recently. This is very very worrying and does not enable an environment and a debate for free elections.”
Chris Burns: “Nicola, how would you like to see the government remedy this image problem?”
Nikola Dimitrov: “I think it’s deeper than an image problem. I think, as one brave Turkish columnist put it, “I see a gradual murder of Turkish democracy.” I think the country should this most bloody and deadly attack in Turkish history to build natiopnal unity and also to restore the justice system, because as one deputy (MP) of the opposition party, of the Republican People’s Party, said, there are more political party members in jail than ISIL members.”
Chris Burns: “If you’re able to tie the PKK with the HDP, you could maybe gain some votes, and you want to try to prevent the HDP from reaching the point where they prevent you getting an absolute majority. We see there’s a lot of politics in play here.”
Zafer Sirakaya: “Freedom of expression is one of the main pillars of democracy and we want to better it and to strengthen it but we have to differentiate between insulting and freedom of expression, and we will do it also in the future.”
Chris Burns: “The EU is in a difficult position here because you’ve got to do business with the Turkish government in order to deal with the refugee crisis. At the same time you’ve got these civil rights issues. How much are you going to have to look the other way on these civil rights issues to get Turkish cooperation to deal with the refugees? Marietje?”
Marietje Schaake: “I don’t think you can or should look the other way. It’s very important that the Turkish people understand what European values, and also the accession criteria actually mean for their quality of life. The fundamental rights issues are a seperate matter from the refugee crisis and one can never be traded away for the other. So we will keep being vigilant when it comes to safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all Turkish people.”
Chris Burns: “Nicola, this is your job, and the role of your institute, to try and uphold the rule of law, but don’t you have to try and find some sort of compromise with the Turks?”
Nikola Dimitrov: “Europe is now between a rock and a hard place. You have to have Turkey in some sort of arrangement in terms of facing up to and dealing with the refugee crisis. On the other hand, if you don’t think long term, if you don’t really practice what you preach – democracy and civil rights – then you will actually undermine the Turkish community in the long run and then you have a bigger, much bigger challenge than the Syrian refugees.”
Chris Burns: “Zafer – how are you going to practice what you preach?”
Zafer Sirakaya: “Well we will continue our work on this issue and I think that the long term policy should be about the refugee crisis too. We should intensify our work in Turkey in order to give better shelter to refugees, both in Europe and in Turkey as well.”