Can Europe Make It?

How do Turkish citizens participate in decision-making?

The Gezi Protests have shown us that the Turkish government must urgently adopt concrete mechanisms to ensure citizen participation in decision-making processes. Can the EU help?

Semanur Karaman
4 August 2013

As Kerem Öktem pointed out on openDemocracy during the first week of the Gezi protests, Turkey was among the countries least likely to have a mass uprising. This assumption of course only holds true if you base your analysis on textbook standard explanations for the reasons and causes behind mass uprisings. As someone who is employed professionally in Turkish civil society[1] I would like to suggest that a mass uprising could have been anticipated, despite the upturn in our economy and/or a decline in urban poverty.

Many of us were extremely frustrated and disappointed for a long time especially in the period prior to the protests.  This was due to the fact that the Turkish political and legal structure, and consequently the entire bureaucracy, has no concrete public policy mechanism which ensures citizen and/or civil society participation in its policy and decision-making processes. The elected government perceives the result of the ballot box as a ticket to rule the country however it likes for four years (unless there is an early election).

For a country with a growing middle class and educated population, the lack of any public consultation mechanism is enough to provoke a mass uprising. When people are becoming more politically aware of the existing political agenda, thanks both to their education and to having more access to means such as the social media, it is not so clever to bypass your fellow citizens by ruling out public consultation mechanisms. It was not the case that Turkish youth were apolitical prior to the Gezi Park protests. No, we just had nil expectations of the existing political structure: this doesn’t mean we paid no attention to politics. 

So, as Turkish citizens, how do we participate in decision-making processes in Turkey? The short answer to that would be: we don’t. The long answer is however slightly more complicated.

This article is written solely based on my personal opinions, and in no way represents the civil society organization where I work in Turkey, however I must reference my job to provide concrete examples. Last August I was employed on an EU project with a total budget of 7.3 million euros, entitled, “Strengthening Civil Society Development and Civil Society Public Sector Cooperation”. 

We were all very excited to be involved in this project since this grant is the largest direct grant ever donated to a consortium of civil society organizations in Turkey. With the ambitious agenda set forth in the title of the project, and the Ministry of EU Affairs as organiser, some of us - at least those who were as naive as I was - thought that the project must initiate some steps to change things.  As a part of our responsibilities within the project, we organized 5 local consultation meetings in 4 different cities of Turkey to assess the strengths and weaknesses of civil society public sector cooperation.

In contacting civil society organizations expert in their respective fields (education, women’s rights, minority rights etc.), we wanted to assess the positive and negative experiences they encountered in their relations with public institutions. The responses were quite striking and it seemed, representative. We were told, “There are no egalitarian criteria which determine who will be consulted, when and how. The government gathers a group of government friendly CSOs and consults them on a recent draft law. Since such CSOs don’t oppose any government action, the draft law passes as if there was a public consensus to begin with.” Others stated “Since they are not legally bound to ask our opinion, some Ministries invite us for public consultation, whereas others don’t bother at all. There are no common standards at all.” In addition, we learned, “Even when we’re consulted, we receive no feedback.” [2]

The recent scandalous confession by the Head of the Municipality of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, constituted a new low regarding Turkish civil society public sector relations. On a visit to the Mayor of Mecca, Osama Al-Baar, Kadir Topbas stated that, “In areas where urban renewal takes place, we first establish civil society organizations.” There are GONGOs in every country, including consolidated democracies, but I would be surprised if they declare that they are such: a new low.

Mr. Erdogan proudly declares that the consultation processes conducted within the framework of the Constitutional Reconciliation Committee is a first in Turkish political history. What he says has some truth in it. However, he fails to mention the fact that no civil society organization has received any feedback as to what was the outcome of their input into the process of adopting a new constitution. The consultations were not conducted transparently. Once more, citizen participation was merely perceived as a show, rather than a prerequisite in any more participatory democracy.

Turkey is going through an interesting period at the moment. With a growth rate in its economy that competes with China and Brazil, Turkey has even stated that it wants to bid for the Shanghai 5. But the Erdogan government seems no longer committed to the EU accession process. The Minister of EU Affairs, Egemen Bağış, is probably the most famous Eurosceptic in Turkey. For most liberals and social democrats in Turkey including myself, however, EU accession is not so much about acquiring EU membership, as it is about reforming the existing political structure so that the EU standards set forth in the Copenhagen criteria can also be implemented within the Turkish political/institutional framework. There are many like myself in the broader Turkish society who would say, “We don’t actually care if we do become members or not, but we really want to live in a society in which fundamental freedoms and rights are not only respected, but also protected and promoted.” We very much hope that the defence of citizen participation remains a fundamental part of the EU Acquis.  

What the EU can do, given its own experience in implementing, for example, the UK Compact and the Estonian EKAK, is to strengthen democratization attempts in Turkey, by increasing its technical and fiscal support to a civil society that already operates under cumbersome circumstances. Any concrete measures taken by the EU in an attempt to react to the bad practice of the Turkish government should not be implemented in a way that punishes the very citizens who cry out for more democracy and greater freedoms. 


[1] Please take into account that 57% of civil society organizations cannot afford to professionally hire employees and the lack of human resources is a major setback to civil society development in Turkey.

[2] For more information on the project see here

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