Less than a month ago, the 2018 edition of Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report was released. It focuses on the political climate in every country and their civil and political rights. Mostly, there are no huge changes from year to year: most dictatorships remain repressive and democracies remain free, to some extent.
For many years, Turkey was in the middling but aptly named “partly free” category. Into the 2000s, Turkey had military tutelage where generals saw themselves above the civilian administration. There were courts (DGM) designed to prosecute political criminals, torture was rampant, forced disappearances and unresolved murder of high profile individuals were common. Not to mention the central festering issue of Kurdish linguistic, cultural and civil rights.
Turkey showed improvement in the late 2000s. It abandoned many of these practices and institutions, and even took steps towards Kurdish rights. With these steps, Turkey was squarely in “partly free” territory. As of 2018, Turkey is “not free” according to Freedom House.
“Not free” is the designation the people of Turkey know but cannot accept. Because the guise of democracy still exists, more so than other “not free” countries pretending to have elections like Russia or Egypt, Turks try to ignore the lack of political and civil rights. The Freedom House move to “not free” should be a reminder of the sorry state of liberty in Turkey. There is no free press to speak of and any journalist who dares to veer too far off from the government line is jailed. There is no rule of law to speak of as the judiciary became a cudgel for the regime to punish its enemies. One of the major parties in parliament has been thoroughly criminalized, its leaders, mayors and MPs jailed, its offices ransacked. Free and fair elections are nowhere to be found after the alleged rigging of last year’s constitutional referendum and claims that there was rigging led to the blocking of Wikipedia, which still persists. Type F prisons, those designed for political thought criminals, are overflowing with journalists and politicians. Torture has returned.
Though an uplifting example exists across the Mediterranean, the only one in the region. In the sea of repression that is North Africa, Tunisia has achieved the status of “free.” The only post-revolution democracy since the Arab uprisings, Tunisia’s short experience with democracy has been a welcome surprise. It has made strides at an incredible pace, from a dictatorship for its entire independent existence to a true democracy where people freely discuss their opinions without fear in public, online or on television. Its political life is open, and its elections are free and fair by all accounts.
In less than a decade after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia has become exemplary. It practically skipped from “Not Free” to “Free” without lingering in the “almost-democracy with some kinks” limbo that Turkey was stuck in for its entire Republican existence. Now that Turkey is at rock bottom, “not free,” maybe it can learn from Tunisia and leapfrog to freedom.