Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution and law provide citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections based on universal and equal suffrage conducted by secret ballot, the government restricted equal competition and placed restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression (see section 2.b., Freedom of Assembly). The government restricted the activities of opposition political parties, leaders, and officials, including through police detention. Several parliamentarians remained at risk of possible prosecution after parliament lifted their immunity in 2016. In July the government removed three convicted parliamentarians from parliament. During the year restrictive government regulations restricted the ability of many among the opposition to conduct political activities, such as organizing protests or political campaign events and sharing critical messages on social media. The government also suspended democratically elected mayors in multiple cities and municipalities in the southeast and in their place assigned state “trustees” when the former were accused of (but not necessarily convicted of) affiliation with terrorist groups. The government most commonly directed these tactics against politicians affiliated with the leftist pro-Kurdish HDP and its partner, the Democratic Regions Party. The government suspended 81 percent of HDP mayors elected in the March 2019 municipal elections, suspending 16 mayors in 2020 alone. Since 2016 the government removed 88 percent of elected HDP officials. Former HDP cochairs Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag remained in prison (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Opposition party officials reported difficulty raising campaign donations from individuals and businesses, which reported they feared reprisals from the government. Some company employees seen by their management as supporting opposition parties, especially the HDP, claimed they faced adverse treatment, including termination of employment.
In June, CHP deputy chair Ozgur Ozel reported that police had launched investigations against 95 CHP parliamentarians, the majority for insulting the president. The summary of investigations was sent to the parliament for a decision on lifting immunity.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The country held municipal elections in March 2019 for thousands of seats, ranging from local neighborhood council seats to metropolitan mayors. The campaign occurred in a media environment that was heavily biased in favor of the government. Progovernment outlets and ruling party incumbents criticized opposition leaders and candidates by alleging they had links to terrorism.
In April 2019 Council of Europe observers stated the elections were conducted in a technically sound and orderly manner but noted that a genuinely democratic election also needed a political environment with genuine freedom of expression, media freedom and equal access to all parties, and a fair and reasonable legal framework overseen by a robust judiciary.
After the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) initially declared opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu the winner of the March mayoral race in Istanbul, the YSK then ordered a rerun of the race in response to ruling party claims of election irregularities. The rerun decision attracted criticism from the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and many others, who asserted the YSK made the decision in a highly politicized context and under pressure from the presidency. In June 2019 Imamoglu won the election rerun and assumed office. In May the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality reported that the Ministry of Interior had launched 27 separate investigations into allegations of impropriety in zoning and tenders under Imamoglu’s term as mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikduzu District from 2014 to 2019. Imamoglu’s supporters alleged the investigations were political in nature.
The municipal campaigns and elections occurred in an environment with restricted basic rights and freedoms, including those of assembly and speech. While most candidates were generally able to campaign ahead of the elections, government officials threatened multiple candidates and party leaders with criminal charges. For example, a prosecutor revived a resolved legal case against the opposition candidate for Ankara mayor, Mansur Yavas; and President Erdogan publicly raised doubts regarding the Yavas’s ability to fulfill his term should he be elected mayor because of the pending case. In September the court acquitted Yavas. The YSK unseated some winners of the 2019 municipal elections, including six winning HDP mayors, by finding them ineligible to serve after it had initially cleared their eligibility for candidacy.
All parties alleged irregularities in the voter lists, which they complained included “ghost voters” (one “ghost” registrant was older than age 130) or legally deceased individuals, and suspicious residency claims.
Media coverage overwhelmingly favored the candidates of the ruling party and those of its coalition and election ally, the Nationalist Movement Party. For example, according to a member of the national broadcasting regulator during the 57-day period prior to the elections, state-run TRT devoted 150 hours of coverage to the AKP, 50 hours to the CHP, and three hours to the HDP. Many opposition parties relied instead on social media to connect with supporters.
The pre-election period saw several attacks on political party offices, rallies, and members, including some incidents that led to death and serious injury. Opposition party members faced frequent accusations from the highest levels of government of alleged terrorism-related crimes. In April 2019 a crowd assaulted CHP chair Kemal Kilicdaroglu during the funeral ceremony for a soldier killed by the PKK. The attack followed statements by President Erdogan and the chair of other government officials AKP’s parliamentary all alliance partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) accusing the CHP of sympathizing and collaborating with “PKK terrorists” during the municipal election campaigns due to their affiliation with the HDP. Police continued an investigation into the incident.
In 2018 the country held early parliamentary and presidential elections that had been originally scheduled for late 2019. The elections completed a constitutional amendment process that began with the 2017 national referendum, the passing of which initiated the country’s official transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. The campaign and election both occurred under a state of emergency that had been in place since 2016 and that granted the government expanded powers to restrict basic rights and freedoms, including those of assembly and speech. While most candidates generally were able to campaign ahead of the elections, the HDP’s candidate remained in prison during the campaign and the candidate for the IYI (Good) Party faced a de facto media embargo. Despite the ability to campaign, the observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted the elections were held in an environment heavily tilted in favor of the president and the ruling party, noting, “The incumbent president and his party enjoyed a notable advantage in the campaign, which was also reflected in excessive coverage by public and government-affiliated private media.”
Media coverage of the 2018 parliamentary and presidential candidates similarly overwhelmingly favored the president and ruling party. For example, according to a member of the Radio and Television Supreme Council, between May 14 and May 30, TRT broadcast 67 hours of coverage on President Erdogan, seven hours on CHP candidate Muharrem Ince, 12 minutes on IYI candidate Meral Aksener, eight minutes on Felicity Party candidate Temel Karamanoglu, and no coverage of HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas. Many opposition parties relied instead on social media to connect with supporters.
The period between the April 2018 announcement of early elections and the vote in March 2019 saw a number of attacks on political party offices, rallies, and members, including some incidents that led to death and serious injury. Violence most commonly targeted the HDP and its campaigners. Opposition party members faced frequent accusations from the highest levels of government of alleged terrorism-related crimes. A number of opposition candidates for parliament continued to face legal charges in connection with such claims, and the HDP’s presidential candidate, Demirtas, was in prison during the campaign. The OSCE noted that key amendments were adopted within months of the early elections, without consultation, and were perceived as favoring the ruling party.
There were allegations of electoral irregularities primarily in the East, which some tied to unanticipated levels of success for the AKP and associated parties, in an area historically dominated by opposition parties.
Political Parties and Political Participation: In parliament 11 political parties had seats, and others were able to participate in elections. Some parties enjoyed greater advantages than others. Media influence favored the ruling party and its alliance partner, the MHP. Representatives expressing views critical of the government or President Erdogan have faced criminal or civil charges. HDP representatives faced significant legal challenges to their ability to campaign, express opinions, and retain their mandate. The government used opposition leaders’ social media postings to file criminal and civil complaints against them, alleging the defendants insulted the president and spread terrorist propaganda.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process. Some individuals advocating for political rights or associated with the HDP, however, experienced increased government pressure or were accused of ties to the PKK. According to the Association to Support Women Candidates, the number of women participating in the 2019 municipal elections as candidates at the mayoral, district mayoral, and metropolitan city levels was between 7.5 percent and 8.5 percent. For example, 652 of 8,257 (7.9 percent) mayoral candidates in the 2019 elections were women. Of 1,389 newly elected mayors at the district level or higher, 37 were women. The number of women in the judiciary also remained disproportionately low. As of year’s end, there were 101 women in the 600-member parliament. The greatest number of elected female mayors were in the southeast and ran on leftist and pro-Kurdish party tickets.