Anti-government protests exposed the AKP’s authoritarian tendencies. The Kurdish opening holds promise but the EU remained a bystander.
Events in Turkey during 2013 illustrated the challenges in consolidating democratic rule in Turkey, where Europeans have few levers to influence domestic politics because accession talks have been stalled in recent years. In March, imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan announced an initiative to resolve the Kurdish issue, the product of prolonged negotiations with Ankara. In September, the AKP government announced the so-called Democratisation Package, the first key step to implementing the peace process by granting linguistic rights to Kurds and making concessions to smaller ethnic minorities. However, the inter-party parliamentary committee charged with the redrafting of Turkey’s constitution stalled, notably on issues such as the definition of Turkish citizenship.
The wave of protests in the summer, triggered by the decision to redevelop Gezi Park, off Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul, led to even greater polarisation, with disparate groups coalescing against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian style of leadership. The authorities responded with a heavy-handed crackdown. In December, a large corruption scandal prompted high-profile arrests and a cabinet reshuffle and exposed the bitter, behind-the-scenes fight between Erdoğan and the influential movement led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen. The turmoil is likely to derail Erdoğan’s plans for a presidential constitution ahead of the first direct elections for a head of state in August 2014.
Europeans were caught off-guard and struggled to find a coherent response to these developments. The Erdoğan government was criticised by all member states, notably by Merkel, and by the European Commission in its regular monitoring report, which was published in October. But Europeans were divided about whether to stonewall Ankara or to seek leverage through opening Chapters 23 and 24 in the membership talks (see component 37). The Democratisation Package helped restart the accession negotiations, though it is unclear whether this will produce results.