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Beyond the ballot box: The vital role of civil society in Türkiye’s upcoming elections

Ayşe Yürekli

Date: 11/05/2023
Türkiye’s upcoming elections will have significant implications for civil society and its ability to operate independently and contribute to the political and social development of the country.

On 14 May, Türkiye will hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Against the backdrop of the devastating 6 February earthquakes and a challenging economic and social situation, the elections are depicted by many observers as the opposition's best opportunity to unseat President Erdoğan after two decades in power. The role of civil society before and during these elections is crucial. It will play a key role, from agenda-setter to monitoring the ballot boxes. Furthermore, civil society’s democracy-in-action remains essential for transforming Türkiye’s political landscape in the long run and shaping the country’s future relations with Europe.

Standing by democracy against all odds

Democracy in Türkiye can only be strengthened by reinforcing and expanding democratic participation at all levels. A strong, independent, and diverse civil society is vital to ensuring active citizenship and resilient democracy. Türkiye's civil society has a long and vibrant history. It plays an essential role in advocating for the rights and interests of Turkish citizens and in promoting democratic values and good governance. In addition, it helps to shape the public discourse within Turkish society regarding political and social issues, along with Türkiye’s relationship with international partners, including the EU.

During the heyday of Türkiye-EU relations, civil society played a constructive role in promoting dialogue and cooperation. It was also instrumental in advocating for democratic reforms and human rights while also helping to foster greater collaboration with the EU. In the early 2000s, joint projects and initiatives for a more open, democratic, and inclusive society flourished, focusing on various issues, including youth exchange programs, education, and women’s rights.

As democracy in Türkiye has come under mounting pressure in recent years, the EU has raised concerns about the shrinking space for civil society, including restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, as well as limited consultation and dialogue with civil society actors. As a result of democracy backtracking, Türkiye is now rated Not Free, in Freedom House's 2023 report. Still, the EU remains a vocal supporter of Turkish civil society and provides much-needed funding and technical assistance, recognising its significant impact on the country.

Multiple roles

Civil society organisations have various critical functions to play before, during, and after the elections. During the campaign, civil society organisations set the agenda by bringing issues such as human rights and civil liberties, social justice and gender equality to the public's attention. On election day, they promote transparency by monitoring the ballot boxes and thus fortifying voters' confidence in the democratic process. Finally, in the post-election period, civil society organisations can act as a catalyst to deepen relations with the EU and the West and rebuild bridges for social change towards a more democratic Türkiye.

To illustrate their agenda-setting role during the campaign period, the debates around women's rights and the Istanbul Convention, and the Turkish Law No 6284 on the Protection of the Family and Prevention of Violence against Women are lately being flagged by civil society organisations to sensitise the electorate on these issues, as the female vote emerges as one of the decisive factors that will shape Türkiye’s political and social future.

While Türkiye celebrates its centenary as a modern republic in 2023, women's rights have become a political bargaining chip amid debates over democracy. As a result, the role of women in society and democracy is being reassessed, with human rights and equal citizenship at stake. In this context, the women's movement is expected to take on a follow-up role after the elections, holding the newly formed government accountable for their stance regarding women's issues, which will serve as a litmus test for their commitment to democracy reconstruction.

Civil society activism on election day

Overall, Türkiye has a track record of conducting free and fair elections, both domestically and internationally. Though it remains the only EU accession country that does not receive European Parliament election observation delegations due to concerns about impartiality, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is already deployed on the ground to observe the 2023 elections. In addition, a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is expected to arrive on 12-15 May.

Alongside international and formal opposition party monitoring, the upcoming elections allow Turkish civil society to actively participate in ensuring free and fair elections. One such civic initiative is the non-partisan, independent, and voluntary Oy ve Ötesi, which has been actively monitoring Turkish elections since April 2014.

With a country-wide mobilisation strategy, the group has recruited more than 50,000 volunteers to monitor polling stations throughout election day, ensuring compliance with the law and reporting any anomalies observed. In addition, Oy ve Ötesi plays a critical role in promoting voter participation and transparency by quickly digitising results for each station, allowing political parties to contest any discrepancies detected. Hence, civil society helps to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the electoral process overall.

Moreover, with 4.9 million first-time voters in the electorate, civil society organisations like Oy ve Ötesi also work to engage Turkish youth via social media and encourage their participation in the whole process. Thus, they help to build a more informed and engaged electorate and promote active citizenship in Türkiye.

Nevertheless, the earthquake in Türkiye has made it challenging to hold elections in the affected eleven provinces. Uncertainty remains over voter registration and turnout due to the state of emergency in place and the fact that 1.6 million internally displaced survivors are still registered in the area. Oy ve Ötesi and its partners, such as the Nation Alliance's election security platform Türkiye Gönüllüleri have launched a joint campaign to facilitate their participation, offering Askıda Bilet, i.e. free transportation to eligible voters who can do so safely and securely, regardless of their location or circumstances.

High stakes: Impact on civil society, democracy, and the EU's role

Less than a week before the critical elections, there is a growing sense of moderate optimism among the opposition. However, the race remains tight, and preparation for any eventuality is crucial.

If incumbent President Erdoğan is re-elected, the strained relationship between the government and civil society risks worsening. This, along with further backsliding of democratic norms more broadly, will have negative implications for future relations with the West, particularly with the EU. Although, the EU can take several steps beyond expressing its concern. The EU needs to use all available tools to encourage respect for human rights and democracy and to support those working to promote these values within Türkiye. One such step could be to increase pressure on the Turkish government to respect the rule of law. Another approach could be to engage more directly with civil society groups in Türkiye. The EU could offer them resources to continue their work and advocate for democratic reforms by increasing funding for civil society projects in Türkiye in line with European values. Finally, the EU could continue to use its diplomatic leverage more extensively to engage with the Turkish government on issues related to civil society and democracy.

Kılıçdaroğlu, the joint presidential candidate of the opposition, has pledged to return to the path of democracy if he wins. This scenario could also open the way for civil society to play a more significant role in shaping policy and advocating for reforms in the future. However, it is worth noting that the opposition's Memorandum of Understanding on Common Policies mentions civil society only in a limited and mainly consultative capacity. Hence, regardless of the election results, the EU must emphasise the significance of civil society's participation in designing and implementing reform initiatives. Furthermore, Brussels should remain vigilant to ensure the opposition fulfills its promises to promote democratic values and respect human rights. Such a commitment will be vital for a level playing field and sustainable progress in the political landscape.

A watershed moment for Türkiye and civil society

Türkiye is facing a watershed moment in its history, as the upcoming election results are expected to have a profound impact on its democratic and strategic trajectory. The election outcome will determine whether Ankara moves towards a more democratic future or continues down the path of competitive authoritarianism with far-reaching consequences for its relations with the EU and liberal democracies in the West.

The role of Turkish civil society in promoting a democratic agenda and ensuring a free and fair election at this critical juncture is more significant than ever. Civil society organisations can play a vital watchdog role in safeguarding democratic norms and ensuring the government remains accountable to its citizens.

Therefore, the EU should actively seek and support their involvement in the reform process during the post-election period rather than taking it for granted. If successful, civil society groups in Türkiye have the potential to make a tremendous contribution to the prospects of democratisation of the country and mend the bridge with the EU and the West. As such, their continued involvement and advocacy would remain essential in ensuring Türkiye’s sustained path toward greater democracy and prosperity, both domestically and internationally.

Ayşe Yürekli is an experienced professional in the fields of policy, business, and civil society, specializing in the European Union, with a focus on promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In her most recent role, she served as a senior expert at TUSIAD, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (Berlin Office).

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