Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done little to relieve the stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP / Mustafa Kamaci

A flurry of Turkish government reform programs addressing issues as wide-ranging as the cost of living to human dignity has been met with equal measures of praise and skepticism.

On March 2, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a new Human Rights Action Plan that advances 11 principles, nine aims, 50 targets and 393 actions covering issues from the presumption of innocence to gender discrimination to free speech.

Then, on March 10, Erdogan announced a new economic reform package that seeks to transform Turkey into one of the world’s top 10 economies, enhance fiscal discipline and boost the use of the battered local lira currency.

While the state Anatolian News Agency (AA) predictably described the plans as “landmark” and “ground-breaking”, the new packages have been greeted with skepticism elsewhere.

Amnesty International, for one, declared the human rights plan “meaningless” and “a whitewash” in a March 12 statement.

“There’s nothing here that tackles the real issues,” Erdem Aydin, Turkey expert and director of consultancy RDM Advisory, told Asia Times.“The independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press – how can you speak of such things when there are journalists in jail?”

Turkey now has the second-highest number of journalists behind bars in the world after China, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-partisan press freedom advocacy group.

Erdogan’s new economic plan has also raised doubts among analysts and observers.

Pedestrians pass by a foreign exchange office in Istanbul as the Turkish lira continues to lose value against major international currencies and inflation skyrockets. Photo: Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto

“The government’s economic reform program,” Jason Tuvey, from Capital Economics, wrote in a March 15 note to investors, “was light on actual reforms.”

This has led some analysts to suggest that the recent announcements may be driven by quite different goals than those stated.

“The human rights plan is really a precursor to changing the constitution,” says RDM Advisory’s Aydin.

Erdogan has made no secret of his wish to re-write the current 1980 constitution, which was enacted following that year’s military coup. He also wishes to change the presidential system that he brought in back in 2017.

“Even though this already gives Erdogan a lot of power,” says Aydin, “it seems he’s not happy even with that.”

Uncertainty ahead, uncertainty behind

Recent opinion polls have not made easy reading for Erdogan and his supporters.

In February, a poll by Avrasya Arastirma showed CHP Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu both ahead of Erdogan in popularity by a margin of 5-6 percentage points.

Pollster Istanbul Economics has also recently recorded a steady decline in support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its People’s Alliance (PA) coalition partner the National Action Party (MHP).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepts the greetings from Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas at the Presidential Complex, October 29, 2019 in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetin/Anadolu Agency via AFP

At the last 2018 general election, the AKP scored 42.56% of the vote, while the MHP won 11.1%. By February this year, if undecided votes are left out, these shares had fallen to around 29% for the AKP and 7% for the MHP.

Under Turkey’s current electoral rules, parties with less than 10% are eliminated, creating the prospect of a major electoral defeat for Erdogan’s PA.

“First-time voters, young voters, conservative Kurds, they won’t vote for the AKP anymore,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the German Marshal Fund’s Ankara director, told Asia Times. “Nowadays, he has no clear path to victory.”

The human rights action plan may help somewhat. There is a provision for lowering the 10% electoral threshold to 7% in the plan, which also includes a new way of drawing constituency boundaries.

“This will mean larger parties can get more members of parliament,” says Unluhisarcikli. “It’s a way for the ruling alliance to maintain itself in office.”

Under the current constitution, the president is elected by a direct vote in which a candidate must secure 50%+1 vote to win.

That means the best chance of winning comes from alliances made between parties that back a single candidate, with the AKP allying with the MHP at the last election to put Erdogan in office.

However, “Erdogan doesn’t want to rely on other parties,” says Aydin, “so the plan is to change the constitution to boost his sole power.”

Shifting sands 

At the same time, the November 2020 defeat of Erdogan’s ally in the White House – Donald Trump – and President Joe Biden’s victory has created further challenges for Ankara.

“The perception is that Biden will be a lot tougher on Turkey when it comes to issues such as democracy and human rights,” says Unluhisarcikli. “The action plan is thus to try and pre-empt this.”

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) speaking at the Turkish Presidential Complex in Ankara during a press conference in August 24, 2016. Photo: AFP/Presidential Press Service/Kayhan Ozer

Turkey also faces possible sanctions from the European Union in response to disagreements over the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as over its chronic human rights abuses.

With the Europeans due to meet on March 25-26 to decide on possible sanctions, “Turkey is clearly making a renewed effort” with the human rights action plan, says Aydin.

Missed opportunities

Serious challenges behind the widely questioned reforms.

“No one is happy about the judicial system in Turkey,” says Aydin, “including the government.”

Indeed, a dysfunctional legal system and lack of rights create both domestic discontent and a negative climate for economic investment.

“If you don’t have the rule of law,” says Aydin, “why would you invest?”

This, in turn, impacts the economy negatively, further driving down support for the government.

The new light-on-reform economic action plan may thus be a missed opportunity for the AKP – as well as for the many journalists, activists and oppositionists still languishing in Turkey’s jails.