Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 67,300,000
GNI/Capita: $6,974
Life Expectancy: 69
Religious Groups: Muslim [mostly Sunni] (99.8 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Turkish (80 percent), Kurdish (20 percent)
Capital: Ankara

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
Turkey's political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to a new openness in Turkish politics following the freely held November elections that brought to power the hitherto proscribed Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party. Its civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to progress on an improved human rights framework and a loosening of restrictions on Kurdish culture.


The overwhelming election victory on November 3, 2002 of the Justice and Development Party (AK), a moderate Islamic-affiliated group, was the year's most significant event for Turkey. The party dominated the national elections, winning nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament. The win was momentous since Turkey's secular military has intervened no fewer than four times since 1960 to depose Islamic governments, the last time in 1998. This time it allowed the elections to proceed fairly and the results to hold.

Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who launched a reform program under which Turkey abandoned much of its Ottoman and Islamic heritage, proclaimed Turkey a republic in 1923. His secular, nationalistic legacy has profoundly influenced Turkish politics ever since, most notably in the post-World War II period. The doctrine of Kemalism has been used by the military to justify three coups since 1960. Turkey returned to civilian rule in 1983.

Turkey's relations with many of its neighbors were radically changed by the ending of the Cold War and by the Gulf crisis of 1990-91. Long-running disputes with Greece and the Greek Cypriots have not been resolved, although since mid-1999 Greece and Turkey have been moving towards agreement on bilateral issues. Talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders were restarted in January 2002, but little progress had been made by the end of year.

Since being formally declared a candidate for EU membership in 1999, Turkey has outlined a set of economic and political goals that it must meet in order to fulfill membership criteria. On the economic side, Turkey has made considerable progress, lifting obstacles to privatization, attracting foreign investment, and tackling corruption. However, a recent collapse of the financial sector and subsequent currency devaluation and recession have undermined much of the progress. Politically and socially, Turkey is having a tougher time meeting the EU's standards, particularly with regard to issues of civil rights. Some EU members have been highly vocal about Turkey's human rights abuses. In May 2002 a diplomatic row erupted between Turkey and France over the latter country's public criticism of Turkey's lack of press freedom.

Turkey's reluctance to undertake various reforms reflects a struggle within the country between those who advocate membership in the EU as the route to modernity and prosperity, and the entrenched interests of those who champion maintaining the status quo as the way to protect the Turkish founding principles of national unity and secularism. However, in October 2001 the Turkish parliament passed a series of 34 amendments to the constitution, which covered a wide range of issues including freedom of expression and association, gender equality, and the role of the military in the political process.

The complete electoral dominance of the AK in the November 2002 elections meant that the party took 363 of the 550 seats in Turkey's parliament, a fact that was bolstered by the consideration that only one other party surpassed Turkey's 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. The AK's Islamic credentials have been played down to assuage the anxiety of the army, which is strongly secular. Nonetheless, the overwhelming win proved that the country had tired of the succession of failed economic policies and tottering coalition governments.

Turkey's chief prosecutor asked the country's highest court on October 23 to ban the AK before the election, particularly its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ostensibly because of a criminal past. Despite this, Erdogan sidestepped the issue and took the premiership. Turkey's secular governments have a long history of cracking down on political parties founded on religion. A predecessor organization, the Virtue Party, was closed down by the Constitutional Court in June 2001 for "activities contrary to the principle of the secular republic." In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed for similar reasons.

With the election euphoria gone, the new administration faces a wrecked economy, and subsequently its room for political and economic maneuvering is narrow. Political instability of recent past governments has done great damage to an already sinking economy, and Turkey's economy may contract by as much 6 percent in 2002. Only strong support from the IMF has staved off catastrophe.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Turkish citizens can change their government democratically, though the military wields considerable influence in political matters, especially regarding defense and security. The 1982 constitution provides for a parliament, the Grand National Assembly (currently 550 seats), which is directly elected to a 5-year term. The assembly elects the president to a single 7-year term. The National Security Council (NSC), a military-dominated body, has a policy-setting role. A constitutional amendment passed in October 2001 aims to reduce the military's influence in politics by increasing the number of civilian representatives in the NSC from five to nine (there are five military representatives), as well as emphasizing the "advisory" nature of the body.

The European Commission's 2001 report on Turkey's progress toward EU accession stated that "the constitutional amendments adopted by the Turkish Parliament on October 3, 2001, are a significant step towards strengthening guarantees in the fields of human rights and fundamental freedoms." However, it cautioned that "despite these changes, a number of restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms have remained." By the end of 2002, Turkey had still fallen short of the EU's standards in several respects, notably on the issues of capital punishment and on cultural rights for the Kurds. Its accession therefore has been thrust into limbo.

The conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has claimed as many as 37,000 lives and has spanned almost 2 decades, has continued only sporadically since the PKK announced the end of its insurrection in February 2000. (Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999 and is currently on death row.) After his capture, Ocalan himself renounced separatism and called for reconciliation, but a few splinter Kurdish elements have vowed to continue fighting for a separate Kurdish state. In 1999, the Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP) won control of 37 local administrations despite attempts by Turkey's chief prosecutor to ban it. However, four southeastern provinces remain under emergency law. Civil governors throughout the region may authorize military operations, expel citizens suspected of Kurdish sympathies, ban demonstrations, and confiscate publications. The Istanbul police arrested three people in January 2002 for allegedly forcing people to submit petitions demanding elective Kurdish courses in school. The government claimed that the outlawed PKK was pressuring activists to assert their Kurdish identity.

According to official figures, 380,000 people were displaced from southeast Turkey during the 16-year conflict between governmental forces and the PKK. Nongovernmental organizations estimate the number of displaced, primarily Kurdish villagers, at over one million. The majority were driven from their homes by government gendarmes in an arbitrary resettlement program. The Turkish government has never acknowledged the human rights violations the security forces inflicted on hundreds of thousands of its citizens.

The judiciary is susceptible to governmental influence through the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which names judges and prosecutors to the high courts and controls appointments and promotions of those in lower courts. The council is appointed by the president, and its decisions are not subject to review. Those held for state security court (SSC) offenses, which include political violence, narcotics, organized crime, and some nonviolent political offenses, can legally be detained for up to four days without access to family or lawyers. Detentions of up to 10 days continue to be permitted in the southeast. The revised Article 38 of the constitution limits the death penalty to cases of terrorist crimes and during times of war. Although death sentences continue to be imposed, a de facto moratorium on carrying them out has been maintained since 1984.

Prison conditions are abysmal, characterized by widespread torture, sexual abuse, and denial of medical attention to inmates. The parliamentary human rights committee has published nine reports on torture in Turkey since May 2000, based on inspections of police stations and prisons between 1998 and 2000. However, little has been done to stop the practice, and the conviction and sentencing of offending officials is rare. Prison riots occur frequently because of overcrowding and anger over conditions. In December 2000, security forces stormed more than 20 prisons in an effort to end a hunger strike by inmates protesting plans to move them from large, dormitory-based prisons to newly constructed "F-type" prisons, in which prisoners are housed in smaller cells in relative isolation. After dozens died in the ensuing violence and hunger strikes, in July 2001 Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk announced that the controversial F-type prisons would no longer be commissioned.

Freedom of expression in Turkey is limited by the criminal code, which forbids insulting state officials and inciting racial or ethnic hatred, and by the Anti-Terror Law, which prohibits separatist propaganda. In December 2000 a state security court banned the publication or broadcast of "statements from illegal organizations or information liable to incite hatred, hostility, or crimes." The military, Kurds, and political Islam are highly sensitive subjects and frequently earn journalists criminal penalties, harassment, detention, or imprisonment. Some 80 journalists had been imprisoned for political activities or for allegedly infringing various laws in 2001, according to the European Commission's annual report. Journalistic harassment continued in 2002 as writers, journalists and newspapers editors were arrested on a number of charges. Three journalists, for instance, were arrested in October 2002 for "insulting the army." Some estimates place the total number of people imprisoned in connection with freedom of expression issues at around 9,000. One of the constitutional amendments passed in October 2001 allows broadcasts to be spoken in Kurdish. However, media outlets that attempted to publish or broadcast in Kurdish were suppressed by authorities in November. In a positive development, President Sezer vetoed new legislation introduced in mid-June 2001 aimed at increasing government vetting of broadcasting, claiming that it would threaten media freedom.

Authorities may restrict freedom of association and assembly on the grounds of maintaining public order, although official authorization will no longer be required for those wishing to stage public rallies. Pro-Kurdish political parties and nongovernmental organizations face severe harassment and restrictions on their activities, particularly in the southeast. In September 2001, police raided the Turkish Human Rights Foundation branch in Diyarbakir and seized computers and confidential medical files concerning the victims of torture. Human rights groups that attempted to document the hunger strikes as well as provide support to the prisoners faced persecution throughout the year. Members of the Human Rights Association were beaten and detained, five of their branches were shut down, and 12 members were charged under the AntiTerror Law in March 2001. The pro-Kurdish political party HADEP frequently faces difficulties from the authorities.

Islamists continue to face official harassment, although with the resounding victory of the Islamically oriented Justice and Development Party (AK) in November 2002, the practice should decline. According to Human Rights Watch, the ban on women's wearing of the hijab (headscarf) was "applied with increasing severity against students and civil servants." Teachers and doctors were dismissed for wearing the headscarf on duty, and new regulations prohibited students from taking the June university examinations while wearing a hijab.

More than 99 percent of Turks are Sunni Muslim. Religious freedom is restricted by the limitation of worship to designated sites, constraints on building houses of worship for minority religions, and government crackdowns on political Islam. A 1998 law placed all mosques under government administration, required official authorization for the construction of mosques, and forbade the wearing of uniforms and masks (including hijabs) by demonstrators. Christian churches continue to face difficulties, particularly with regard to both ownership of property and their legal status. However, the European Commission reported that there have been some signs of "increased tolerance towards certain non-Muslim religious communities."

Women's legal rights received a boost in November 2001 with the passage of a new law that recognizes men and women as equals and accords women equal property rights in the event of a divorce. Social norms make it difficult to prosecute rape cases, and the penalty for rape may be reduced if a woman was not a virgin prior to her attack. Although the Ministry of Justice banned the practice of "virginity examinations" in 1999, the health minister issued a circular in July 2001 that provides for mandatory exams for female medical students and the expulsion of those proven to be sexually active. The issue of domestic violence against women, as well as legislation that allows for the application of reduced sentences to the perpetrators of such crimes, remains an area of concern.

With the exception of public servants and workers engaged in the protection of life or property, workers may form unions, bargain collectively, and strike. The exception category includes workers in the mining and petroleum industries, sanitation, defense, law enforcement, and education.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.