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[OPINION] The capture of the civil space by Turkey’s AKP government

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Ali Yıldız*

Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that 1 billion lira ($60.5 million) was funneled to the US-based Turken Foundation through donations by two Turkish pro-government foundations, the Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey (TÜRGEV) and Ensar. The Turken Foundation, headquartered in New York, was established in 2014 by TÜRGEV and Ensar. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter Esra Albayrak, who is married to former finance minister Berat Albayrak, is listed as a director of Turken and a member of the board of TÜRGEV. Fatmanur Altun, spouse of Erdoğa’s communication director Fahrettin Altun, is the chairperson of TÜRGEV. Both TÜRGEV and Ensar have been granted tax exempt status and the authority to collect donations without prior permission from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

Erdoğan was quick to deny Kılıçdaroğlu’s claims. “The purpose of this filth is to render the state inoperable. We can never allow such a disgrace. Moreover, it’s not wise to do politics by targeting a president’s family,” he said.

Although the source of the money sent by TÜRGEV and Ensar is unknown, it is widely known that the AKP government and AKP-controlled municipalities donate generously to both and other pro-government associations and foundations.

The revelation of the main opposition leader provides yet another glimpse into the government’s policy of creating GONGOs, or government-organized nongovernmental organizations.

After the mass republican rallies of 2007, which were held by secular Turks against the likelihood of a pious president, the AKP government set an objective for itself of controlling the civil space. For this purpose Erdoğan encouraged his supporters to found associations. Also, the AKP government adopted an approach that switches between repression and facilitation requiring the repression of independent and critical organizations and the facilitation of the foundation and growth of GONGOs. Erdoğan’s family members themselves founded associations or foundations like KADEM – the Women and Democracy Association — and TÜGVA – the Turkey Youth Foundation. The AKP government supports GONGOs through several tools including donations from public funds, tax exemptions and explicit political endorsement while repressing others in several ways, ranging from exclusion from public projects and funds to discriminatory audits, judicial harassment, detention and closure.

Turning point: 2013 Gezi Park protests

After the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which were sparked by government plans to demolish Gezi Park in the Taksim neighborhood of İstanbul and quickly turned into mass anti-government protests across Turkey, the AKP decided to take control of civil society. In 2014 the AKP vested the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) with sweeping powers to amass — without the need for court orders — private data, documents and information about individuals in all forms from public bodies, banks, archives, companies and other legal entities (i.e., associations and foundations) as well as from organizations without legal status such as platforms and initiatives. Also, from the Gezi Park protests onward, selective repression of unfavorable civil society entities was added to the toolbox of repression. According to an academic study, “Several civil society representatives have emphasized that since 2013 Gezi protests the most frequent of these abuses is ‘extensive and additional auditing and frequent fiscal penalties targeting certain CSOs and police raids to harass certain organizations.’ … Selective repression usually targets organizations engaged with politically sensitive issues, such as human rights monitoring and defense, the rule of law, minority issues, particularly Kurdish rights, cultural dialogue, social justice, peace, and reconciliation.”

The coup attempt of 2016 and the ensuing state of emergency rule

A failed coup in 2016 was the actual breaking point concerning rights and freedoms in Turkey. Ten emergency decrees closed down 145 foundations, 1,419 associations, 15 foundations owned universities and 19 trade unions. Moreover, 39 private health institutions, 2,271 private educational institutions and 151 media outlets, which belonged to private corporations, were shuttered. All this was done on an ad hominem basis and without due process. In addition, anyone who had even an intangible relationship with these entities was prosecuted for terrorism. Further, executives of international human rights associations such as the director and president of Amnesty Turkey, İdil Eser and Taner Kılıç, respectively, and more than 1,500 lawyers and human rights defenders were detained and/or convicted under the country’s overly broad counterterrorism law.

This relentless crackdown, of course, created a chilling effect on the right to peaceful assembly. The official statistics indicating that total membership in associations decreased precipitously from 11,239,693 in 2017 to 7,374,281 in 2019 show just how powerful this effect was.

Current status of civil society in Turkey

Since 2004 the number of civil society organizations has increased from 69,000 to 121,000. However, 84,000 of them are hometown societies, mosque building and maintenance or religious education associations and sports clubs. As the result of this crackdown on rights and freedoms, international civil society monitoring alliance CIVICUS categorizes Turkish civil society as “repressed,” and the US-based Freedom House defines Turkey as “Not Free.”

The AKP government effectively uses GONGOs to produce legitimization or excuses for actions and failures. GONGOs also produce alternative human rights narratives to defend the policies of the government. For instance, when the AKP government withdrew from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul convention on violence against women, KADEM defended Erdoğan’s narrative and stated that “the convention’s association with LGBT activism has become an unbearable burden for Turkish officials.” Or, for instance, pro-government businesspersons’ associations MUSIAD and ASKON expressed support for Erdoğan’s economic policies that caused the free fall of the Turkish lira.

In exchange GONGOs in Turkey receive government funding and access to the authorities and can participate in dialogue on important legislative amendments. A report by Anna Ehrhart from Open Democracy states that “the women-GONGOs have also taken over most public funding sources, which were previously available to different civil society organisations, including feminist groups. Some say it has become more difficult for feminist women’s organisations to acquire sustainable domestic funding for projects because ‘all government resources go to the women-GONGOs in their shiny offices’.” On the other hand, criticism from independent NGOs triggers reprisals including the arbitrary ban of their events and meetings, arbitrary audits, tax fines, exclusion from public funding, prosecution, arrests and closure.

On top of all these repressive measures, Turkey in December 2020 passed a new bill to further tighten its control over NGOs. Law No. 7262 on the Prevention of the Financing of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction empowered the government to conduct abusive audits in the name of risk assessment and to remove the executives of NGOs and replace them with trustees who do not need the approval of members of the concerned associations well as freezing their assets. According to Amnesty International, this law is a new arsenal for the Turkish government’s counterterrorism laws, many of which have already been routinely used to target human rights defenders and civil society organizations and threatens to escalate the pressure on civil society activists.

The AKP government has transformed the civic space through the cultivation of GONGOs and the repression of independent NGOs. Yet the AKP government tolerates a weakened independent civil society in order to to masquerade as a democratic government, like all modern autocrats do.


* Ali Yıldız is a Brussels-based lawyer and founder of The Arrested Lawyers Initiative.

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