Why turkey’s withdrawal from the istanbul convention is about power politics

Source: European Union

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of Speaking of Europe’s editorial team.

In 2020, 409 women were killed in Turkey and dozens of other women were found dead under suspicious circumstances. Since the beginning of this year , already 77 women have suffered the same fate – an unfortunate trend that most probably will continue throughout the upcoming months. These numbers should make everyone queasy, though apparently, they do not have the same effect on Erdogan and his political allies. 

The controversy stems from Erdogan’s desire to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. But what is this Convention? It is an agreement by the Council of Europe signed in the homonymous city by 34 countries, which aims at protecting victims of violence, including not only women but all victims regardless of their sexual orientation. The President’s decision did not go unnoticed and created a public outcry that probably will not be easy to repress.

When the Convention was signed in 2011, Turkey was in talks with the EU to become an EU Member. The fact that Erdogan himself signed the Convention earned him a good impression in Brussels, thereby increasing the chances of Turkey’s admission. Yet this very fact also renders his decision of withdrawing from the Convention even more puzzling. Then why did he do so? The reason is political. The president is politically fragile. His grip on power, if compared to the situation in 2011, has steadily been decreasing ever since. Back then, Erdogan did not need the backing of anyone to hold power while now he has to ask for support from other political parties – some of which are linked to a retrograde culture. In exchange for their support, these more conservative parties asked him to distance himself especially from one part of the Istanbul Convention: the one that promises protection regardless of sexual orientation. In a momentum in which it is really hard to find logic, the more conservative parties argue that offering protection to victims regardless of sexual orientation would pave the way to legalising gay marriages, which is inacceptable to them. This means that Erdogan, in exchange for reinvigorated political solidity, has bartered the safety of thousands of people experiencing domestic violence. In fact, their sexual orientation or gender is often perceived as an element of fragility by their attackers, if not the reason for the aggression itself.

The EU and leaders of the Member States must recall the Turkish President and remind him that these rights should be the basis of a civil society – essential value to be admitted to the EU. What once was Turkey’s dream, namely being part of the EU, now seems even more unreachable. It is questionable whether Erdogan is still interested in EU membership, anyway. His focus has shifted much more towards the East (most notably towards Russia and the Middle East), once the EU decided  to postpone the Turkish admission. Although Turkey’s estrangement from the West reduced the leverage the EU has on Turkey, leaders of the bloc should not shy away from their moral duty of promoting democratic values and urge Erdogan to re-evaluate his decision.

The potential of Turkey becoming a modern democratic state seems to be fading away ever more. Turkey seems to be relinquishing from this now obsolete ambition taking on semblances of an authoritarian regime. But Erdogan’s decision of withdrawing from the Convention can be considered a double-edged sword. More than half of Turkey’s population is composed of women and people of the LGBTIQ community who all have the right to vote. Turkey’s constituency, regardless of their political affiliation, is becoming more conscious about topics such as social justice. It is true that Erdogan’s decision might once again buckle down Turkey’s population, yet this is not a forgone solution. An auspicious alternative to this outcome would be that he will suffer from a backlash that will strike the blow of grace to the descending grasp of power he has been experiencing.

At this point a question rises almost spontaneously: has Erdogan’s decision been a wise one or did he take a misstep? Only time will tell us although people in Turkey are already manifesting their distress. Protesting in Turkey is an act of courage and defiance – that many times has ended in violent repression. This, however, did not scare off many Turks who shared their disappointment on social media condemning the President’s decision. Many more flooded the streets of Turkey’s main cities to protest. Still, an effective opposition can only be created if the more conservative rural areas of Turkey join these protests and, based on past experiences, it remains uncertain whether this will happen or not.

Right now, the future of Turkey seems to be anything but rosy, but it is not clear for who: the Turkish population or Erdogan?