"State comes first" – Turkish Public Opinion on Fundamental Rights and Privacy

Corona Freedom

Human rights and data protection are not at their best in Turkey. The Corona crisis has not changed that to the better. Actually, the opposite seems to be the case. "We are observing a deterioration of liberal rights," says Can Selcuki, Director of the polling institute Istanbul Economics Research, at the presentation of the survey on the perspectives of the Turkish population on privacy and personal liberties. The project is part of the #LiberalHomeworksOnline series, which the Project Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Istanbul has implemented in the wake of the pandemic.

The pollsters examine how the Turkish population view civil liberties, which fundamental rights are important in their eyes and which are less important to them.

The research reveals a deeply divided society when it comes to the fundamental question of the relationship between citizens and the state. The polarization between supporters and opponents of President Erdogan is exemplified in the answers to the question of whether the state is entitled to restrict civil rights in certain situations or not. Over 40 percent of respondents believe the state may do so if it deems it necessary. This position is widespread particularly among government supporters.

From a liberal point of view, it is worrying that only 23 percent of respondents believe the state is not entitled to restrict fundamental rights. Faith in the state at the expense of individual rights has a long tradition in Turkey, says the researcher Ilkem Gök: “Our results show the culture of Turkey. State comes first and the individual is secondary.”

“Our results show the culture of Turkey. State comes first and the individual is secondary.”

Ilkem Gök
İlkem Gök

Concerns for the rule of law

When asked which fundamental right is most important to them, 65 percent say the right to a fair trial. The fact that two thirds consider this fundamental right to be primary, indicates that many Turks are losing trust in the rule of law. Evidence of the loss of independence of the Turkish judiciary is piling up. The survey shows that many people are critical of this - across party lines.

It is noteworthy that the resentment about the undermining of legal certainty extends to the ranks of the ruling AKP. The survey data provides further evidence of an erosion in the Erdogan camp. The establishment of two new parties by alienated ex-intimates of the president shows that the cohesion within the ruling party is not at its best. Even the conservative camp cannot ignore the accusation of an erosion of the rule of law.

With 61 percent of the mentions, the freedom of travel ranks second among the most important fundamental rights. This is related to the far-reaching mobility restrictions during the peak of the Corona crisis.

Freedom of expression, which 59 percent of respondents consider to be an important fundamental right, takes the third place. Nonetheless: 34 percent of the respondents - over a third - think that the government has the right to block news if it considers it necessary. These numbers show that Erdogan has a comparatively large number of compatriots on his side when he goes against the press and opposition on social media.

The results are different among the youth: the support for freedom of expression and the rights of the opposition is highest in the age group between 18 and 24 years. Turkey is another example illustrating that the younger generation tends to have more liberal attitudes than the elderly. That does not mean the youngsters are flocking to the established opposition parties. “Young people are active in civil society groups at the local level,” says Özgehan Şenyuva from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. "They're not looking for an old man to save them."

The state's access to people's lives has limits in Erdogan’s Turkey today.

Dr. Ronald Meinardus

A political ray of hope?

Since the protests around Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, which were violently put down, politically motivated demonstrations are rare in Turkey. When asked which peaceful protests they would approve of, respondents showed the highest acceptance for demonstrations that call for an increase of the minimum wage, women's rights and environmental protection. Protests by the LGBTI movement rank lowest on the scale. Although the LGBTI community in Turkey is well established, it faces a lot of hostility for cultural reasons nonetheless.

The pollsters see a ray of hope in their figures. "The results show that regardless of the societal polarization, supporters of different parties agree on fundamental issues," says the report. In particular, it alludes to the approval for civil protests regarding social issues and the protection of the environment.

Data protection is a difficult issue in Turkey. Foregoing long discussions, the government launched a Corona warning app at the beginning of the crisis. Protection of personal data or a voluntary nature of the app are not even an issue. Whoever wants to board a plane or take the train across the country has to download the government app onto their smartphone. Still, the acceptance of the app is rather low. According to a media report, a mere five percent of the population have downloaded the app. According to the opinion poll, around half of the Turks would not install the app on their phones. This number shows the state's access to people's lives has limits in Erdogan’s Turkey today.