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Turkey is Unfairly Ranked by Freedom House

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Prof Taras Kuzio

16 August 2021

The 2021 Freedom House report on Turkey ranks the country as ‘Not Free,’ a ranking it has held since 2018. Until 2017, Turkey was ranked by Freedom House as ‘Partly Free.’ In other words, Turkey is lumped together with Russia as ‘Not free.’ Meanwhile, Poland and Hungary, two countries which have ‘stand out for their unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade’ continue to be ranked by Freedom House as ‘Free’ (Poland) and ‘Partly Free’ (Hungary). Although Armenia is classified by Freedom House as a ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’ it is also ranked as ‘Partly Free.’

Turkey’s demotion from ‘Partly Free’ to ‘Not Free’ reflects subjective bias in Freedom House reporting. A study in The Washington Post concurred with earlier academic research that ‘Audiences are more likely to adopt ratings that reflect their values.’ Moreover, ‘Countries aligned with U.S. foreign policy tend to receive better scores in Freedom House than in other prominent indicators.’

Freedom House and similar institutions were giving AKP high marks and did not criticise it in its early years in power up to 2014. Turkey was demoted from ‘Partly Free’ to ‘Not Free’ after 2016-2017 when Turkish-US relations became frostier.

Ranking democratic rights in countries is highly subjective: ‘Although country rankings give the appearance of neutrality, they involve subjective decisions about how to define key concepts. The most influential ratings often are powerful precisely because they reflect the value judgments of the powerful.’ Freedom House, for example, write about ‘Turkey’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy’ when the country has not invaded any country and in the case of Libya was invited by the UN recognised Government of National Unity to provide military assistance. In contrast, Freedom House has never discussed Nagorno-Karabakh as a region illegally occupied by Armenia from the early 1990s until 2020. This must be why Armenian foreign policy is not described by Freedom House as ‘aggressive.’

Another study found Freedom House rankings ‘favour U.S. allies.’ Georgia, a country bordering Turkey, has complained about Freedom House rankings. The Georgian Dream party, which has ruled Georgia since 2012, believes Washington is biased against it because of its preference for Mikheil Saakashvili and the UNM (United National Movement). Georgian Dream officials point out that ‘fake elections,’ violations of human rights, UNM control of the courts and most media were not as savagely criticised by Freedom House as its current criticism of the state of Georgia’s democratic development under Georgian Dream.

Funded by USAID grants, Freedom House rankings of other countries are inevitably subjective. The US, for example, continues to be ranked by Freedom House as ‘Free’ and yet this is doubtful when the Republican Party no longer respects election results which its voters attempted to overturn in a violent coup attempt on 6 January. Turkey’s rankings were reduced to ‘Not Free’ after a crackdown on supporters of the 2016 coup d’état. In the US, 620 people were criminally charged following the 6 January coup d’état and yet this has not lowered the US ranking from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free.’

Heiko Pleines, editor of the Caucasus Analytical Digest, points out that: ‘Often far-reaching assessments are drawn from a relatively low number of specific indicators. Moreover, the selection and weighting of the individual indicators has necessarily a subjective dimension and can influence the final index value considerably.’

Pleines writes, ‘rankings do not simply state facts. They in fact claim that some aspects of political systems are more important than others and they try to have an impact on public debates through publication of their rankings.’ One factor why Freedom House ranked Turkey lower was because of its 2017 constitutional changes which abolished the post of prime minister and made the political system into a full presidential system. They may have forgotten the US has a presidential system without a prime minister.

The Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation believes Freedom House is biased against conservative political forces and ‘repeats the talking points of the progressive left.’ This could be an additional factor why Freedom House gives a low democratic ranking to Turkey because the AKP (Justice and Development Party) has been in power since 2002. Freedom Houses partisan bias against conservative parties is especially evident on issues such as immigration, refugees, border security, trade unions, criminal justice, abortion, and gender equality. Turkey, it should be noted, has four million Syrian refugees – the highest of any country. Freedom House criticises the inability of these Syrian refugees to vote forgetting they do not have Turkish citizenship. Citizenship and the vote have always been intrinsically linked.

Freedom Houses annual rankings of internet freedom are similarly criticised as representing an out of date ‘radical libertarian ideology’ stuck in early 1990s California. Freedom House is under the misapprehension it is wrong for governments to regulate the Internet.
The Turkish authorities are not credited by Freedom House with having tamed the country’s military which has a long record of intervening in domestic politics. Without these steps the 2016 coup d’état would have most likely succeeded.
Ranking both Turkey and Russia as ‘Not Free’ is patently absurd when discussing their political systems and elections. One factor why Freedom House downgraded Turkey to ‘Not Free’ was the replacement of elected mayors by appointees. Yet, Freedom House also write that in the 2019 municipal elections the opposition won most urban centres, including Ankara and Istanbul.

Freedom House describe Turkey as a ‘multi-party system’ with five political parties elected in 2018 to the Grand National Assembly. Freedom House write that this ‘suggested that there was still space for the opposition to make progress despite the AKP’s institutional advantages’ when the People’s Alliance (AKP-MHP [National Movement Party]) won 53% of the vote. The CHP (Republican Peoples Party), HDP (Peoples Democratic Party) and Iyi (Good Party) received 22, 11 and 10% respectively. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the 2018 presidential elections in which candidates from the CHP, HDP and Iyi were allowed to compete.
Nothing resembling the 2017 Turkish municipal and 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections would be possible in Russia! It is therefore wrong for Freedom House to rank Turkey together with Russia as ‘Not Free.’

Turkey is a country where democracy is still awork in progress. Nevertheless, Freedom House’s ranking of Turkey as ‘Not Free’ alongside consolidated authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China is patently biased and a product of US geopolitics rather than an objective study of the country.

Author: Prof Taras Kuzio –  Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Circle Foundation

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