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In Ankara, Merkel urges freedom of expression amid tense Turkish political scene

Meeting with Turkey's president, the German Chancellor expressed hope that Turks could safeguard their democratic institutions. 'Opposition is part of democracy,' she said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walk past a picture of Turkish Republic state founder Kemal Ataturk at the presidential palace during the first visit since July's failed coup in Ankara, Turkey, on February 2, 2017.
Umit Bektas/ Reuters | Caption

On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, her first visit there since a wave of recent terrorist attacks and an attempted coup last summer in Turkey.

As Mr. Erdoğan's government combats violence and dissent, Ms. Merkel urged the president to maintain democratic institutions.

"In such a time of profound political upheaval, everything must be done to continue to protect the separation of powers and above all freedom of opinion and the diversity of society," Merkel told reporters at a joint press conference, according to Reuters, adding that "Opposition is part of democracy."

The two leaders discussed the need for close cooperation in the fight against terror. Turkey has criticized Germany of sheltering supporters of Fetullah Gulen, a cleric now living in the United States, whom Erdoğan accuses of plotting to overthrow him.

"We talked in particular about how the [Kurdistan Workers Party] PKK and everything associated with it in Germany is being observed and how we're also taking action against it because as I said, the PKK is, as a terrorist organization, banned in Germany too," Merkel told reporters. "Our intelligence services and interior ministries need to work together more closely."

Many observers worry that Turkey has taken an anti-democratic turn in recent months. Since the attempted coup, more than 100,000 people have been fired or put on suspension in the military, police, civil service, and private sector on suspicion of supporting Mr. Gulen. Tens of thousands more have been jailed and are awaiting trial. 

Erdoğan has also been pushing ahead with his goal of strengthening the presidency's powers, with the government preparing a referendum on constitutional reform to switch to an executive presidential system. The parliament approved the change last month, pushed through by lawmakers from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, abbreviated as AKP in Turkish, and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); it will now head to a popular referendum in the spring.

A year of increased security concerns have put a damper on Turkey's tourism and investment, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in January. The country’s economic slowdown, in turn, has soured public attitudes towards Erdoğan, and his long-stated goal of strengthening the presidency.

“Given public anger over economic fallout from the deteriorating security, analysts say, Erdoğan’s dream of creating an all-powerful presidential system through constitutional changes – a controversial goal he has been able to pursue amid strong public support for his leadership – may now hang in the balance,” Scott Peterson reported for the Monitor last month.

During Thursday’s press conference with Merkel, Erdoğan downplayed fears that his reforms would harm Turkish democracy. "It is out of the question for the separation of powers to be abolished," he said, as Reuters reports. "It gives more opportunity for the executive branch to work more swiftly. The judiciary will retain its power and function as usual with the new system."

But Erdoğan’s opponents disagree. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP) have launched a "Vote No" campaign in anticipation of the referendum, countering their opponents' "Vote Yes." Its online videos urge Turks to vote “no to a presidency and a one-man regime.”

In her Thursday comments, Merkel said that the country's failed coup underscored citizens' own desire to safeguard their democratic institutions. "With the (attempted) putsch, we saw how the Turkish people stood up for democracy and for the rules of democracy," she told reporters.