Defining the Campaign Issue
Despite some democratic gains, Turkey’s parliamentary political system remains highly centralized, lacking institutional checks and balances. This has stunted pluralism, openness and accountability in government, while precluding meaningful political participation by civil society organizations (CSOs) and citizens. Politicians have used divisive political issues to exploit tensions and CSOs have been largely unable to overcome their own prejudices to work in common cause. When geopolitical considerations are factored in, Turkey becomes a very complicated place for civil society to push for government reform.
In 2010, NDI partnered with the Istanbul Policy Center of Sabancı University (IPC) and conducted a public opinion survey of citizen perceptions of democracy. This revealed deep concerns about the country’s democratic institutions, including political parties, parliament and the judiciary. When parliament launched an effort in 2011 to draft a new constitution, IPC brought together 120 diverse political, civic, government, media and academic representatives to provide input. Through a series of facilitated discussions, the group agreed on 108 recommendations to limit government through more political competition, a stronger parliament and a more independent judiciary. The effort helped inform debate and introduced the principle of “checks and balances” into the discourse.
After some initial progress, the constitutional reform process stalled over disagreements on key structural issues, including transitioning from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government. However, the process helped give rise to a broad-based citizen demand for more open and accountable government. A new civil society network emerged to express this demand and encourage political reform.
With 92 initial members, and the IPC playing a secretariat role, the Checks and Balances Network (CBN) took shape in 2012. CBN’s members represented a cross section of society, including faith-based organizations, think tanks, disabled persons organizations, youth groups, community service providers, and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) groups. In addition to sending strong symbolic messages about tolerance and working together for collective interests, the network developed a multi-pronged strategy that included using election periods to prompt dialogue on reforms and garner campaign promises. Using election periods also allowed the group to elevate its profile and strengthen its base by organizing provincial level activities and raising awareness about the appropriate relationship between government and citizens in a democracy.
Network members have different interests in checks and balances and became involved for different reasons. While they are closely aligned on the principles of limited government, they have different perspectives on when and where it should be practiced. For this reason, it is not possible, practical or necessary to get the entire network to act in unison at all times. Groups can work individually or in various configurations on the aspects of the checks and balances agenda that correspond to their particular interests. Some groups have an interest in campaign finance, while others care more about legislative oversight of health care or environmental protection. These differences are reflected in the organizing approach, which focuses more on coordinating a social movement under the heading of checks and balances, rather than creating a stand-alone organization. In this way, day-to-day leadership is more distributed and there are multiple initiatives and a wide array of relationships.
The CBN sought to galvanize widespread support for principles and practices that would limit government. Its strategy was to raise public awareness surrounding checks and balances issues, build consensus on the need for changes and provide precise reform ideas. At the same time, it worked to expand the network of civic groups with a shared commitment to accountable government. The strategy involved coordinated campaigns managed by a steering committee and carried out by different elements of the network.
During 2013, the CBN continued to focus on the constitutional reform process and pushed parliament to draft a new version. Through policy briefs and public forums, CBN worked to frame the debate and coined the term denge ve denetleme (Turkish for “checks and balances”). These steps began to shift how politicians, public officials, civil society and media talked about limits on government. Parliament did reconvene a committee tasked with constitution drafting, but little progress was made. Other political events, including protests in Gezi Park and a corruption scandal, overshadowed these efforts and deepened political polarization. At the same time, demand for more accountable government increased. This set the stage for 2014 elections where the president would be directly elected for the first time.
The 2014 elections offered the CBN an entry point, and it developed a two-pronged strategy that involved securing political party commitments to constitutional reforms with checks and balances provisions, and working to improve the transparency of political financing.
In the two years leading up to the 2014 elections, CBN’s organizing and activism had helped it build the relationships and credibility needed to engage directly with politicians and election officials. The network had also expanded to more than 150 organizations, which allowed it to reach all parts of the country. CBN leveraged these assets and undertook a series of actions to influence electoral actors.
Policy Briefs – With a series of policy briefs related to establishing check and balances in different aspects of governance, CBN focused on political finance and disclosure in anticipation of the electoral period. These briefs helped frame the issue for public dialogues.
Voter education – CBN pushed information out to its membership and used social media (including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) to make the case for greater transparency in political finance. The network encouraged voters to choose candidates based on their positions on transparency and accountability.
Public dialogues – Through seven policy forums, CBN brought together political leaders, academics and civil society actors to discuss the need for political finance reform and to consider steps that could be taken before the 2014 elections. As a result, CBN offered 10 specific recommended actions for political parties and candidates.
Meetings with political party leaders and candidates – CBN delegations met with political party leaders and candidates to explain the political finance reform recommendations and request that presidential candidates disclose campaign contributions. CBN also secured commitments for the parties to pursue constitutional reforms that embraced checks and balances.
Media coverage – CBN engaged the media through press releases and by inviting print and broadcast journalists to cover its forums. CBN also provided its entire membership with talking points, so issues of campaign finance and government accountability could be raised whenever members interacted with the media.
Work done by CBN during the 2014 elections is reflected in public statements by top political leaders, including President Erdoğan, then Prime Minister Davutoğlu, Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chair Kiliçdaroğlu, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chair Bahçeli and former President Abdullah Gül. As a result of CBN’s call for transparent financing in the presidential election campaign, all three candidates voluntarily disclosed the amount and nature of their contributions and posted the information on their websites. In the case of the CHP, MPs drafted and proposed legislation based on CBN policy recommendations to reform party financing mechanisms. Most notably, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) included a commitment to checks and balances in its 2014 legislative program.
The experience has also demonstrated that checks and balances can serve as a unifying theme for otherwise polarized and competing interests and ideologies. A core group of 30 founding members resolved to work in collaboration with NDI and IPC to build a broad civic movement for democratization through promotion of institutional reform and fostering a new political culture. In 2016, the network comprises more than 250 member organizations representing a range of interests, issues and affiliations. The network is working to strengthen democracy and advance pluralism by formulating recommendations for policy changes and reform of institutions, building public and media support, and engaging public officials and holding them accountable.
CBN has developed into a civic movement that uses sophisticated and effective advocacy techniques and strategies. It has become a point of reference for constructive engagement and a model for how CSOs in Turkey should operate. With designated campaign coordinators and working groups on decision-maker outreach, policy development, communications and political process monitoring, CBN members are well equipped at every stage of the advocacy process. They take a comprehensive approach by recommending changes and reforms, monitoring government responses and holding government accountable to its commitments.
With members in all 81 provinces, the network has an increasingly broad spectrum of supporters who recognize the need for systemic democratic reform. Through digital communications and outreach to political leaders of all parties, national and local media, and a broad range of community leaders and opinion makers, CBN has succeeded in bringing the need for checks and balances to the center of public debate. As one network member said, CBN “is spreading democratic literacy.”
Since CBN coined the term denge ve denetleme, popular columnists and nightly news anchors have highlighted the phrase, pressing elected officials to discuss what actions they propose to strengthen checks and balances and triggering discussion on a national level. By the end of August 2015, Google search results for denge ve denetleme totaled approximately 1.8 million. CBN’s online and social media platforms now have a following of more than 17,000 individuals concentrated in a diverse array of cities and provinces. In cities around the country, more than 1,000 community leaders and opinion makers in addition to CBN members are serving as local advocates for checks and balances.