Onur Öymen is vice-president of the Republican Party (CHP), the largest opposition force in Turkey, which is affiliated to the Socialist International. He is a career diplomat and has served as his country's ambassador to Denmark, Germany and NATO.
He was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EurActiv's senior editor.
What is your analysis of the Egyptian revolution? What does it mean for Turkey?
The revolution is very important because for the first time in the Middle East, people expressed very strongly their will, their determination, to live in a democratic society. In the last twenty years or so, in many regions of the world, democracies emerged with the exception of the Middle East.
Apparently, some big countries have preferred so far to live with authoritarian regimes as long as they have friendly relations with them, because this region is strategically very important, it possesses very rich oil and natural gas reserves, transit routes – the Suez Canal and so forth. The first priority was not the democratic rights of the people living over there, but the wealth under the earth.
Turkey could be a model, as it is considered a democratic country and is also a Muslim country…
Yes, Turkey is the first example of a democracy in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, but which has accepted a secular system of government, separating religion from affairs of the state. Turkey is the first and the only one so far.
Some Western intellectuals, like Samuel Huntington, believe that democracy is a product of Christianity, that there can be no democracy in the Muslim world and that Turkey is an exceptional case. If Egypt and other countries in the Middle East reach high democratic standards, it would be a good answer to those who believe that Muslims will not have the possibility to live in democratic societies.
But we have just attended a conference during which you said that democratic standards in Turkey itself are declining…
Yes, this is also true. We made big progress from the early twenties until 2000, but during the present government, unfortunately democratic standards in Turkey have declined, despite the fact that the parliament has passed some reform laws and constitutional amendments.
The reality is that in areas like democracy, press freedom, the independence of the judiciary and gender equality, unfortunately the standards of Turkey are now less good than they were several years ago.
You are vice-president of CHP, Turkey's biggest opposition party. There will be legislative elections later this year – what do you expect from the political process?
We expect a good result for our party, provided that we have a high level of democratic standards and fair elections during the election period. It's very important because in the last few elections, we saw some practices that are not compatible with elections in democratic societies.
For instance, we have elections every four years and from one election to the other, the number of people eligible to vote increases by half a million or two million according to the population increase. But last time, in the last three years, there was an increase of seven million – which is not normal. What happened to these seven million people during the previous elections?
Therefore, we need to be very careful with the election system, abuse of government authority and government means for the interest of the ruling party, excessive use of money without control during the elections and the abuse of religion for political purposes. Those are the elements that prevailed during the last few elections and I hope this time there will be high standards and democratic elections.
Are you appealing for any involvement of the European Union, not only on the day of the elections but also during developments leading up to them?
The European Union should follow very closely. On the one hand, we expect from the EU a fair and objective assessment of Turkey – or it's double standards between Turkey and other candidate countries.
On the other hand, we expect the European Union to follow the developments with interest, otherwise if we continue on this track of losing democratic standards, it will not only be bad for Turkish people but also for the European Union: if our European friends still want to see Turkey as a member of their family.
In Istanbul this morning [12 February], the news is that 163 military personnel have been arrested under the 'Sledgehammer' affair. What's happening?
Well, we have to see. On the one hand we have to respect the judiciary, on the other hand the judiciary should respect the common sense of the people. So far, these people have been arrested and released several times and the judges of this trial have recently been changed. So many journalists believe that the tensions are a result of the change of judges.
We don't know, we cannot make a judgement on that, but it's not normal that so many officers on duty or retired were all arrested together as if they were preparing a military coup. My personal feeling is that in the twenty-first century, if a person is thinking about overthrowing the government by force, he's an insane person – and I don't believe that we have so many insane people on our military.
What is the situation for press freedom in Turkey?
Very bad. There is very strong government pressure on the press: of the three major groups, two are already under the control of the government and the third, the Doğan Group, is more or less free and independent.
There was such a big fine imposed on this group – about $3 billion – that it will apparently be forced to sell all its papers and television channels to other people who are apparently close to the government.
So we would have practically no more press freedom, with the exception of a few small independent newspapers.
But Mr Doğan is probably not a saint himself, as a media tycoon and rich businessman…
You cannot make a judgement about the person who is the media owner, we have to see it from the perspective of freedom of the press. This was the only big remaining media group where journalists could freely criticise the government. If the group is sold, there will be much fewer journalists capable of criticising the government.
Do you think the European Union is conscious of this?
Yes, because in the reports of the European Commission there are a lot of references to this situation, to the Doğan Group, but at the end of the day, we don't see tangible reactions from the European side unless their personal friends are detained or jailed. Unfortunately, there are also double standards from the European Union in this regard.
When some people they want to protect are detained, or even without detention, then there is a very strong reaction from Europe. But if other guys receive worse treatment, there is practically no or very little reaction.
The Turkish government has recently opened Turkey's doors to visa-free travel for citizens of countries like Yemen and Syria. Do you think this is a good policy?
It depends. At a matter of principle, for the freedom of movement of persons it's a good step, but you still have to control the borders, otherwise some of these people might be potentially illegal refugees to EU countries. Therefore, while exempting visas to these citizens, we should make sure that this freedom would not be abused.
So you could say that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the chances of Turkey finding a solution to its visa problem with the EU more unlikely?
Well, this is not the whole explanation, because Turkey has been expecting visa exemption for the last five years – as all candidate countries to the European Union have had – but it didn't work. There was always an excuse to prevent Turkish citizens from travelling freely without a visa.
So this time, the visa exemption with Middle Eastern countries would probably be presented as an excuse to refuse Turkish expectations for visa exemption.