German President criticises Erdogan during Turkey visit

Joachim Gauck, photo website of the German Federal President

Joachim Gauck. [German Federal President's Office]

Germany’s president warned during a trip to Turkey Monday (28 April) against the consequences of curbing freedom of expression, and he criticised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s leadership style.

A heavy-handed crackdown on anti-government demonstrations since last year, and a corruption scandal swirling around Erdo?an’s inner circle have generated the greatest challenge to the premier’s 11-year rule and drawn the outspoken disapproval of senior officials in the European Union.

Gauck, a former East German Lutheran pastor who campaigned for the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, praised Turkey for the progress made under Erdo?an on issues such as the economy and the Kurdish peace process, but added:

“Recently we have also heard voices of disappointment, bitterness and outrage at a style of leadership which many see as a risk to democracy,” he said in an address at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara [read the full speech here].

Gauck said he was shocked by the government’s attempts to stamp out street protests and clamp down on the media – a move that saw Twitter blocked for two weeks in the run-up to recent local elections, won comfortably by Erdo?an’s AK Party.

He spoke as security forces geared up for possible clashes with demonstrators during May Day marches planned for Thursday.

“All my life, experience tells me that where freedom of expression is curtailed, where people are not fully informed, not consulted nor allowed to participate, resentment and harshness, and finally also the willingness to resort to violence, grow,” Gauck said.

“It should be praised as a sign of political maturity that Turks are prepared to act as citizens who want to actively shape the future of their country… Countless people of Turkish origin who live in Germany share this view. They want to see democratic discussions in the country of their ancestors.”

Turkish security forces wielding pellet guns, water cannon and tear gas have repeatedly clashed with protesters since last May, when the country was rocked by huge demonstrations against what critics seee as Erdo?an’s growing authoritarianism. Nine people, including a policeman, have been killed in the unrest.

Police in Istanbul were preparing barricades in Taksim Square – the epicentre of last year’s protests – on Monday after trade unions promised to march there as part of May Day celebrations, despite being refused official permission.

Gauck, whose position is largely ceremonial, but exerts moral authority [read more], also took aim at recent Turkish legal changes and a purge of the police and judiciary which saw thousands of officials removed in an effort by the government to limit corruption investigations. He questioned whether the judiciary could preserve its independence under such conditions.

Turkey will hold direct presidential elections for the first time in August. A special law decided that former presidents, including incumbent president Abdullah Gül, cannot run for election. The same law says that the incumbent Prime Minister can run without having resigned from the post, although this text is challenged in the Constitutional court.

The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks are holding up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.

Prime minister ?Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced vigourous oppossition due to his crackdown of media freedom and freedom of speech over his past years of leadership. Last summer, protesters occupied the Taksim Gezi Park for several weeks, in what developed into a movement demanding respect for democratic and secular values in the country.

  • 10 August: 1st round of the first direct presidential elections in Turkey

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