Turkey

Last updated 20 October 2020

Coronavirus Response

Most measures restricting basic rights and freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic have been implemented with circulars. These circulars have not been published in the Official Gazette. They have only been included on the Ministry of Interior’s website as ‘news.’ According to the Constitution, however, fundamental rights and freedoms can only be restricted by law.

Effective from June 6, 2020, all travelers must obtain a QR code via an application called HES for domestic flights and train and ferry travel. Since September 2020, having the code is mandatory in public institutions. Tracking and sharing data via the HES code may lead to violations of privacy and personal data protection, as well as discrimination based on ethnicity, age and gender.

For more details, see the ICNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker’s entry for Turkey.

Update

In July and August 2020, the government held several discussions to evaluate a possible withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence). This occurred at a time when COVID-19 measures, such as lockdowns, were leading to a spike in reports of violence against women and girls with many of them trapped at home with their abusers or unable to access safety and support services. There have been substantial protests against such a withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention from CSOs, companies and individuals. The debate has also sparked criticism from a number of women within Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles. Withdrawal discussions are currently on hold.

Introduction

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are at the heart of Turkey’s democratization process. Over the past years, the not-for-profit sector in Turkey has grown in size and played a significant role in providing services and contributing to the democratization of the country. There are around 126,753 CSOs as of September 2020 and 5,352 new foundations (established after the foundation of the Republic in 1923) as of August 2020 operating alongside many informal organizations, such as platforms, initiatives, and groups. Their areas of work are mostly concentrated in social solidarity, social services, education, health and various rights-based issues.

While foundations in Turkey are predominantly working in the fields of education and social assistance, associations are carrying out activities to enhance vocational training, social solidarity, sports and religious services. Despite the increase in their numbers and visibility, rights-based organizations constitute a very small segment of CSOs in Turkey. According to the data provided by the Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society, as of September 2020, out of all the associations registered, only 1.23% (1,494 associations) are active in the fields of human rights and advocacy. According to the data provided by the General Directorate of Foundations, out of 10,371 activities organized by foundations in 2019, only 264 are in the fields of law, human rights and democracy.

Since officially becoming a European Union (EU) candidate country in 2003, Turkey has implemented a series of reforms that promote democratization, including reforms to its basic framework laws affecting civil society. Turkey still operates, however, under the 1982 Constitution, which was written immediately following a military coup. Until 2004, when a new Associations Law was enacted in Turkey, the autonomy of Turkish CSOs was restricted. The new Law on Associations was viewed positively by both civil society and the EU. It lifted some of the limitations on civil society. Subsequently, in 2008, Turkey adopted a Law on Foundations, which further improved the legal environment. Nonetheless, today, Turkish CSOs are more aware of the deficiencies in the laws that restrict their activities. Although constitutional regulations comply with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the legal framework still contains numerous incompatibilities with international standards. In addition, despite the improved legislation concerning associations and foundations in 2004 and 2008, respectively, challenges and constraints continue, especially regarding the secondary legislation and its implementation. In fact, no extensive reforms have been made since the major reform packages accepted in 2004 and 2008 improved the enabling environment for civil society.

Shrinking civic space has been a concern since 2013. The enabling environment for civil society activity deteriorated after the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which challenged the government’s urban development plans. Civil society has also been affected by many destabilizing pressures, including the renewed tensions over the Kurdish conflict, instability spilling over from neighboring Syria, the uncertain situation regarding refugees, political deadlocks, economic decline, and a failed coup attempt. The coup attempt on July 15, 2016 was coordinated by a faction of Turkey’s military allegedly loyal to the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, which deployed tanks and fighter jets to overthrow the government. This unforeseen incident caused a severe interruption in policy making. The context of political instability and post-coup measures have paved the way for a state of constant readiness to curb basic freedoms, including the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, for the sake of the preserving national security or public order. The National Parliament approved a three-month state of emergency on July 21, 2016 to enable authorities to investigate and punish those responsible for the attempted coup. On April 18, 2018, the government extended the state of emergency for a seventh and final time. During this period, the government carried out mass arrests and firings of civil servants, academics, journalists, and opposition figures relating to the coup attempt. As of October 2020, the mandate and priorities of this Directorate, including the drafting of an overarching strategy for civil society or the improvement of the legal framework, remain unclear.

Turkey officially transitioned to a presidential government system when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was inaugurated to a new term on July 9, 2018. The new presidential system has been highly criticized for its lack of separation of powers and the concentration of powers in the president. Under new presidential decrees, several changes have been made to the organizational structure and functions of state councils, bodies, and ministries. Presidential Decree No. 17 established a Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society under the Ministry of Interior and abolished the Department of Associations. The regulation on the organization and duties of the Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society came into force on October 10, 2018 and put forward targets to improve the civil society environment. As of October 2020, the mandate and priorities of this Directorate, including the drafting of an overarching strategy for civil society or the improvement of the legal framework, remain unclear.

Following the amendment of the Regulation on Associations, the obligation of notifying the registered members of associations to the Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society via an online system (DERBIS) was included to a law proposal in order to be added to the Law on Associations. As of March 2020, the law proposal has been accepted and entered into force. The law mandates the notification of the first name, surname, date of birth and ID number of the members. The Expert Council of the European Council released an opinion and evaluated the amendment and its process. It indicated that lack of an impact assessment and proper public discussion undercut the legitimacy and ran afoul of the requirement for inclusive, participatory and evidence-based policy development that underpins European best practices in public administration. The legal requirement may bring along bureaucratic obstacles for many associations, and it may also negatively impact individuals’ right to association, freedom of expression and protection of personal data.

Public institutions do not attach strategic importance to cooperation with civil society. While national documents, including the National Development Plan and the Annual Presidential Program, underline the importance of cooperation with CSOs and their participation in decision-making processes, there is no policy or strategy that defines and encourages cooperation and participation modalities. Within the Presidential Government System, there is no overarching policy, national strategy or legal framework that governs civil society and government relations and there is no institution or mechanism that is mandated to facilitate, monitor and report on civil society and government relations. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, there are no specially-designated units or subject-experts within the ministries for governing relations with civil society. The Regulation on the Procedures and Principles of Drafting Legislation includes provisions about CSO participation in decision-making processes in consultative capacity, but these provisions do not make consultation mandatory. In the Presidential Government System, while the President as well as its affiliated organizations and councils are the primary policy-makers, ministries are now functioning as implementing agencies and supervising bodies at a lower level. However, as of 2020, there has not been any regulation with provisions defining such a decision-making process and ensuring a participatory policy-making process.

The 11th National Development Plan emphasizes that special importance will be attached to the participation of CSOs and all other relevant stakeholders while building a social contract and ensuring effective CSO participation in decision-making processes. However, the steps envisaged for achieving this goal remain limited to strengthening the institutional, human resources and financial capacity of CSOs; there are no steps foreseen when it comes to the development of necessary mechanisms or legal frameworks by the public sector.

The 2020 Annual Presidential Program was prepared by the Presidency of Strategy and Budget and published on November 4, 2019 in the Official Gazette. The Program includes the following main goals: strengthening institutional capacity of CSOs; developing the necessary legal framework and administrative structures; fostering relationship between civil society-public sector-private sector; ensuring a climate of social dialogue. However, the Program does not mention mechanisms public institutions need to devise to ensure CSO participation in decision-making processes.  The measures listed are limited to training and workshop activities geared towards enhancing cooperation with CSOs. Furthermore, there is no reference to the role and contribution of CSOs in decision-making processes in the Program sections on fundamental rights and freedoms, justice, family and women, children and youth. The measures for CSO participation are only specified under the sections relating to combating poverty and elderly care.

In sum, as of 2020, the legal-political environment is not conducive for civil society in Turkey. Restrictions limiting freedom of association, assembly, and speech/advocacy remain. A concrete definition of civil society is still lacking in legislation, policy documents, or a singular, overarching, and binding legislative framework to govern the relationship between CSOs and public institutions. In addition, freedom of expression has been steadily eroding in Turkey since 2013 through arbitrary and restrictive interpretations of legislation, pressure, dismissals, and frequent court cases against activists, journalists, academics, and social media users. Not-for-profit entities can be inspected on the grounds of their political affiliations, advocacy on rights-based issues, proximity to government or opposition, and personal complaints. Therefore, they remain prone to arbitrary implementation and interpretations of the law.

Organizational FormsAssociationsFoundations
Registration BodyMinistry of Interior, General Directorate for Relations with Civil SocietyThe courts, with possible review made by the General Directorate of Foundations
Barriers to EntryAt least 7 founders required to establish an association.

Executive board of at least 5 people required. Majority of the board must reside in Turkey.  Foreigners can be members of board provided they reside in Turkey.

The minimum endowment amount for foundations is 80,000 TL (approx. $10,459).
Barriers to ActivitiesDespite the improvements in the Regulation on Associations, standard annual reporting forms and numerous mandatory books are still considered cumbersome and time consuming.

All associations are obliged to obtain permission from the governorship of the city in which they will be conducting the fundraising activity and indicate the exact amount of money they aim to collect.

Requirement to complete standard forms before receiving or using foreign funding or opening new branch offices.

Standard annual reporting forms considered cumbersome and time consuming.

All foundations are obliged to obtain permission from the governorship of the city in which they will be conducting the fundraising activity and indicate the exact amount of money they aim to collect.

Requirement to complete standard forms before receiving or using foreign funding or opening new branch offices.

Barriers to Speech and/or AdvocacyDifferent provisions set forth in the Constitution protect speech, regardless of its content, when expressed by a natural person or a legal entity, or expressed individually or collectively.

However, the constitutional protection providing for freedom of expression is diminished at a legal level. Many articles in the laws are sustained despite their apparent conflict with the Constitution.

The new internet regulation No. 5651 may potentially increase censorship and pave the way for removing content without a court order.

Different provisions set forth in the Constitution protect speech, regardless of its content, when expressed by a natural person or a legal entity, or expressed individually or collectively.

However, the constitutional protection providing for freedom of expression is diminished at a legal level. Many articles in the laws are sustained despite their apparent conflict with the Constitution.

The new internet regulation No. 5651 may potentially increase censorship and pave the way for removing content without a court order.

 

Barriers to International ContactRequirement to notify the government when receiving grants from international organizations.Requirement to notify the government when receiving grants from international organizations.
Barriers to ResourcesRequirement to notify the government before using foreign funding.

A foreign association is required to notify the authorities about foreign funds even if the funds are received from the headquarters of the foreign association.

Requirement to notify the government within one month of receiving foreign funding.

A foreign foundation is required to notify the authorities about foreign funds even if the funds are received from the headquarters of the foreign foundation.

Barriers to AssemblyVague grounds to justify restrictions, excessive force on protesters, and advance notification requirement.Vague grounds to justify restrictions, excessive force on protesters, and advance notification requirement.
Population82,017,514 (July 2020 est.)
CapitalAnkara
Type of GovernmentPresidential Government System
Life Expectancy at BirthMale: 73.3 years
Female: 78.2 years (2020 est.)
Literacy RateMale: 98.8%
Female: 93.5% (2017)
Religious GroupsMuslim (mostly Sunni): 99.8%; other (mostly Christians and Jews): 0.2%
Ethnic GroupsTurkish: 70-75%; Kurdish: 19%; other minorities: 7-12% (2016 est.)
GDP per capita$9,140 (2019, The World Bank data)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2017.

Ranking BodyRankRanking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index59 (2019)1 – 178
World Bank Rule of Law Index45 (2018)100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index25.12 (2018)100 – 0
Transparency International91 (2019)1 – 180
Freedom House: Freedom in the WorldPolitical Rights: 16
Civil Liberties: 16
Total: 32 (2020)
1 – 100
1 – 100
Foreign Policy: Fragile States IndexRank: 59 (2020)178 – 1

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International AgreementsRatification*Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)Yes2003
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)Yes2006
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)Yes2003
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR)No
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)Yes2002
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)Yes1985
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against WomenYes2002
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)Yes1995
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)Yes2004
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)Yes2009
Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention)Yes2012
European Convention on Human Rights
Yes1954
The Convention for The Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal DataYes2016

 

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The Constitution was adopted in 1982, immediately following a military coup. Although the Constitution is sometimes criticized for its lack of democratic principles, it still guarantees basic rights and freedoms. Relevant articles include:

Article 22: Everyone has the right to freedom of communication.

Article 25: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and opinion.

Article 26: Everyone has the right to express and disseminate his thoughts and opinions by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually and collectively.

Article 33: Everyone has the right to form associations, or become a member of an association, or withdraw from membership without prior permission.

No one shall be compelled to become or remain a member of an association.

Freedom of association may only be restricted by law on the grounds of protecting national security and public order, or prevention of crime, or protecting public morals, public health.

The formalities, conditions, and procedures governing the exercise of freedom of association shall be prescribed by law.

Associations may be dissolved or suspended from activity by the decision of a judge in cases prescribed by law. In cases where delay endangers national security or public order and in cases where it is necessary to prevent the perpetration or the continuation of a crime or to effect apprehension, an authority designated by law may be vested with power to suspend the association from activity. The decision of this authority shall be submitted for the approval of the judge in charge within twenty-four hours. Unless the judge declares a decision within forty-eight hours, this administrative decision shall be annulled automatically.

Provisions of the first paragraph shall not prevent imposition of restrictions on the rights of armed forces and security forces officials and civil servants to the extent that the duties of civil servants so require.

The provisions of this article are also applicable to foundations.

Article 34: Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission.

Article 35: Everyone has the right to property and inheritance.

Article 56: Everyone has the right to live in a healthy and balanced environment

Article 90: International agreements duly put into effect have the force of law. No appeal to the Constitutional Court shall be made with regard to these agreements, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. In the case of a conflict between international agreements, duly put into effect, concerning fundamental rights and freedoms and the laws due to differences in provisions on the same matter, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail

On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum that adopted an 18-article law proposal to switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system:

  • The president becomes the head of the executive, as well as the head of state, and retains ties to a political party (prior to this, presidents renounced political parties on taking office).
  • The office of prime minister is eliminated. The new post of vice president is created.
  • The president is given sweeping new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree.
  • The president alone can announce a State of Emergency and dismiss the parliament.
  • Article 98 of the Constitution is abolished, equipping Parliament with five mechanisms to hold the government to account.
  • The Parliament loses its right to scrutinize ministers or propose an enquiry. However, it is able to launch impeachment proceedings or investigate the president with a majority vote by MPs.
  • Putting the president on trial requires a two-thirds majority.
  • Presidential and parliamentary elections are to be held on the same day every five years. The president is limited to two terms, and the presidential government system will be enacted.

General elections and a presidential election were held throughout Turkey on June 24, 2018. Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the country’s key presidential election and became Turkey’s first executive president with increased powers. The first decree for the harmonization of current laws for the new executive presidential system was issued on July 4, 2018. The 74-article decree dissolved the office of Prime Minister and stipulated the transfer of some powers of the cabinet to the president. The first three Presidential Decrees were issued on July 10, 2018 to restructure the Turkish administrative system. The first Presidential Decree introduced the vice-presidency as well as presidential offices, policy councils, and directorates, which will work directly under the president. The other two decrees change the structure of regulatory institutions and define terms, duties, and appointment procedures for high-level bureaucrats and presidents. The president will be able to directly appoint and remove the vice president, ministers, and high-level officials. In the former parliamentary system, the president had the power to appoint and remove the prime minister and ministers only upon the prime minister’s proposal. These high-level bureaucrats and presidents of key institutions, who were formerly recommended by different posts, such as ministries, will now be appointed directly by the President.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

The state of emergency was regulated under Articles 119, 120, and 121 of the Constitution and State of Emergency Law No. 2935. It allowed the Council of Ministers, chaired by the President, to issue statutory decrees that carry the force of law. While the state of emergency was in effect from July 21, 2016 until July 18, 2018, the government issued thirty-seven emergency degrees, seven of which had a direct effect on CSO operations. Article 120 and 121 abolished in 2017. Since the presidential system is in place, the president is authorized to declare the state of emergency. Once the state of emergency is declared, it is obliged to publish the state of emergency in the Official Gazette. Parliament gathers after the publishing. Parliament is authorized to extend, shorten or abolish the state of emergency.

On January 25, 2017, the president and cabinet set up a Commission of Inquiry for State of Emergency Practices to review sanctions under the state of emergency and provided new judicial avenues for appeals. However, the means of selecting the members of this Commission raised concerns about its independence. The rulings of the Commission have not been announced. Given the number of applications, there are concerns that it will become virtually impossible for the Commission to observe due process and deliver timely justice. In May 2018, the Commission gave its initial decisions on six associations that had been closed by the statutory decrees. The Commission ruled that the associations should be reopened because no linkages to terrorist associations were identified. As of October 2, 2020, the Commission has delivered 110,250 decisions (12,680 accepted and 97,570 rejected). 60 of the acceptance decisions have been related to the re-opening of the organizations that had been shut down (associations, foundations, television channels). The Commission, therefore, remains active.

On July 24, 2018, Parliament passed the new Anti-terror Law No. 7145, which amended existing laws to effectively deal with the fight against terror after the state of emergency ended by strengthening the authorities’ powers to detain suspects and impose public order.

Presidential Decree No. 17, published on September 13, 2018, amended the previous Presidential Decree No. 1, which was passed on July 10, 2018, by abolishing the Department of Associations and establishing a Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society under the Ministry of Interior.

In 2019, Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK), a department under the Ministry of Treasury and Finance, published a guide named Avoiding the Abuse of the Nonprofit Organizations by the Plots of Terrorist Financing.” The guide details suspicious financial transaction types that may link CSOs to terror financing. The guide supposedly aims to distinguish between civil society activities and terrorist financing, however it is criticized as another move to discredit the CSOs.

In March 2020, the Ministry of Health started to implement precautions to avoid spreading of Pandemic, Covid-19. The Ministry of Interior published a decree postponing the general assemblies, activities, trainings and other meetings of CSOs to prevent the spread of the virus.

The amendment to the regulation called “Funding the Projects of The Local Administrations, Associations and Foundations by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism” was published in the Official Gazette on April 1, 2020. The amendment to Article 5 indicates that in order to benefit from the fund, members of the aforesaid institutions shall not be connected to any illegal organizations. In addition, the amendment to Article 13 named “the liabilities of the institutions” entitled the ministry to terminate the funding protocol in the event of an immoral activity of the institution through the funded project.

An amendment to the Regulation on Associations also entered into force on July 9, 2020. There were six mandatory accounting books to be kept based on the Regulation of Associations. Two of these books were removed from the list of mandatory records by the amendment. Some books can now be kept in electronic format. Furthermore, additional reporting and notification requirements were added to the regulation for foreign foundations and associations. For example, if a foreign foundation or association receives donations in cash or in kind from abroad, even if the donation comes from its headquarters, the association or foundation is required to notify the authorities. Previously, the funds originating from the headquarters were not subject to a prior notification.

An Omnibus Bill including the amendment on the Legal Profession Act entered into force on July 15, 2020. The amendment enables a group of a minimum of 2,000 lawyers located in provinces with over 5,000 lawyers to set up their own bar associations. The law could lead to the development of several new bar associations in big cities like Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir. The current bar associations have not been consulted during this process. 78 bars out of 80 signed a statement opposing the amendment of the law. However, the Constitutional Court rejected the appeal on October 1, 2020.

There are a number of national laws affecting the civil society sector:

  • Law 5253: Associations Law on Associations
  • Law 5737: Law on Foundations
  • Law 4721: Civil Code
    • Associations: Articles 56-100
    • Foundations: Article 101-117
  • Law 8965: Penal Code
  • Law 5326: Law on Misdemeanor
  • Law 2860: Law on Collection of Aid
  • Law 2911: Law on Meetings and Demonstrations
  • Law 4982: Law on Right to Information
  • Law 4962: Law on the Amendment to Certain Laws and Tax Exemption for Law on Foundations
  • Law 6102: Commercial Law
  • Law 193: Income Tax Law
  • Law 5520: Corporate Tax Law
  • Law 213: Tax Procedure Law
  • Law 1319: Property Tax law
  • Law 488: Stamp Tax Law
  • Law 3065: VAT Law
  • Law 1606: Law on the Exemption of Certain Associations and Institutions from Certain Taxes, All Fees and Dues
  • Law 5072: Law on the Relations of Public Institutions with Associations and Foundations
  • Law 4641: Law on the Establishment and Functioning of the Economic and Social Council
  • Law 3335: Law on Establishment of International Organizations
  • Law 5018: Public Financial Administration and Control
  • Law 3713: Prevention of Terrorism Law
  • Law 6698: Law on Protection of Personal Data

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

The 2020 Annual Residential Program was prepared by the Presidency of Strategy and Budget and published on November 4, 2019 in the Official Gazette. The Program includes a section on CSOs and lists the policies and actions to be carried out by the end of December 2020. The purpose is to develop the civil society capacity, strengthen legal and managerial infrastructure, increase collaboration between public administration-civil society-business and improve social dialogue. However, the Program does not outline the necessary mechanisms the public administration must employ in order to achieve CSO participation in decision-making processes. The listed precautions are limited to training and workshop activities to increase collaboration. Moreover, the sections detailing basic rights and freedoms, justice, family and women, children and youth do not include the role and contribution of CSO participation to public decision-making processes. CSO participation is emphasized for poverty alleviation and care of elderly only. However, the Program prioritizes managerial and financial regulation on volunteering, which will include a stronger role for civil society.

Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

Organizational Forms

There are two legal forms of CSOs in Turkey: associations and foundations. Article 33 of the Constitution grants the right to form these entities. These organizations must be not-for-profit establishments. Article 56 of the Civil Code states, “An association is defined as a society formed by unity of at least seven real persons or legal entities for realization of a common object other than sharing of profit by collecting information and performing studies for such purpose.” Article 101 of the Civil Code defines foundations as “charity groups in the status of a legal entity formed by real persons or legal entities dedicating their private property and rights for public use.

The registration process and the timeline for registration of associations and foundations are regulated by the Law on Associations and the Law on Foundations. To register an association, seven citizens and/or foreigners holding residency permits must apply to the provincial office of the Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society with the necessary list of documents. No registration fee is required. As soon as the association starts official procedures, it is assumed that the association is already founded and thereby it can start its activities. The Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society has up to 60 days to review the application. If the administration decides there are missing documents, or the application of association violates the existing rules and regulations, the association is given 30 days to rectify the problem. According to Articles 84 and 86 of the Civil Code, at least 16 members are required to form the mandatory board of directors and the auditors’ board. In addition to Article 62, which requires the general assembly to be held within the first six months, newly founded associations are expected to have 16 members and form their mandatory organs (executive board, internal auditing committee, and general assembly) within six months.

Registration of foundations is much more complicated. To establish a foundation, there should be assets (all types of immovable and movable property, including cash, securities and bonds, and rights that have an economic value) allocated for the specified purpose of the foundation. The Council of Foundations, highest decision-making body of the General Directorate of Foundations, determines the minimum asset value applicable on the establishment of a foundation on annual basis. As of 2020, the minimum value is set at approximately 80,000 TL ($12,500). Foundations are founded by a charter verified by a court. This charter contains information on the title, purpose, assets, and rights to attain its goals, as well as organs and applicable administrative procedures. The foundation is granted legal personality when it is approved by the court and registered by the General Directorate of Foundations. The timeline for founding a foundation varies depending on the work load of the courts.

Public Benefit Status

“Public benefit” (for associations) and “tax exemption” (for foundations) statuses are vaguely defined, the decision-making process is highly political, and the privileges the statuses provide are very limited.

Article 19 of the Presidential Decree Law No. 703 of July 2, 2018, which amended Article 27 of the Associations Law and Article 57 of the Decree Law No. 698 of July 2, 2018, authorized the President to grant public benefit status to associations and foundations. Prior to this amendment, the Council of Ministers had the authority to grant public benefit status to eligible CSOs based on the opinion of the Ministry of Finance and the proposal of the Ministry of the Interior. Under the previous system, the selection process was highly bureaucratic and political at times and was not guided by an autonomous, transparent, and easily accessible institution. Furthermore, the procedures for these statuses were not clearly defined with a list of the selection criteria, and the conditions for gaining public benefit and tax exemption statuses differed.

Presidential decrees did not bring substantial changes in the decision making process for determining public benefit status for CSOs. Notably, while the law in Turkey provides for public benefit status for CSOs, only a very limited number of organizations have been granted public benefit status. According to data compiled in June  2020, there are 289 tax-exempt foundations out of 5,352  foundations in Turkey. The ratio of the number of tax-exempt foundations to the total number remained similar (5.4%) to previous years. As of May 2020, 358 associations with public benefit status constituted only 0.3% of the total number of 120,978 active associations.

Barriers to Entry

Article 33 of the Constitution on associations and foundations protects freedom of association. It states that everyone is free to establish associations without permission, that anyone may become a member of associations or give up membership, and that no one can be forced to become or stay as a member of any association. Individuals and legal persons with legal capacity have the right to establish CSOs. There are certain restrictions in special laws applicable to the members of the Turkish Armed Forces, the police force, and civil servants.

The number of minimum founding members required to register an association is quite high (seven) compared with international and European standards (2-3 people). In addition, to continue operating six months after its registration, an association must have at least 16 members. The executive board must have at least five people on it and must have a Turkish majority. Foreigners can be members of the board if they reside in Turkey.According to Article 5 of the Law on Foundations, “Foreigners shall be able to establish new foundations in Turkey in accordance with the principle of de jure and de facto reciprocity.” A foundation is granted legal personality when it is approved by the court and registered by the General Directorate of Foundations. The timeline for founding a foundation varies depending on the workload of the courts. In 2019, the minimum endowment amount for foundations was increased to 80,000 TRY (approx. $12,500). The law contains vague limitations (e.g. general morality, public order) that can lead to subjective registration processes that grant broad discretion to public officials responsible for registering foundations and associations.

To form a federation or a confederation, the Associations Law requires a minimum of five and three organizations, respectively, to come together. Problematically, however, the law requires that member organizations must have the “same purpose,” which is unnecessarily limiting. Foreign organizations are subjected to serious bureaucratic hurdles when opening a branch office in Turkey. Foreign organizations or representative offices require permission, provided by the Ministry of Interior upon the opinion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to operate or open a branch office in Turkey. The legislation does not provide a time limit for the Ministry of Interior to respond to foreign CSOs’ applications to operate in Turkey. According to the guidelines published by the Directorate General for Relations with Civil Society, the conclusion period of foreign CSOs’ applications varies depending on the field of activity of the CSO, the region where the activities will be carried out, the origin country, and their international recognition, among other things.

The registration processes of foreign CSOs are subject to a different authorization process than that of national associations. Foreign CSOs are subject to different liabilities and restrictions regarding matters such as the manner of application and notification of activities. Under Article 22 of the Regulation on Associations, the establishment of branches and representative offices by foreign foundations in Turkey is subject to the reciprocity condition and is restricted to situations deemed beneficial for cooperation on international level. As of September  2020, 143  foreign CSOs were listed as permitted to work in Turkey. The number of foreign CSOs with permits to operate in Turkey was 147 in May 2020, 150 in February 2020, 132 in July 2019, 131 in January 2019.

There has been a sharp decline in the number of association members, declining from 11,239,693 in 2017 to 8,146,674 in June 2020. This decline can be partially attributed to the  CSO closures during the period following the 2016 coup attempt, the passing away or leaving by the existing members of CSOs, and deletion of double-recordings by the headquarters and branches of CSOs. The statistics of association members is not available currently in the official website of General Directorate of Relations with Civil Society. Moreover, the new regulations requiring the disclosure of personal data upon joining associations discourage potential new members.

The Law on Associations contains vague limitations (e.g. general morality, public order) that invite the exercise of excessive governmental discretion into the activities of CSOs, particularly at the time of registration. According to Article 56 of the Turkish Civil Code, “No association may be formed for an object contrary to the laws and morality.” Article 101 of the Civil Code states that the “formation of a foundation contrary to the characteristics of the Republic defined by the Constitution, Constitutional rules, laws, ethics, national integrity and national interest, or with the aim of supporting a distinctive race or community, is restricted.” CSOs are required to declare the type of work/activities they intend to carry out in writing in official documents, such as the governing statutes of associations or the articles of foundations.

According to implementing regulations for the Law on Associations, associations seeking office space within residential buildings must secure the permission of all residents living in the building—a requirement that is burdensome at best, and in some cases practically impossible. The failure to secure office space may be a barrier to the process of registration for associations. Additionally, associations are not allowed to utilize shared offices with another legal entity or a natural person. The restriction on shared offices does not have a statutory basis, but it has arisen from an opinion of law department of Ministry of Interior.

Barriers to Operational Activity

Legislation does not explicitly limit the purposes of associations and foundations. However, Law No. 4721 of the Turkish Civil Code states associations and foundations “cannot adopt a purpose or aim that is contradictory with law or morality” and permits government interference based on interpretation.

Law No. 7145 on the Amendment of Certain Laws and Emergency Decrees, which was adopted on 25 July, 2018, contains regulations restricting assemblies, demonstrations, and marches. The broad and vague definition of “terrorism” in Article 1 may undermine the objectivity of the state regarding freed