Political Management Students Examine Advocacy in Turkey

Weeklong trip covers government, corporate, economic, media affairs in the country.

August 18, 2014

By James Irwin

For Sarah Hunt, a second-year graduate student with a background in election law and energy policy, traveling to Istanbul for a one-week global perspectives residency through the Graduate School of Political Management was an opportunity to combine academic and professional interests.

“Policy issues are increasingly trans-boundary because of globalization,” said Ms. Hunt, who serves as manager of state issues and ethics officer for Stateside Associates, a state government affairs consulting firm. “So for someone like me, who does quite a bit of work in energy policy, the opportunity to go to an important country for energy policy was very valuable.”

Ms. Hunt and seven other GSPM students spent their first week of August in Istanbul, where they met with high-powered decision makers in an examination of advocacy in the Turkish Republic. The global perspectives residency is one of a series GSPM Director Mark Kennedy has led since arriving at the George Washington University in 2012. Those trips have led to the creation of a new master’s program, Advocacy in the Global Environment, which includes immersion residencies similar to the stand-alone trips currently offered.

The Turkey trip included meetings with members of parliament, political consultants, the head of Turkish government relations for BP (formerly known as British Petroleum), three American public relations firms, the president of Turkey’s Global Relations Forum and the country’s largest independent news organization. Turkey, which sits at a geographic crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, offers a particularly interesting opportunity to study advocacy, said Political Management Professor Chris Arterton, who joined Mr. Kennedy as a faculty liaison on the trip.

“If Turkey looks to their west, it sees Europe. Turkey has long been a member of NATO and has aspired to join the European Union,” Dr. Arterton said. “At the same time, the country is Islamic and Middle Eastern, gets 85 percent of its oil from Russia and Iran, and is in a neighborhood that is in total turmoil.”

GSPM students and Political Management Professor Chris Arterton (third from right) pose for a photo in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

Sectors of the country are intertwined. Much of Turkish business is highly concentrated, Dr. Arterton said, with massive holding companies possessing large government contracts and owning smaller companies in many industries. The relationship between government and business is political, Ms. Hunt said. The country just held its first direct election for president, with current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the powerful Justice and Development (AKP) Party winning comfortably after raising more money and largely outspending his competitors.

“There wasn’t much information, publicity or collateral for opposition candidates,” Ms. Hunt said. “That was something everyone was thinking about. The government awards important public contracts in Turkey and they are awarded politically; if you have a contract with the government of Turkey then you probably better be writing a check to the Erdogan campaign.”

Political relationships are noticeable in many areas. In a meeting with Murat Lecompte, director of communications and external affairs for BP, Ms. Hunt and her classmates learned of BP’s ongoing efforts to build a natural gas pipeline from the bottom of the Black Sea into Turkey and Europe. It’s a profitable opportunity for BP, Dr. Arterton said, but also one where the company must be careful regarding its relationship with the government, which has a major say regarding the development of the pipeline.

Other political relationships are even harder to navigate. Many news outlets are owned by the same holding companies that possess large chunks of the Turkish economy. GSPM students met with Emre Kizilkaya, chief editor of foreign news service at the Hurriyet Daily News, who explained the difficulty journalists have in the country. Freedom House currently rates Turkey’s news media as “not free,” down from “partly free” in 2013. Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Members of the press are pretty nervous,” Ms. Hunt said. “They are the last check but are restricted in terms of the stories they can cover and what they can say.”

Ms. Hunt has continued to correspond with Mr. Kizilkaya since returning to the United States.

“Some of his reporters are working on a story on campaign finance in Turkey,” she said. “It was interesting because we go there to learn and grow but also to exchange ideas. This was the first time Turkey allowed campaign contributions from individuals so they had a lot of questions about how their system compares to the American system.”