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Turkey: Law experts concerned by stripping of immunity

An amendment to strip parliamentary immunity has sent shockwaves through Turkey. The bill is widely seen as a method of tossing the Peoples’ Democratic Party out of parliament and boosting the power of President Erdogan.

Türkei Präsident Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara

In Turkey, opposition politicians and legal scholars see grave danger in the constitutional amendment to strip lawmakers of parliamentary immunity that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) successfully pushed through the Grand National Assembly on Friday. The amendment passed with 376 votes, nine over the required two-thirds of parliament required to avoid a popular referendum. The passing of the amendment has strengthened the hand of the parliamentary alliance against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which campaigns for equality for Kurds and other minorities.

Perhaps most surprisingly, at least 20 deputies of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) voted to amend the constitution. “Those who who voted in favor have signed off on a historical mistake,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a CHP deputy of Kurdish descent.

The change has diminished the power of Turkey’s already-weak opposition, which is primarily composed of three parties with little in common: the HDP, the centrist CHP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). With this move, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a step closer to establishing the top-heavy system that he has sought since 2014, when he won control of what had traditionally and officially been a more ceremonial executive position. Many in the capital, Ankara, have questioned the CHP lawmakers’ motivation for essentially advancing Erdogan’s efforts to concentrate power in the presidency.

“The CHP’s stance in the beginning was quite correct,” said Ayse Sayin, the Ankara news editor at the daily Cumhuriyet. “Their position was that, on principal, the immunity of all deputies should be permanently stripped. However, the AKP would not accept this. When the AKP kept saying, ‘We will remove these immunities,’ [CHP leader Kemal] Kilicdaroglu said, ‘All right then.’ But he couldn’t guess what was going to happen next.”

Sayin said some CHP deputies had voted in favor of the amendment because they were afraid that if it were to go to referendum, it would be coupled with Erdogan’s desired measure to convert Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. “In the second round of voting, the fear of a referendum tipped the scales,” he said. “Internally, the CHP is conflicted. Anything is possible. The MHP is also a party that will sustain major internal chaos in the near future. However, one thing is certain: Everything that happens in Ankara is going in the direction that Erdogan wants.”

In pieces’

The constitutional law professor Ergun Ozbudun said judicial independence and the rule of law were “in pieces” – and he made no secret of whom he held responsible for that fact: “The CHP is mocking the public. The conflicting statements within the party come one after the other.”

“We will see in the ensuing period how Kilicdaroglu explains his ‘we acted in accordance with the constitution’ statement to the public,” Ozbudun said. “But there is no explanation. A provisional clause has been added to the constitution, and parliamentarians have been targeted within a specific period. Everyone has already talked about how the target is the HDP. There is a clear violation of the constitution. The CHP must accept that this was a mistake.” He added: “The future, life and wealth of this country’s democracy and its parliamentarians remain at the mercy of the government and the judges and prosecutors who work with it. Democracy has taken a great, historic blow.”

As evidence, Ozbudun cited the imprisonment of elected Kurdish deputies in the 1990s after a similar stripping of immunity – a recent precedent that led to an unprecedented spike in violence. “The foundation has been laid for the deepening of the rift between Turks and Kurds, what happened in 1994 and the return of events that no one can condone,” he said.

Practical questions

The criminal law professor Izzet Ozgenc is among those who say the amendment will pave the way for a number of judicial problems. “For example, including the leader of the main opposition party, there are investigations against party leaders for insulting the president,” Ozgenc said. “Let’s say that the main opposition party is called by a prosecutor to testify and that leader doesn’t go. What will happen? Will he be brought by force? In a country where something like this could happen, it is impossible to talk about democracy.”

Ozgenc said the responsibility for future legal cock-ups lay with the president. “I expressed my views to Erdogan,” Ozgenc said. “When the amendment reaches the president, he absolutely must send it back to parliament for a new debate.”

That appears unlikely. With Erdogan’s approval, the amendment would go into effect after being published in Turkey’s Official Gazette. Nearly 150 deputies could have their immunity stripped. They include 55 members of the opposition CHP, 29 lawmakers for the ruling AKP, 10 legislators for the nationalist MHP and one independent. The faction most disproportionately affected, however, would be the HDP, which has 59 representatives – 53 of whom would face prosecution, including the party’s co-leaders. Almost all of the accusations have to do with the nebulous charge of expressing verbal support for banned Kurdish groups, and none are related to the more banal political crimes of bribery, corruption or theft.

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