Parliamentary Immunity in Turkey: Nightmare For MPs as Pandora’s Box Opened Once and For All

First They Came For Kurds, Then For All: The Story of Parliamentary Immunity in Turkey.

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Turkish Parliament in a general session.

In May 2016, Turkey’s main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP) offered full-throated support for a draft bill envisaged by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and envisioned the removal of parliamentary immunity of lawmakers involved in serious crimes. What those crimes would be were subject to legal machinations as much as the dynamics of realpolitik shaped by the ruling party’s unquestioned monopoly over the semantics of the law and political debate. Yet, the bill’s intended target was no secret: lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP).

In CHP’s endorsement laid a subtle but supremely naive assumption that the bill, if it ever became the law of the land, would hit President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party members like a boomerang back in the future. But what followed since then has only accentuated the fact the law became a very useful political weapon frequently deployed by the president’s party to re-design the landscape of parliamentary politics to their liking. The bill only worked against opposition parties, leaving the AKP ones out of the hook.

Yet, it has also served to keep the potential rebels within the AKP ranks under control if they ever cross the official line of their party or if they show the intention of defection while serving their term in Parliament. It is a double-edged sword deftly used by President Erdogan and his acolytes ever since both against their own party fellows and the opposition lawmakers.

This immunity folly manifested itself again recently when two Parliament members of the HDP were first deprived of their seats and then sent to jail in early June. A CHP lawmaker has conditionally been released over the Covid-19 threat in prison. When this happened, the opposition reaction was swift and loud. But it only presented a mirror into follies of their own making and reflected their short-sightedness in Turkey’s muddled political waters.

In a televised interview given to Halk TV, a semi-official broadcasting platform associated with CHP, Gelecek (Future) Party deputy-Chairman Selcuk Ozdag last week broached the likelihood of CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s imprisonment. His remarks were not mere products of speculative ruminations or musings of an unhinged imagination. They were, as he documented, grounded in the examples of near past as the government betrayed no scruples when Kurdish lawmakers were incessantly put on the political chopping block. (HDP’s former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag have still been in prison for more than three years.)

Kilicdaroglu, Ozdag duly noted, faces at least 39 parliamentary motions for an extensive probe. If they ever brought to the floor of the legislative body for a vote, a step that is no longer considered far-fetched after the government’s proven penchant for trampling any semblance of legal propriety, then the prison would not be an unlikely scenario for the leader of Turkey’s Grand Old Party (CHP). This is how, the Future Party politician explicated in candid terms, President Erdogan keeps IYI (Good) Party leader Meral Aksener in check — with the threat of immunity revocation. Erdogan already insinuated the prospect of Kilicdaroglu’s imprisonment on many occasions. If the CHP leader somehow winds up in prison, it would not be a surprise after all. The often invocation of that scenario serves as a cudgel to psychologically intimidate the opposition parties. This also empties the entire meaning of parliamentary politics under the ever-present threat of revocation of immunity.

The legislative body of Turkey has lost its former muscle since the country made an official transition to the executive presidential system in 2018. In a referendum in April 2017 over a constitutional amendment that laid the legal groundwork for a switch to the presidential system, Erdogan’s party added a less-noticed article to the constitution that made it remarkably easy to cancel out parliamentary immunity of the deputies. In this respect, today’s political tragedy is a direct consequence of that April amendment.

It requires no portents that this immunity predicament serves as a poignant reminder for opposition lawmakers about the shaky ground where they are supposed to conduct politics. Parliament would normally have been their lifelong dream and a crown achievement of their political career. But it would also be a nightmare after tragically becoming a conduit to prison if their legislative activity and political discourse are not liked by Sultan and his ruling party.

It is this fate that awaits CHP leader, even though the current state of affairs may reasonably deter President Erdogan from crossing the Rubicon — sending the chairman of the main opposition party to jail while still serving his term in Parliament. Since the president’s party crossed many Rubicons and thresholds, since reason does no longer shape the government policy in dealing with political opponents, we should well prepare ourselves for new appalling shocks until the point where there is nothing left to be shocked at all.

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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