National unity and the centennial of Turkey’s parliament

National unity and the centennial of Turkey’s parliament

“The parliament led and administered the War of Independence. While it fought the war, it reconstructed the state at the same time. In a way, states establish parliaments; in our case, the parliament refounded the state,” Parliamentary Speaker Mustafa Şentop said in a recent interview.

Few are better-placed to understand the importance of the parliament than Şentop, who has the task of marking the centennial of the opening of Turkey’s legislative body.

The parliament, which opened 100 years ago on April 23, was key to leading the country to the Turkish Republic. In this, it should be one of the most cherished institutions in Turkey.

It has been therefore highly unfortunate that Mr. Şentop proposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that the head of state not come to the parliament for the centennial due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. He also consulted with the heads of political parties with seats in the legislature as to whether it would be better if they avoided coming as well due to the virus.

The parliament is spacious enough to ensure social distancing. The risk the pandemic poses to the country requires precisely the presence of the heads of the political parties, including the head of state, rather than their abstention at this very special occasion.

The psychological boost of seeing all the political leaders, including the president, under the same roof to honor an institution that represents the will of nation would have outweighed the risk the pandemic posed to lawmakers, especially as the danger could have been reduced effectively by asking them to attend in limited, yet symbolic, numbers.

Let’s not forget that with 10 political parties present, this parliament represents nearly 90 percent of the will of nation.

While the heads of political parties will be present during the ceremony, the president opted not to come. As such, an important opportunity to give a message of national unity under the roof of an institution that unites the nation has been missed, especially at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented crisis, just like the rest of the world.

Some might find this situation only natural as they might think the parliament has lost its importance, especially after the transition to the presidential system. They might have a point. The legislative body has largely lost its mission to exercise oversight on the executive. Parliamentarians’ questions and inquiries to ministers, civil servants and local administrators are largely ignored.

Has the parliament lost its relevance?

The parliament, however, doesn’t seem to be entirely irrelevant for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Some of the executive’s decisions continue to get their legitimacy from the legislative, as evidenced by the recent law on criminal sentences which paved the way for the release of more than 90,000 inmates from prisons.

Considered by many as an amnesty law, the bill passed after heated debates in the parliament. These debates resonate in the society. How else can you explain the decision of the ruling coalition to finish the final discussions, altering the most controversial articles over the weekend, when debates in parliament are not broadcast live on the legislative body’s TV channel?

Even if voters know there will not be an immediate solution, they are highly interested in their problems being voiced in the parliament, an opposition lawmaker told me.

That’s why Utku Çakırözer, a former journalist and current Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP who devotes a significant amount of his time to jailed journalists, finds himself talking about the price of sugar beets that grow in his electoral district of Eskişehir. “Those who cannot make their problems heard still count on us to voice them in the parliament,” he said.

While he admits that the regulations introduced following the transition to the presidential system have narrowed their room to maneuver, he said opposition lawmakers still had some ways to make an impact, as was the case with the ruling coalition’s attempt to introduce a change to the so-called amnesty bill to allow the victims of sexual assaults to marry their abuser.

“They brought the amendment Thursday night and we immediately asked for a count of lawmakers whether there was a big enough presence in the hall. And as that was not the case, that gained us time during which women’s organizations were mobilized to prevent the amendment from being included in the bill,” Çakırözer told me.

The countries that have a strong state will be successful in facing contemporary challenges, according to a prominent economist, Professor Daron Acemoğlu. But that’s not enough – those that have both a strong state and a strong civil society will get ahead of others. Societies need to trust the state, as being strong is not enough to inspire confidence. Societies can trust the state as long as they are strong enough to have oversight mechanisms. This is especially true amid the current pandemic, in which the efficient implementation of what the state says depends on the levels of trust of society.

Despite the loss of confidence toward politicians all over the world, parliaments still remain important institutions in strong democracies.