What’s next? Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention?
When the government launched an initiative to implement a “multi-bar” system, which many believe aims to erode the strength of bars in Turkey, some Justice and Development Party (AK Party) members criticized the move in their informal talks with journalists. “It was unrealistic, unfeasible,” according to some. News appeared that some AK Party deputies as well as deputies from its ally, the National Movement Party (MHP), opposed the multi-bar system. Even Mehmet Barlas, a pro-government columnist, criticized the proposed amendment.
Still, discussions on nearly all articles had been completed by parliament’s justice commission by the night of June 5, and the draft law is expected to be adopted in the General Assembly this week.
So what appeared as a distant probability is becoming reality in a matter of a few months.
What’s next? Might it be Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a key treaty to fight violence against women?
The handwringing over the convention is not a new debate.
The AK Party’s approach to women’s rights has unfortunately been shaped by domestic and international circumstances rather than an urge to reach universal standards.
In its initial days, the AK Party needed to allay domestic and international worries over its religious roots. This skepticism intensified over its approach to women, as many detractors were convinced that in the Middle Eastern and Islamic context, women’s rights were treated with a narrower understanding compared to contemporary practices.
It is precisely to fight that perception that the AK Party government spearheaded efforts within the Council of Europe to finalize such a key international mechanism for women, and that’s why the document is called the Istanbul Convention, since it was opened to signatures in 2011 in Turkey.
If some within the AK Party regret having made Turkey the first to sign it, it’s because both domestic and international circumstances have changed since then. Hungary, an EU member, refuses to ratify it, while another member, Poland, is also talking about withdrawing as well. After having won consecutive elections for two decades, many AK Party officials no longer feel they need the support of the Western world to consolidate their power.
Domestic circumstances have changed, too, and some among the AK Party feel they no longer need the support of liberals, democrats and pro-EU circles in Turkey.
The most radical domestic change, however, came in terms of the governance system, when it changed from a parliamentary to presidential system. That’s when the voices of small minorities within the conservative camp gained strength. And one such minority has been targeting the Istanbul Convention, claiming, among other things, that it is harming Turkey’s “family values.”
As they ramped up their campaign against the convention, the silence of the ruling elites in defense of the convention was interpreted as a sign to appease this minority. When AK Party officials started to voice regret at having signed the convention, there was still uncertainty over whether the discourse was aimed at appeasing the opponents of the convention or at seriously preparing the ground to withdraw from the document.
Recent statements have increased anxiety in the women’s movement.
On July 3, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quoted as instructing his aides to “take a look at the issue” and “withdraw if it is the wish of the people.” This was followed the same day by the statement of Numan Kurtulmuş, deputy head of AK Party, who said, “Just as Turkey has followed the procedure to sign it, it will similarly follow the appropriate procedure to withdraw from it.”
But what is the appropriate procedure? The parliamentary system required the passage of a bill through parliament in order to withdraw from an international convention. Is that still valid in the presidential system? The presidential decree published on July 15, 2018, on the ratification of international treaties gives the authority to the president. So is it possible that we might wake up one day to see in the Official Gazette that Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention?
This cannot be the case, some legal experts seem to say, arguing a parliamentary procedure is still required. But we now have a pattern in Turkey. What appears an impossible, unfeasible and distant probability becomes a reality in a few days.
And once the decision is taken, even opposition within the ruling AK Party or MHP is not enough to reverse the course.
Women’s organizations are up in arms. They want to prevent a last-minute fait accompli. The proponents of the convention within the AK Party might determine the outcome. But that all depends to what degree they will be willing to fight and reach out to the president, who will have the final word.