A risky step on immunities

A risky step on immunities

The Turkish Parliament approved a bill on May 20 to pass a temporary constitutional change to allow the trial of MPs who have legal cases pending against them by lifting their legal immunities. Some 139 deputies in the 550-seat Turkish Parliament have a total of 682 files against their name. Among those are files against three party leaders: Selahattin Demirtaş of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has 75 files against him, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has 41, and Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has nine.

According to the political party groups, the HDP deputies top the list with a total of 417 files, followed by the CHP with 195, and the MHP with 20. Deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) have 46 files in total. Among the 682 total files, 216 are “terrorism-related,” almost all of which are against HDP deputies, and 201 are “insult” files, mostly related to “insults” targeting President Tayyip Erdoğan. Most of these are against CHP and HDP deputies.

The change voted for on May 20 covers all parties, but the step was initiated by the AK Parti following Erdoğan’s statement that MPs who “talk on behalf of the terrorists” - implying militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - should not be able to hide behind the cover of parliamentary immunity. He said they should be considered terrorists too. 

Erdoğan was targeting the HDP members of parliament, accusing them of carrying weapons in their cars, attending the funerals of killed militants, and praising them.

The debate is similar to the case 22 years ago, when the immunities of four deputies were lifted, leading to their trial and imprisonment in 1994. That did not help the Kurdish problem get any closer to a peaceful solution.

The bill was approved with the votes of the AK Parti, the MHP and partly the CHP, which was divided over the vote. Without support from within the CHP the bill would have been taken to a referendum. Erdoğan said in a speech right after the vote that the CHP saw that if the bill was taken to a referendum it could have been approved with 70-80 percent support from the public, so some CHP deputies voted to approve it in order to avoid this.

The vote on immunities was another test of Erdoğan’s power ahead of a possible vote for a constitutional change shifting Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system in the coming months. Erdoğan may or may not have the MHP’s support for a presidential system - and he is highly unlikely to have support from the CHP and HDP for a strong presidential system - but he is likely to try a referendum. 

This power test has left another mark on the Turkish Parliament’s record of representativeness. After all, the HDP won 59 seats in the Nov. 1, 2015 election, more than the MHP, for example. Terrorism is a heavy accusation to make and there is a thin line between speech and action regarding terrorism-related accusations, especially in Turkey which is engaged in a serious campaign against not only the PKK but also against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH using Arabic initials.

What’s more, it may not only be MPs from the HDP that are put on trial. Kılıçdaroğlu has said that no CHP member is afraid of being put in jail for the party’s fight for a better democracy. HDP co-chair Demirtaş has also said his party members are not afraid of being jailed, which would also carry a cost for the ruling AK Parti and Erdoğan. 

Such jailing might trigger reactions in the West, especially within the EU, which is trying to maintain a fragile deal with Turkey over the control of refugees triggered by the Syrian civil war and the reactivation of Turkey’s membership negotiations. The spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 20 that she might raise the issue with Erdoğan when she meets him in Istanbul next week during the U.N. Humanitarian Summit.