Immunity files at Turkish Parliament

Immunity files at Turkish Parliament

With the approval of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a motion to lift the parliamentary immunities of five MPs from the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been submitted to the Turkish Parliament by the PM’s office.

If the motion is approved, the immunities of the HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ and deputies Selma Irmak, Sırrı Süreyya Önder and Ertuğrul Kürkcü will be lifted. They will then be tried over alleged support for the “autonomy” demand of the Democratic Society Congress, in parallel with the demands of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as demanded by the prosecutor.

President Tayyip Erdoğan has for some time been insistently calling on the government and parliament to take such a move. Davutoğlu said he would discuss the issue once again with Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman and evaluate options.

Both the president and the prime minister have also been making calls to “other opposition parties” to “take sides” on whether they are against lifting the immunities of HDP deputies on the issue. This call seems to have ulterior motives, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) majority in parliament is enough to lift this immunity. With Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli giving open support to Davutoğlu on the subject, the government’s call seems to be cornering the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has so far not taken the bait. He has instead made a counter proposal to lift the parliamentary immunities of all MPs, apart from the immunity on speech in parliament, and bring all files (more than 450) against all MPs to a vote - including those of AK Parti and MHP deputies.

The government’s move to lift the immunities of the HDP deputies stirred memories of 1994, when parliament lifted the immunities of four deputies of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Labor Party (DEP) - a predecessor of the HDP - on charges of helping the PKK. They had been elected on the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) list (which later melted within the CHP) and then split off to form their own party. Four DEP deputies - Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Selim Sadak and Orhan Doğan – were eventually sentenced to jail, where they spent nine years until the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty, which led to retrials.

Ever since that incident in 1994, the CHP has never recovered from its loss of Kurdish-origin votes. However, the HDP supported the CHP’s recent proposal to lift the immunities of all MPs and bring all files to the floor of parliament’s General Assembly.

Prime Minister Davutoğlu is still not sure whether to repeat 1994 and put another stain on Turkish politics, or to lift all MPs immunities at once.

The reason for this is the current state of relations between politics and the judiciary.

From the president down to the man on the street, there are complaints about court independence in Turkey. President Erdoğan has been repeatedly hitting out at the Constitutional Court since its recent ruling that led to the pre-trial release of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, demanding that the original court put them back in prison on espionage charges. It is no surprise that the opposition parties criticize such calls for putting political pressure on the judiciary. The government, meanwhile, has been working on a new regulation about the appointment and promotion of judges and prosecutors, allegedly to clear out sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist ideologue living in the U.S. and ally-turned-nemesis of Erdoğan. Court decisions to seize Gülen-linked private companies have also greatly concerned foreign and domestic investors in Turkey. 

Under these circumstances, there is concern among politicians that if all immunities are lifted and all MPs are vulnerable to a politically infected judiciary, there could theoretically be no MP left who is not taken to court. That might why Davutoğlu is reluctant, despite Erdoğan’s pressure. 

There are also other suggestions on how to find new solutions to the immunities problem in Turkish parliament, in order to both deliver justice for all and to protect the right of MPs to represent their voters.

One of them belongs to Sedat Aloğlu, a renowned industrialist who served in parliament in the late 1990s as the head of the Foreign Affairs Commission and also as a member of the Council of Europe’s parliament.

Considering best practice within the EU, Aloğlu has suggested that a parliamentary commission - with an equal number of MPs from all parties, just like the Constitutional Conciliation Commission - could handle government motions sent to parliament to lift the immunity of individual MPs. In this way, he suggests, the abuse of power (as in 1994) by the majority party could be avoided. 

With the decision of such a commission, without the need to vote again in the General Assembly a probe or trial could start without needing to lift the immunity of an MP – except in serious crime cases. If the court finds the MP guilty then the punishment should be postponed until the end of the MP’s term, in order to let voters’ rights be fulfilled. According to Aloğlu’s suggestion, to avoid the abuse of this system the related MP should be prevented from being a candidate again in the next parliamentary term.