Why are Turkey’s lawyers protesting?

Why are Turkey’s lawyers protesting?

A 48-hour standoff between the heads of dozens of bar associations and law enforcement has ended after lawyers were allowed to enter Ankara and visit Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic.

Anıtkabir is not only a symbolic place where people frequently visit to show respect to Atatürk but also to pour out complaints about the current affairs in the country, just like the lawyers did on June 23.

The reason why the heads of 63 bar associations, which represent around 80 percent of Turkey’s 125,000 lawyers, were the government’s declared intention to overhaul the election system and the structures of bar associations.

Although the government has not submitted any concrete proposal, it’s believed that it intends to decentralize the bar associations by permitting the establishment of alternative associations in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, which represent nearly half of all lawyers in the country. The election system of the executive board of the Turkey Bar Associations would also be changed in a way to break the power of three biggest associations so that provincial organizations would have more of a say in the lawyers’ agenda.

The dissident lawyer groups are challenging the government’s intention as they claim that the real motive behind the move is to weaken the right of defense by creating like-minded lawyer associations.

Citing the already-serious problems regarding the rule of law in the country, they suggest a change without the consent of the bar associations would further harm the judicial system in Turkey.

What we have seen in the last few days raises three main problems regarding Turkish democracy. First, the lawyers’ right to assembly and demonstration has been denied for more than 24 hours by police without a reasonable excuse, although the Turkish constitution grants the peaceful right to assembly to all citizens without permission from the relevant authorities.

The second is about the government’s growing intention to undermine the role of civil society in the country, particularly those with an opposition stance. In today’s world, civil society, just like the media and local governments, is considered a stakeholder in government although their opinions may not overlap on every issue. Putting pressure on them would only undermine the capacity of the government and hurt social unity.

The third dimension is the fact that the bar associations constitute an important part of the judicial mechanism as the defense. Any attempt to change their working conditions could bring about unwanted consequences in regard to executing the right of defense, and that’s why all the steps need to be taken with the participation of all bar associations and other relevant bodies.

At this point, there is no sign that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is going to back down and shelve its plans to overhaul the legal basis of the bar associations. In return, the bar associations warn that their reaction will be tougher should the government insist on moving forward.

The coming days will demonstrate to what extent the protest of the lawyers and criticisms from oppositional parties will have an impact on the government’s stance.

Serkan Demirtaş,