EU, Turkey ties strained by Erdogan moves
Istanbul - As Turkey heads towards a presidential system by increasingly concentrating power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the European Union voiced concerns about democratic deficits, in a development that has strained ties between Ankara and Brussels.
Relations between Turkey and key EU member Germany are showing signs of crisis after the German parliament voted to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman empire as genocide.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly criticised Turkey’s decision to lift the immunity of lawmakers in parliament, a step seen as a preparation by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to push Kurdish politicians out of the chamber and put them on trial.
Speaking after meeting with Erdogan on the fringes of the UN Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23rd, Merkel said she felt a “deep concern” about the lifting of immunity, adding that a democracy needed “an independent judiciary, independent media and a strong parliament”.
Merkel said she put those ideas to Erdogan in their meeting but the Turkish president did not share her views. “Some questions in this respect remain open,” Merkel said.
The chancellor also said Erdogan renewed his rejection of an EU demand to reform Turkey’s draconian anti-terror laws that Brussels says can be used to suppress non-violent dissent. Merkel said that without the changes, the European Union would not lift visa barriers for Turks as promised in a deal between Ankara and Brussels aimed at easing the European refugee crisis.
In a symbolic gesture aimed at both the Erdogan administration and critics at home, who accuse her of ignoring the Turkish president’s autocratic tendencies, Merkel spent more than two hours meeting with civil society representatives in Istanbul. Some of the guests invited to meet the chancellor were known government critics. Merkel was “very well informed” about the issues facing Turkey and had listened “with sympathy”, said one participant of the meeting who asked not to be named.
The Turkish parliament on May 20th approved a bill drawn up by the AKP to lift the immunity of all 550 deputies to allow the judiciary to pursue existing criminal cases against 148 of them. The move involves politicians from all parties in parliament but the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) would be the hardest hit, with 53 out of its 59 MPs in danger of losing their seats if convicted.
In many of the cases, HDP deputies stand accused of terror charges, including spreading propaganda on behalf of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan says the HDP is the PKK’s political arm, an accusation rejected by the Kurdish party.
Observers say the AKP is hoping to win some of the seats that would become vacant with convictions of HDP members. More AKP seats in parliament, currently 316, could push the party over the 330-seat mark needed to pass a vote to call a referendum on Erdogan’s aim of introducing a presidential system.
“We view this motion as a political coup attempt to completely destroy the separation of powers by subordinating the legislative to the executive and leaving the former at the mercy of a thoroughly politicised and biased judiciary,” HDP co-chairmen Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag wrote in a letter to top parliamentarians in Europe, including Martin Schulz, speaker of the EU parliament.
The lifting of immunity, coupled with other moves by Erdogan to consolidate power, set off alarms in the European Union. Erdogan removed Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister in early May and replaced him with Transport minister Binali Yildirim, a close adviser who also took over the AKP leadership at a special party congress. Yildirim made it clear he would work in “complete harmony” with Erdogan, whom he called his “leader”.
The new prime minister also said he would do everything in his power to make sure that Turkey would move from a parliamentary system to a presidential system as soon as possible.
Erdogan and his supporters argue his ascent to the post of head of state by direct vote two years ago changed the power structure in Turkey. Even though the constitution says the president should stay out of day-to-day politics and should be impartial, Erdogan has been acting like an executive president, setting government positions and openly taking sides with the AKP.
“We will immediately start work to implement a new constitution, which, God willing, will include the presidential system,” Yildirim told AKP lawmakers.
Schulz accused Erdogan of being engaged in a “breathtaking move away from European values”. He told a German newspaper that the lifting of immunity and what he called the “self-dissolution of the office of prime minister” with the appointment of Yildirim were signs Turkey was “on the way to becoming a one-man state”.
Turkey recalled its ambassador from Berlin for consultations, following the Armenian decision by Germany’s parliament. Erdogan said the decision would have “grave” consequences for relations between the two countries.