Three Branches of Government: Turkey’s Struggle to Understand Democracy

Turkey’s problems in understanding democracy, human rights and freedoms were always -at least partly- structural. In the last twelve years, the government in power made it practically official. Since the Republic of Turkey was founded, we have tried to meet civilised standards, sometimes it worked out alright, most of the time it did not. However, up to this point, this ineptness was either personal, or ideology-based. The idea of a “republic” was not the thing that created problems, it was the choice of the powerful every time. Turkey experienced some coup d’etat attempts, a few of which were successful, but, even under military rule, the lines separating the powers, that is, three branches of government, have never been so blurred. We can add the “single-party” regime in the beginning of the new republic as an exception. Some of the aspects of “that” issue can be justified, some others cannot. What I will do in this article is to point out the current problems regarding these three branches, pillars or “estates” in Turkey. The point of view here is concerned with the “legislative”, the “judiciary” and the “executive” branches.

A lovely person. I would definitely trust this guy with my kids.
A lovely person. I would definitely trust this guy with my kids.

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The Executive Branch: The Ruling Party

Turkish public has seen some really inept, unsuccessful, or to make things simpler, “just plain wrong” coalitions. So, it is not surprising that almost no one thought we would miss those coalitions. Just for your information, in case you are not familiar with Turkish politics, the government currently consist of one political party, AKP; this has been so for the last twelve years. The problem with this is a single, fixed, not-so-dynamic vision in governance in general, though it was an easier, effortless source of “good business” for many editors and journalists to consider Turkey a new, dynamic democracy. According to most in Europe and the Americas, long-suspected islamist, oppressive and corrupt AKP was doing something really new, interesting, and promising, but we, the citizens, were just not able to understand or follow. The all-knowing bright Westerners had already solved the issue and they tried to enlighten us, the narrow-minded citizens or “the other” journalists, who had no point in discourse, and did everything just for the sake of “opposition”. Everyone has seen that this made corruption easier to get away with, and contributed a lot to silencing other voices in various building blocks of the society and the state.

The last memory of the time I saw a political debate between the politicians of the ruling party and the opposition, corresponds to my childhood. “Not having debates” and “not discussing issues publicly”, have become the standard ways of handling things. Only to satisfy my need for somehow-meaningful debates, I regularly go on YouTube or some other site to watch presidential debates in the United States. Americans might not be satisfied with those, but this is partly because they are used to it. It is valuable, and it is a key concept to have in any democracy. We miss it, we long for it, we demand it, and yet it became almost impossible to see one on Turkish television, or some other media for that matter. Additionally, while we are still longing for such a debate where both (or all) parts of the discussion are side by side, face to face, it got harder to see those parts separately on the media. Even the state television (TRT) features AKP considerably more than any other party. I am not talking about some kind of a “justice” relative to these parties’ votes. Opposition parties (either in or out of the parliament) get very little to no coverage in the news or other content in the media. This is also true for TRT, the public broadcasting institution that “has to” be impartial, and representative of all communities and ideologies in the country. Peter Nut simply and brilliantly described TRT as “public television, but just for one segment of the public.” Really, no other comment is needed here.

The Judiciary

People like to mention this branch last, I think as they tend to think the other two work well enough to be reviewed and respected by this one, which also is likely to be the most respected branch in a “working”, decent democracy, as it is directly related to the understanding of the “rule of law” in a society. However, while the others, especially the legislative branch, are doomed to fail in the hands of the current government, we can safely argue that AKP is not doing great regarding the judiciary either. Young people can be sentenced to 11-22 years in prison for wearing a certain kind of scarf, peacefully protesting against His Imperial Highness Erdoğan, or for any other thing that might be considered normal, harmless, not-a-crime, or even “needed” in a democratic environment. People could be arrested and kept in small prison cells (and do not think about the prison cells like those in the Netherlands or Sweden, think about, errm, more like hell) without even being charged with anything. We have seen this about the “Balyoz” and “Ergenekon” trials. Even most of the “evidence” was “obviously”, “proven-scientifically” fake, but the “specially-authorised courts and prosecutors” (Turkish version of the Inquisition) considered that evidence legitimate, and people actually died in prison blocks. The luckiest ones were released after Constitutional Court decisions about five years later.

About the Constitutional Court… Yes, we have a constitution. The constitution is problematic, and needs to be changed; however, it is still the most legally binding, and somehow the most democratically legitimate document in the country. This is not because it was well-organised or established upon consideration of democratic standards, but because the existing legislation is extremely problematic, which makes the constitution look like a text from heaven. Most of the bills that passed from the parliament are in some way against the constitution, which, more than anything, and basically, is illegal. No one can do anything about these if they are not carried to the Constitutional Court, which in my opinion has been performing greatly when compared to other institutions. It does not stop here. The main opposition party (CHP) is made fun of, saying that “they report everything to the Constitutional Court.” Could you imagine a country where supporting the rule of law or performing tasks that are crucial duties of us as citizens is ridiculed? Turkey is a great example of such a country.

The even more problematic part of this issue is that members of the Constitutional Court can partly be determined by the Parliament and His Imperial Highness the President. This is about the regular, scheduled changes to membership. Outside of this, the President can “kick out” a member any time he wants. The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors is another problem. After the last elections, pro-AKP members dominated the board. Almost all of such members have some kind of a controversy, even unconstitutional performances in the past. AKP is not serving the people, they are basically taking over, besieging the country by force, illegal and corrupt steps, and intimidation. There is almost no control, check-and-balance mechanism left over the single vision and consciousness of AKP. We will see this better in the next section.

The Legislative

The legislative branch of the government in Turkey is the Parliament. Not just the AKP deputies as AKP considers, but the entire body of the Parliament. After the latest general elections, AKP had a little less than half of the votes, but there is a 10% election threshold in Turkey, which means any political party with less than 10% of the votes cannot be in the Parliament. This gives the government an “almost absolute” majority of seats. There is absolutely, definitely no way to pass, solve or even discuss anything that the opposition wants, but AKP does not. This has always been a problem, including the previous terms of AKP rule. However, they did not have so much power, as they did not have about 50% of the votes (and about 60% of the seats), and there also were some AKP deputies that did not completely obey a single leader and contributed to the debate and solution for issues of public concern raised by the opposition. AKP still had a disproportionate amount of seats though. They had just not become so “evil”. Recently, an AKP deputy confessed to “raising and lowering hands in the parliament without even knowing the content of measures, bills, etc.” It is evident with this confession that AKP acts as a single, one-piece force of oppression in the Parliament, representing not even the ideals of the part of the public that voted for AKP in general, but those of a single, angry, hateful old man. However, we do not need such a confession. We already see that the Parliament does not work, and practically illegitimate.

Between “only” 28 March 2012 and 18 June 2013, there are 266 “motions” that were presented to the Parliament and considered. 50 of these belong to AKP, the other 216 belong to the opposition. All 50 motions by AKP were “approved”, while ALL 216 by others were “rejected”. Almost all 50 approved by the Parliament either are “unnecessary or waste of legislative labour”, or have “harmful consequences”. The motions rejected “just because they were submitted by the opposition” include topics like disabled rights, investigation into extra-judicial killings, problems about workplace safety, discussion of corruption allegations, etc. This means this government will not even “discuss” these issues and perfectly legitimate questions. I do not think it would be a stretch if I say, this government wants disabled people to suffer problems in the society, has no problem with citizens dying in extra-judicial killings, does not care about the deaths of miners and other workers, and avoids discussion of corruption allegations. This is not my comment. If a government “rules” and influences the deputies of its party, creating a single-body structure that “officially” rejects discussions of child abuse, that government “officially” wants children to be molested or raped.

The “numbers” above are concerned with the motions that were “considered” in a limited time interval a little more than a year. There are many more motions that are still waiting on dusty shelves to be considered. There are even more of those, outside this interval consisting of “a little more than a year” that show almost the same characteristics in terms of consideration or approval. In fact, there is one significant example where AKP deputies rejected their own motion, as they thought it belonged to the main opposition party, CHP. The reason is that CHP deputies thought it was alright, and raised hand for approval. This is how the Parliament works, or actually, does not.

Yet the government always argue that what they are doing, even steps not accepted by most of the population, is for the citizens’ sakes. According to many government officials, and now the President (who has to be impartial, but somehow cannot, and keeps attacking the opposition parties on his throne in his palace), some “external interest groups and global powers” are jealous of Turkey’s success in development and democracy (which does not actually exist outside of some people’s imaginations). They want to ruin us, and attack the brilliant society AKP created (a brilliant society that attacks peaceful protests with axes, hammers and batons; a society that dismisses “not legally, but scientifically proven” corruption allegations by saying “I don’t care if they stole taxpayers’ money, it is my money and I have no problem with this”).

Another thing they seem to be worried about is a potential for a coup. They, of course, have no proof of such a potential, and they will not be bothered to explain themselves. On the other hand, things like Counter-Terrorism Act, the Higher Education Council (completely defies autonomy of universities) or the election threshold are the legacy of the latest coup. Who would you think is supporting and constantly strengthening these “tools”? Of course, AKP. As I mentioned the threshold here, I think it would be nice to get into that a little bit. No one should fool himself. The only initial purpose of such a threshold was to keep Kurdish issues outside the Parliament. Now pro-Kurdish deputies have found a way (becoming independent deputies, then forming a party after the election) to by-pass this threshold.

There are still, mostly leftist ideologies that are kept outside the parliament with this threshold, but the main purpose of still having it changed a little. AKP officials know that they will never legitimately (considering they cheated massively in the last local elections) have a vote of 66-67%. The threshold keeps them in the Parliament with a disproportionately unjust composition. This is important, because this creates a potential for them to have a real absolute majority, therefore change the constitution without having to cooperate with any other parties at any point. We have all seen how they defied international treaties, our existing constitution and laws, and anything that might be considered legitimate in any way for the last twelve years. Would you trust a new constitution entirely and solely produced by “these guys”, purposefully and wildly refusing any discussion or cooperation?

Considering all three branches and their problems in Turkey, we can safely say that AKP can officially pass a law that requires citizens to wear pink shirts all the time, or jump three times whenever they see a police officer. This is entirely possible under AKP rule, and the laws they approved and put into action are generally no more legitimate than these absurd examples. Such laws would technically be impossible to reject in such a parliamentary composition. The president (the next step of approval) is definitely not impartial. I am not being politically correct here, and it is not even my comment or elaboration on the subject. These things are objective truths. Any president who actively and openly attacks the opposition, and praises the ruling party every single day, is not impartial. So, the next step is the publishing of the approval in the Official Gazette, but they are not going to be waiting for it, are they? Especially in the last few years, legislative changes were mostly put into effect right away, although there is a fixed period of time to be waited after the publication of the change. I am fully aware that some forms of changes are “technically” designed to be put into effect, and there is no legal problem about them. I am talking about “other” changes. But wait, there is more.

Some changes that are not even voted in the Parliament take effect among the public. For example, after the proposal of the changes in the internet law, even though it was not even discussed in the Parliament, some censorship of websites took place. These things do not even have to be “changes”. Anything Erdoğan said on TV, even if not later considered for a legislative change, was obeyed as the law of the land. Even his personal opinions… When he tried to ban abortion, and only talked about it on TV, not even proposing it to the Parliament, some state hospitals started not performing abortions. The same goes for c-section births. He just “said something”, and some women died (yes, died) because they were forced to give a “natural” birth. After Erdoğan said “men and women should not be living together without being married”, no official step was taken, but young students’ houses were visited by the police (even though living with the opposite sex is not -yet- a crime in Turkey). This is mostly a form of oppression and harassment, but this affects things, like the women who died because they were denied their right to have a c-section. Or like the young student who died falling from the balcony when the police visited their house where he was sitting with a female friend. He thought he was going to be arrested, and tried to escape. Why did he die? Because Erdoğan “said a thing.” You cannot understand this country without thinking about these “seemingly trivial”, but very heavily representative citizen stories.

Let’s assume that a legislative change has been made, and put into effect. What is the next step if it is unconstitutional, or harmful in any way? The Constitutional Court, of course. Imagine the Court overruled the change and declared a motion for stay. If they really want people to dress in pink every single day, or jump up and down when they see a police officer, the next step will be replacing the Court member in opposition of such a change. So, sooner or later, they will re-submit that change, and they will have a Court that will not overrule the change they made. Hence, sooner or later, there will be nothing, absolutely no control mechanism over one certain man’s word or personal choice. The process is almost complete. He will become the King, and we will continue to pay for the costs of his palace as his subjects.

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