Controversial Constitutional Amendment Strips Immunity of Turkish MPs

Photo Credit: Reuters / Riza Ozel / Pool

The Turkish Parliament, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support, approved a controversial constitutional amendment that would strip the immunity of Turkish Members of Parliament (MP). The amendment passed the parliament 376 – 174, easily surpassing the required 367 majority. This move could lead to the arrest and trial of 139 Turkish MPs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for terrorism charges in connection with their alleged relationship with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The HDP denies any connection and states that its continued existence as a parliamentary party is threatened by the amendment.

President Erdogan, in a speech just before the conclusion of the vote in parliament, emphasized that the amendment was necessary, as the Turkish people did not want “criminal” lawmakers as their representation in the legislature. This move is seen by some as an effort to silence opposing voices as President Erdogan seeks to consolidate power through a constitutional amendment that would shift the Turkish government from a parliamentary to a presidential system. There are “deep misgivings” about the “increasing authoritarianism” of the President. If the HDP MPs are arrested, it is feared that there will be violence in dominantly Kurdish areas of Turkey.

The U.S. Department of State expressed “concern” over the constitutional amendment, recognizing that freedom of speech, especially for elected representatives, is critical for democratic societies and that narrowing the space for political debates would “erode the quality of Turkey’s democracy.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) selected Binali Yildirim as the new Prime Minister in an extraordinary party congress. Yildirim, the former transport minister, replaced  Ahmet Davutoglu, who was “less than enthusiastic” about a number of Erdogan’s policy positions and recently resigned. Erdogan sought a replacement for Davutoglu that would be “more closely aligned” with his policy positions and goals. That support certainly seems to be embodied in Yildirim, who is expected to “faithfully execute all of Erdogan’s policies.” Al-Monitor’s Mustafa Akyol writes that the new Prime Minister  is “loyal and obedient enough” to support Erdogan’s further consolidation of power, a move that would have been much more difficult with Davutoglu holding the position.

Yildirim’s support for a move towards a presidential system was confirmed by the Prime Minister himself in his first speech after assuming office, where he stated that he “will immediately start work to achieve a new constitution, including a presidential system.” Tarhan Erdem interpreted the unfolding events as the advent of one-man rule in Turkey, and senior party officials stated that Turkey has “entered a period of a ‘de facto’ presidential system,” even without the constitutional amendment.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz criticized Erdogan’s accumulation of power on Monday, describing it as a “breathtaking departure from European values” in a nation negotiating for membership of the EU.