How ‘not’ to manage a political crisis: The Turkish example

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The reaction of the Turkish government and opposition to the crisis over imprisoned Kurdish MPs is unbecoming of a nation with aspirations of European Union membership and leadership in the Middle East, argues Lars Hoffmann and Firat Cengiz.

Lars Hoffmann is a scholar at the Maastricht Centre for European Law and an assistant professor at Maastricht University. He specialises in EU constitutionalism and executive-parliamentary relations across Europe. Firaz Cengiz is a professor at Tilburg University's European and International Law Department.

"The June 2011 political elections in Turkey initially created what looked a like a diverse and vibrant parliament composing of four political parties: the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) who formed a single party government for the third consecutive term, the social democratic CHP (the Republican People's Party), the Kurdish BDP (the Peace and Democracy Party) and the right-wing MHP (Nationalist Action Party).

Nevertheless, barely a fortnight after the elections the parliament found itself in a political crisis involving politicians held in jail.

Specifically, two MPs of the CHP are imprisoned under the Ergenekon investigation into an alleged coup attempt. Six MPs of the Kurdish BDP are arrested under the KCK operation for belonging to the urban wing of the PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party).

Finally, one MP from the right-wing MHP is imprisoned under the Balyoz investigation, yet another investigation into an alleged coup.

Among these nine MPs only one has been convicted: Hatip Dicle is serving a 20-month sentence, thereby rendering him ineligible for parliamentary duties. After the elections, the Turkish Board of Elections stripped Dicle of his parliamentary mandate and allocated his seat to the AKP.

Also, the Turkish lower courts so far rejected to release four of the remaining eight jailed (but not yet convicted) MPs. In protest the BDP decided to boycott all parliamentary activities, including the inaugural ceremony of 28 June 2011.

CHP MPs, on the other hand, while being present during the opening of parliament, refused to take their inaugural oaths (they have taken them since).

The BDP and CHP demanded that the governing AKP show a sign of commitment to implementing the reforms required for the release of their arrested MPs. They perceived this as a legitimate demand, since those MPs were arrested under the Turkish Anti-Terror Law, which that is notoriously problematic from the perspective of freedom of expression.

Incidentally, the CHP had cooperated with the AKP after the 2002 elections in a constitutional amendment to enable the party leader Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to run in a by-election. Initially Mr Erdo?an had not been able to run due to a previous conviction. Only the cooperation of the CHP allowed him to win the by-election and thus allow him to become prime minister – an office he has held ever since.

The 2011 negotiations between the AKP and CHP to solve the post-election crisis resulted in a rather vague memorandum with regard to parliamentary democracy on 11 July. Satisfied by this document, the vast majority of CHP MPs took their inaugural oaths.

Nevertheless, once in the parliament the CHP faced a severe mockery by Prime Minister Erdo?an, who denied having agreed to any reform agenda. This behaviour sent a discouraging signal to the BDP, who are thus unlikely to return to parliament without first receiving concrete commitments from the AKP government.

The key Kurdish BDP's key demand in the negotiations with the AKP is the passage of a constitutional amendment that would enable all their MPs to take their parliamentary seats, something the AKP outright refused.

Meanwhile, the head justice of the lower court adjudicating the Ergenekon case, who was the only member of the court dissenting to arrest decisions of the MPs, was transferred to another court without convincing legal justification. This was interpreted as a further sign that a future release of the imprisoned MPs was unlikely.

As a result, on 14 July, one day before parliament's summer recess, the negotiations between the AKP and the BDP came to a complete halt. On the same day the Kurdish PKK ended the ceasefire that was unilaterally declared on 12 June 2011 (election day). The resulting violence led to the death of thirteen Turkish soldiers and at least seven PKK fighters.

At the same time, the Kurdish Democratic Society Congress, which brings together a wider spectrum of Turkish and Kurdish elites, declared a Kurdish 'democratic autonomy', equating the region to a federal state within the Turkish Republic.

So what started with a handful of imprisoned MPs who – following Turkish legal precedent – could have been released to serve their term (and face prosecution afterwards). Yet, the action or inaction of the three political parties led to an escalation of the situation including yesterday's bloodshed. The CHP failed to force concrete political concession from the AKP.

This is due partly to its secularist-unitarian roots, partly due to internal unrest due to poor election results. The AKP followed a populist stance in a very sensitive matter for Turkish domestic and foreign politics. The party's third consecutive election victory meant apparently that they ought to discipline the opposition rather than to cooperate with them.

The forces of the Kurdish movement resorted to the old ways of terror and violence rather than to deal with these issues in the area of democratic politics where it belongs.

Though the Kurdish reaction was by far the most extreme, none of the three parties acted in a way that is becoming for a country that is by now the 17th largest economy in the world, a member of NATO, an EU accession country and an aspiring force in the Middle East and role model for many in the ongoing Arab Spring.

The dust of yesterday's events is still settling but it is not unlikely that further violence will follow. An escalation of the conflict could cause irreparable damage to the progress made since the 1990s in terms of Turkey's democratisation.

The envisaged – and much needed – constitutional reform process may be under threat, and so will be Turkish EU accession negotiations if this crisis is not resolved swiftly and to the satisfaction of all parts of Turkey's diverse society.

The new parliamentary sessions, starting in September, will be the last chance for the governing AKP and all opposition parties to reinvigorate at once the negotiation process. The aim must be to resolve the current crisis in a sustainable way. This should be then the starting point for the promised – but yet unsubstantiated – constitutional reforms.

The strong public reaction to the outbreak of violence may mean that the AKP might lose some nationalist votes in the short term if they agree to negotiate with both CHP and BDP.

Yet, a political party serving for its third consecutive term in a one-party government should have reached the level of maturity required to pay this price for the country's future and its economic and political stability."

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