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Turkish parliament passes bill stripping MPs of immunity

Majority of MPs back bill targeted at pro-Kurdish deputies which passes without need for a referendum, leaving 138 MPs facing prosecution
Turkish MPs discuss the ruling AK Party's proposal to amendment immunity in Ankara this May (AFP)

The Turkish parliament has voted by a large majority to support a bill to strip 138 MPs of their immunity from prosecution.

The bill will see politicians from all parties with outstanding prosecutions filed against them facing arrest in a move seen as an attack by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP).

In Friday afternoon's vote, 376 out of the parliament's 550 deputies supported the bill following earlier votes on supporting clauses that also received overwhelming support.

The package as a whole is now expected to be signed into law by the president without going to voters as a referendum which would have been required if it had received less than 367 votes.

Most parliamentarians from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement party (MHP) supported the AKP in the chamber, although 140 MPs voted against, almost the same number facing prosecution.

The HDP, which has 50 out of the HDP’s 59 MPs facing losing their immunity, greeted the outcome of the vote on Friday with dismay.

"This means that this parliament is a parliament of the Turks only," said Nazmi Gur, HDP Vice co-Chair for foreign affairs, speaking to Middle East Eye after the vote. "The Kurds and other minorities have no right to representation in the parliament."

He said that the decision can only lead to an increase in the violence which is currently ravaging the southeast of the country.

“This result is a kind of invitation for more violations - this is not because the Kurds want violence, but because of Erdogan’s policy and the state’s policy. They don’t have solution to the Kurdish question and they don’t have any democratic response to our demands.”

The party, who has the largest percentage of MPs facing prosecution, has said they will challenge the outcome of the vote, claiming that it had not been “secret” as intended, citing a video released by HDP MP Garo Paylan showing AKP MPs showing their ballots to the party whips:

"The secret ballot rules have been violated,” said the HDP's Idris Baluken, speaking in parliament after the vote on the first clause.

“We constantly objected and protested that these rules were being violated."

Speaking to the Guardian on Tuesday, Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the HDP, said that if Kurdish MPs ended up in prison, young Kurdish and left-wing activists would turn to militancy and violence.

“If parliamentary politics are closed down, people will turn towards other ways [to make themselves heard],” said Demirtas.

“It is already difficult to speak of peace in a time when Kurds are under such immense pressure. Many of our voters are giving up on hopes of peace, and some youngsters want me to use harsher language against a state they believe is only interested in war."

However, AKP deputies defended the move, saying the vote represented the popular democratic will of the country.

“Seeing developments in parliament called a coup is an insult to the nation,” said Mehmet Naci Bostanci.

"They (HDP) say they are opposed to violence but I have never seen them actually oppose violence,” he added.

Nur had critical words for the CHP, who, despite being usually staunch opponents of the AKP, overwhelmingly supported the decision to strip MPs of immunity.

"Before, we never trusted them, because we never know how they're going to change their minds," he said. "I'm not angry about them and I have no disappointment about them, because the CHP itself is not a social democratic party or a leftist party - it's a party of the establishment."

A group of CHP deputies earlier stormed out of the country’s parliament ahead of the vote.

The ostensible cause of the row was the refusal of the parliamentary speaker Ismail Kahraman, an AKP deputy, to apologise for remarks calling for Turkey to have a religious constitution.

The CHP's Levent Gok demanded that Kahraman apologise for his remarks and said it was “not appropriate” for him to oversee the debate.

Following the refusal, MPs began banging tables and leaving the session chanting “Turkey is secular and will remain so!”

However, they later returned to the chamber to take part in the vote.

Kahraman provoked a storm of controversy in late April after making comments suggesting the country’s historic secularism - enshrined in the constitution by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - should be reformed.

“As a Muslim country, why should we be in a situation where we are retreating from religion? We are a Muslim country. So we must have a religious constitution,” he said.

However, he later stepped back from his remarks following a widespread outcry, instead calling for a “clear definition of secularism” in the new constitution.

Other AKP officials, including Erdogan, also confirmed that any changes to the Turkish constitution would preserve the country’s secularism.

Ziya Meral, a researcher with a focus on Turkey, said that it was likely that the move to lift MPs’ immunity would be abused for political gain.

"In principle I support lifting all immunities, except for speeches in parliament," he told MEE.

"But in practice this will be used for political reasons, and selectively. Thus, it might not result as a positive development for Turkey."

However, he said that although the actions of some HDP deputies were deserving of prosecution, Turkish counter-terrorism laws needed "reform" and had to move away from prosecuting "non-violent opinions".

Some analysts have seen the stripping of parliamentary immunity as a means for the AKP to secure itself against future elections losses - the HDP and AKP often attract votes in the same areas - and pave the way for Erdogan’s desired presidential system.

Jan said that although imprisoning HDP deputies would not change the make-up of the parliament at this stage, it would still deal a major blow to the party.

“The HDP won't be of much use in parliament if 90 percent of their MPs are in jail,” he said.

“If the AKP chooses to hold another election, this could be their insurance against the HDP getting back in.”

He added that the AKP was unlikely to seek to have the party officially banned, as such a move could leave the AKP vulnerable to being threatened with dissolution itself. In the past, the AKP has faced accusations that it had undermined the secular values of the republic.

“They changed the rules to make dissolution almost impossible after a case to dissolve their party went all the way up to the constitutional court and was rejected by only one vote in 2008,” Jan said.

“So this is their way of making sure that those who oppose them suffer without putting their own existence into question.”

Additional reporting by Suraj Sharma

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