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Turkey's Embattled Government Seeks to Limit Judiciary's Powers

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference.

FILE - Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference.

Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors on Friday condemned government proposals to curb its powers, calling them unconstitutional.

The proposed reforms come after prosecutors launched corruption investigations targeting people close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including the sons of three cabinet ministers.

The board, which controls Turkey’s judges and prosecutors, made its comments in a 66-page statement as the parliament began debating the plan, which would give the government greater say over the membership of the board of judges and its decisions. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag defended the plan, saying it was about making the judiciary accountable.

The move comes with the government mired in judicial investigations into alleged high-level corruption. Prime Minister Erdogan claims the probes are part of international-led conspiracy. Government members say its former ally, Islamic scholar Fetullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, is behind the conspiracy, using a network of his supporters in the judiciary.

Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Edam think tank says that a struggle between the government and Gulen followers is behind the government's proposed judicial reforms.

"The inclination of the government is to get rid of the Gulen network within the judiciary. That is certainly not [a] structural measure that would allow the full independence of judiciary in Turkey," said Ulgen.

Since the start of the corruption investigations, the government has reassigned over a thousand police officers and key prosecutors involved in the probes. Those firings and the proposed legal reforms have led the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join, to voice concern over threats to the independence of the Turkish judiciary.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday that Washington is following the situation in Turkey closely.

"We continue to make clear that the United States supports the desire of the Turkish people for a legal system that meets the highest standards of fairness, timeliness and transparency in civil and criminal matters where no one is above the law and where allegations against public figures are investigated impartially," said Psaki.

Despite such concerns, the Turkish government, which has a large parliamentary majority, says it is determined to push the reforms through. But experts warn a new battle could be looming between the government and the judiciary because the judicial reform could be overturned by the constitutional court. The only other route open to the government would be to amend the constitution, which would need the support of one of the main opposition parties in order to secure a required two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Earlier this month, Erdogan opened the door to introducing legislation to allow the retrial of hundreds of senior military figures convicted of trying to overthrow his government, claiming they may have been the victims of a plot by rogue prosecutors. The retrial of the generals is a key demand of the main opposition Republican People's Party.

But political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Forum doubts the prime minister will be able make a deal with the opposition.

"I think they will be left by themselves if they want to scrap the autonomy, the relative autonomy of the Judges High Council. He [Erdogan] can’t sell it to anyone; no one will vote with them in the parliament. No one will go that far; that will look very very awkward," said Aktar.

For now, all the leaders of the main opposition parties have ruled out any deal with the government, accusing it of trying to escape the ongoing corruption probes. Earlier this week, new probes were launched against key state institutions.

But analyst Ulgen says the current crisis underlines the urgent need for judicial reform.

"If the government does not seize that opportunity, and if the political opposition does not push for that in a much clearer way, then Turkey’s judiciary will continue (to be a) problematic pillar of Turkish democracy. And it will continue the lose the confidence of Turkish citizens," he said.

Observers say political consensus seems unlikely, given that the opposition believes the government is on the defensive over the corruption allegations, with local and national elections set to take place this year and next.
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