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Turkey’s presidential system has crippled institutions, weakened parliament: SWP report

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A recent report by a prominent German think tank states that Turkey’s presidential system has crippled institutions in the country, weakening the parliament, undermining the separation of powers and politicizing the judiciary during the two-and-a-half years since its introduction in 2018.

The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), one of Europe’s largest foreign policy think tanks, which advises the German government on questions of foreign and security policy, released a report titled “Turkey’s Presidential System after Two and a Half Years: An Overview of Institutions and Politics” on April 2.

Through a referendum in April 2017, Turkey switched from a parliamentary system of governance to an executive presidential system that granted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sweeping powers and was criticized for removing constitutional checks and balances, thus leading to a further weakening of Turkish democracy.

The report, authored by Dr. Günter Seufert and Dr. Sinem Adar, the head of and an associate in the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at SWP, respectively, also underlined that since the introduction of the new governance system in July 2018, Turkey has become a country where “economic woes are mounting and authoritarian practices prevail,” contrary to the AKP’s praise of it.

“In open violation of the constitution, even speeches before parliament can lead to criminal investigations where laws are interpreted flexibly, and facts deliberately twisted,” SWP said, adding that political and prosecutorial pressure on opposition deputies is heightened by the executive’s intervention against the remaining rights of the parliament, which “finds its legislative monopoly gradually hollowed out by excessive use of legislative decrees.”

According to the report, Erdoğan wrote and approved 2,229 sections since the transition into the new system, whereas the parliament discussed only 1,429 sections of legislation.

In the latest case of pressure on opposition deputies in Turkey, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a former lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a prominent human rights activist, was stripped of his status in parliament in March based on a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence handed down to him on terrorism charges and imprisoned last week.

“Not even the judiciary can escape the president’s concentrated power,” SWP said, referring to the “Kafkaesque trial” of the philanthropist Osman Kavala as “a recent example of the increasing dysfunctionality and politicization of the judiciary.”

In February 2020, Kavala was acquitted of charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” in connection with the Gezi demonstrations of 2013, only to be retaken into custody the same day on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” in connection with a 2016 coup attempt.

“It remains unclear whether Kavala’s acquittal was simply a legal tactic to circumvent the European Court of Human Rights ruling for his immediate release, as was the case also for Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the HDP,” the report noted.

Demirtaş, a vocal critic of the government who was arrested on politically motivated charges in November 2016, has been in prison since then, in spite of two binding rulings in favor of his release by the ECtHR.

“Despite the decline in overall employment, public sector employment has continued to increase. As of June 2020, a total of 4,767,286 Turks hold public service jobs. Despite such rapid growth … the administration appears paralyzed,” SWP also argued, pointing to the massive purge of actual and alleged members of the Gülen movement that took place after the failed coup in 2016 and the subsequent appointment of new staff to the vacant posts as the main reason for it.

Erdoğan labels the Gülen movement, a worldwide civic initiative inspired by the ideas and activism of the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, as a terrorist organization and accuses its followers of masterminding the coup attempt in 2016 that claimed the lives of 251 civilians.

Despite the strong denial of Gülen and his followers of any involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity, the Turkish government removed more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs within the scope of a massive purge of state institutions under the pretext of an anti-coup fight.

A total of 559,064 people have been investigated, 261,700 have been detained, and 91,287 have been remanded to pre-trial detention over links to the faith-based group as part of “the biggest purge in the history of the Republic of Turkey,” according to the report, which further indicated that the process targeting the movement seemed to be ongoing, with arrests continuing to occur and civil servants still being removed.

“Europe should voice stronger criticism of Ankara’s repression of its citizens. … While the EU certainly cannot force Turkey into democratic reforms, it can and should hold Turkey more accountable,” the SWP advised in the conclusion of the report.

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