Turkey attempts to curtail judicial independence

Turkey attempts to curtail judicial independence

Judicial reforms proposed in Turkey, though shelved for the moment, call into question Erdogan’s ability to emerge from the current political crisis with an intact democracy and rule of law.

On 17 December 2013, Turkey woke up to a political mayhem triggered by a corruption probe involving high level officials, sons of three ministers, and businessmen known for their proximity to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). For many observers, as well as the Turkish public, what happened in the following weeks resembled an internal strife for political power among former allies, more than legal process. The government’s response to the crisis has been a proposed reshuffling of the judiciary, a step which would restrict judicial independence and call into question Turkey’s democratic process and the rule of law.

The AKP government’s response to the corruption allegations was defensive to say the least. Prime Minister Erdogan denounced what he called a “parallel state”, a clandestine structure within state institutions that seeks to undermine the AKP’s power. Investigations were launched, and thousands of police officers and some 200 prosecutors were either dismissed or appointed to other duty stations elsewhere.

This reshuffling of the judiciary and in the security sector, coupled with the rhetoric of “the enemy inside”, strengthened the perception that the corruption probe is but the tip of an iceberg of a larger power struggle.

To fight the threat of the “parallel state”, the AKP government proposed to change the law that determines the structure of the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors. The proposed changes were met with fierce criticism both inside Turkey and abroad for weakening judicial independence by increasing the control of the government over the judiciary. The proposed judicial reform called into question the capacity of Turkey to come out of the crisis without compromising democracy and rule of law.

Fortunately, the European Union has been wary of the “parallel state” explanation that Erdogan has given for the proposed changes. They would be a step back for complying with EU norms concerning judicial independence.

At a meeting with the new Minister for EU Affairs Mevlüt Çavusoglu, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule reminded him that Turkey is expected to “to take all necessary measures to ensure that recent allegations of corruption are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner” and “that any change to the judicial system must not call into question Turkey’s commitment as regards the Copenhagen political criteria.”

After the Prime Minister’s visit to Brussels, the proposed change in the law was shelved, at least for the moment, suggesting that the AKP government continues to attach importance to relations with the EU.

The political crisis and the proposed judicial changes, both of which come just ahead of the local elections scheduled for March 2014, create uncertainty for the Turkish business community as well as for foreign investors. Muharrem Yilmaz, the Chairman of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD), criticized the proposed changes in the judiciary by warning against a “police state.” In his later remarks, the head of TUSIAD asked if one would consider investing in a country where one doubts the rule of law.

In response, Prime Minister Erdogan accused Mr. Yilmaz with treason to his country. Similarly, when TUSIAD expressed concern over a new law suggesting that it “will widen internet censorship and constrain rights and liberties”, Erdogan further antagonized the association by ordering TUSIAD to “mind its own business and go produce.”

With this discourse, as well as changes to judicial independence and in conjunction Turkish democracy, Prime Minister Erdogan further alienates the Turkish business community and foreign investors, who are following the heated political debate closely. At a time when emerging markets including Turkey are facing serious threats, the last thing the Turkish government should do is to add a political risk factor to the mix for both Turkish and foreign investors.

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