The Turkish Parliament on Tuesday held the first of two rounds of voting necessary to amend the constitution to lift parliamentary immunity for lawmakers. This move is merely the latest in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s broader strategy of mobilizing nationalist sentiment against pro-Kurdish deputies in a bid to consolidate his own power.
Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) found support from the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to secure the majority needed to lift parliamentary immunity by referendum. The parties, however, fell 19 votes short of the supermajority that could have allowed them to go forward with the move without a referendum. If the second round of voting again produces a similar result, a turbulent three-month referendum debate will likely ensue.
For over a decade, Erdoğan has resisted opposition calls to overhaul Turkey’s blanket parliamentary immunity. To be sure, the current law is flawed. Immunity has provided sanctuary to lawmakers accused of crimes including sexual harassment, aggravated assault, and even smuggling. But the president’s sudden determination to do away with immunity is inextricably tied to Turkey’s war against the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Taking that conflict to a new level, Erdoğan now seeks to strip deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) of immunity so they can be tried on terrorism charges.
This is a dangerous process that could ultimately lead to the deputies’ removal from office and imprisonment. The move is reminiscent of a similar one in 1994, when plainclothes police arrested deputies of another pro-Kurdish party, the Democracy Party, in an embarrassing episode that marked a low point in Turkey’s democratic history.
Erdoğan is aware that putting pro-Kurdish deputies behind bars would damage the country’s image. The president, however, is undeterred. If Erdoğan’s strong-arm tactics – which include forcing AKP deputies to reveal their votes in blatant breach of the constitution – can secure him a supermajority, he will have co-opted the far-right MHP to his anti-Kurdish campaign. Erdoğan has even combined the parliamentary immunity issue with his drive to convert Turkey into a centralized presidential system, insisting that both are key to taking on the PKK.
It is uncertain whether Erdoğan’s referendum ploy will help him fulfill his presidential dreams – public support for a presidential system has stalled at around 40 percent since last year. What is clear is that the 1990s-style war against Kurdish citizens and their elected representatives is polarizing Turkey in ways not seen for decades.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir