Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım submitted to parliament a government bill on June 13 that would redesign Turkey’s high courts as requested by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The proposed reforms to the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State would relieve 711 judges serving on these legal bodies from duty, and allow Erdoğan to stack the courts in his favor. If Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) succeeds in pushing this legislation through, it will further erode the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, bringing the country a step closer to Erdoğan’s dystopian dream of a “unity of powers.”
Most experts agree that a wholesale removal of high court judges is a clear breach of the Turkish constitution, and the Constitutional Court would therefore reject the government bill. Erdoğan knows this, but as he stated earlier, he neither respects the court nor abides by its decisions. He has already put in place plans to appoint new high court judges within five days of the law’s passage, before the Constitutional Court has the opportunity to strike it down. In 2014, Erdoğan deployed similar tactics in redesigning Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, stacking the country’s judicial council before the Constitutional Court could declare his move unconstitutional.
The backlash against Erdoğan promises to be significant. A former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals has called on judges to resist the government’s unconstitutional attempt. The Union of Turkish Bar Associations protested the government bill and demanded its withdrawal by issuing full page ads in newspapers. The pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has also announced that it intends to take the bill to the Constitutional Court, arguing that Erdoğan is setting a dangerous precedent that could lead to a politically-driven shuffling of the courts every time a new party comes to power.
These criticisms are unlikely to deter Erdoğan from going forward with his plan. He has yet to pay a price for his June 5 reshuffle of 3,750 judges and prosecutors around the country – the most extensive one in the history of the republic. As one Erdoğan loyalist bluntly stated, “We have the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative; we have it all.” This would certainly be true if the Constitutional Court falls. It is the remaining bulwark against Erdoğan’s final push for a consolidation of powers that could permanently alter the path of Turkey’s democracy.
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