Turkey and Israel, Sister States in Eroding Democracy

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: AFP

Knesset members erred in rushing to pass antidemocratic legislation such as the so-called Suspension Bill and laws meant to bypass the High Court of Justice. Had they simply hung tight, they could have copied the improved Turkish version, which surely would have fulfilled their yearnings to repair Israeli democracy.

The deputy head of Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, Mehmet Yilmaz, deftly characterized the desired tone for Turkish democracy as a judiciary that “works in harmony with the executive.”

To help achieve that harmony, the country’s judiciary is undergoing a massive upset. Some 3,750 judges and prosecutors are being reassigned in what appears to be the second phase of a purge that began after cabinet members, businessman and relatives of then-prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan were implicated in a corruption investigation in 2013.

Erdogan, who accuses the supporters of the moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a political rival who lives in the United States, of being behind the probe, ordered an investigation into the police and the judiciary and the removal of anyone suspected of sympathizing or having ties with Gulen.

But Erdogan, who in 2010 introduced a major reform of the Supreme Board of Judges and the Constitutional Court, now seeks to restructure the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court. A bill now in parliament would reduce to 200 from 516 the number of judges on the Supreme Court, while the Council of State would fall to 90 from 195 members. The bill would also allow the president to personally choose one-fourth of the judges on the Council of State.

If the bill passes, for the first time in Turkish history the president will be allowed to appoint so many members of the council. In addition, once the law goes into effect, all sitting Supreme Court judges and Council of State members, except for each body’s top officials, will be dismissed to let Erdogan pick from among them the people he wants. The rest will be chosen by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Erdogan and the current Israeli government are in harmony over the need to subordinate democracy to the service of the regime. The difference is that Erdogan knows how to get the job done. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who believes that Likud’s 30 Knesset seats give her the right to pass antidemocratic laws, could learn from the Turkish MP who declared in April that the executive, legislative and judicial branches are “in our hands.” That is, in the hands of the Justice and Development Party and firmly in Erdogan’s grip.

Culture Minister Miri Regev speaks at the Haaretz Culture Conference, Sunday March 6, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

These proclamations need the force of law to show that everything is in compliance with the law and the constitution, and that the purge of the judiciary is aimed at strengthening democracy and making the courts more representative. The words could almost have been written by the enemies of Israel’s Supreme Court.

Erdogan hasn’t neglected the legislative front. On June 7 he signed a law revoking the immunity of MPs who are under criminal investigations. The law – a constitutional amendment – replaces the lengthy process in which parliament itself decides on lifting immunity from MPs, allowing the judiciary to immediately prosecute suspect lawmakers. The law passed by a majority of more than two-thirds, eliminating the need for a referendum.

Some of the “yes” votes came from opposition lawmakers, even though some of their number are under investigation, in an effort to avoid being seen as supporting terrorism. If that behavior reminds someone of Zionist Union’s support for the Suspension Bill, don’t blame me. The Turkish amendment is clearly aimed at MPs from the pro-Kurdish party, which in the election a year ago “robbed” Erdogan of his absolute parliamentary majority by topping Turkey’s high electoral threshold (10 percent) and winning 13 percent of the vote.

Erdogan then promised to settle accounts with the Kurds, and the constitutional amendment indeed threatens to reduce their ranks in parliament. Around 50 party members have been summoned for questioning for “supporting terror.”

“My nation does not want lawmakers who are supported by terrorists,” Erdogan explained. He accuses the pro-Kurdish party of maintaining ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, but mostly he wants a parliamentary majority that would let him change the system of government. If his denunciations of legislators who are “suspected of ties to terror organizations” sound familiar, it’s because they echo statements made in the Knesset about Arab lawmakers. Turkey is indeed a sister state.

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