Turkish Lawmakers Strip Themselves of Immunity, Boosting Erdogan Against Kurds

Parliament outmaneuvers referendum with 376 of 550 voting in favor of bill that could result in over 100 prosecutions.

Gulsen Solaker and Humeyra Pamuk
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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivers a speech during a rally in the Black Sea town of Rize, Turkey, Friday, May 20 2016.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivers a speech during a rally in the Black Sea town of Rize, Turkey, Friday, May 20 2016.Credit: Press Presidency Press Service via AP
Gulsen Solaker and Humeyra Pamuk

REUTERS - Turkey's parliament on Friday approved stripping its members of immunity from prosecution, a move likely to see the pro-Kurdish opposition sidelined, ease President Tayyip Erdogan's path to stronger powers, and raise concern among Western allies.

Erdogan has accused the pro-Kurdish HDP, parliament's third-biggest party, of being the political wing of militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in the country's largely Kurdish southeast and wants to see them prosecuted.

The HDP denies such links and says its parliamentary presence could be all but wiped out if prosecutions go ahead.

In the third and final vote of a secret ballot, 376 MPs in the 550-seat parliament backed the plan to lift MPs' immunity, a high enough level of support to change the constitution directly without needing to hold a referendum.

Erdogan on Friday stressed his support for the bill, which will become law once approved by him and published, paving the way for the launch of judicial proceedings.

"My nation does not want to see guilty lawmakers in this country's parliament. Above all it does not want to see those supported by the separatist terror group in parliament," he told a crowd in the Black Sea town of Rize, referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group.

Erdogan's opponents say the lifting of immunity is part of a strategy to push the HDP out of parliament, strengthen the ruling AK Party, and consolidate support in the assembly for the executive presidential system he has long desired.

The legislation has caused concern in Europe, which is trying to hold together a controversial deal with Turkey meant to stop illegal migration despite what many European politicians see as the country's deteriorating record on human rights.

Merkel concern

Responding to the decision by the Turkish parliament, which is heavily dominated by the AKP, a German government spokesman said Berlin was concerned by the increasing polarization of Turkey's domestic political debate.

Chancellor Angela Merkel would discuss the issue with Erdogan at a meeting in Istanbul on Monday, he said.

HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas told Reuters this month that the lifting of immunity was likely to create more violence and stifle democratic politics.

Conflict between the state and the PKK, deemed a terrorist group by Ankara, the European Union and United States, is at its most intense since the 1990s. Thousands of militants and hundreds of security force members and civilians have been killed since a 2-1/2 year ceasefire collapsed in July.

Lawmakers currently enjoy immunity from prosecution. The new law will allow prosecutors to pursue members of parliament who currently face investigation: that includes 138 deputies, of whom 101 are from the HDP and main opposition CHP.

The HDP has said an overwhelming majority of its 59 deputies could be jailed, mostly for views they have expressed.

Friday's vote came a day after Transport Minister Binali Yildirim, a close Erdogan ally, emerged as the likely new AKP leader and therefore the next prime minister.

Yildirim, seen as a champion of the presidential system Erdogan wants, will be the sole candidate to lead the AKP at a party congress on Sunday. Erdogan said on Turkish broadcaster ATV late on Thursday he planned to give Yildirim the mandate to form a new government that evening.