It's not possible to regulate people's thoughts, but Turkey's president has come up with the next-best thing: controlling their words.
Since the April 16 referendum that expanded the authority of the presidency, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been urging Turkey's parliament to make drastic changes to its bylaws and internal regulations. On July 7, two right-wing parties — the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) — submitted an 18-point plan to back Erdogan’s proposals to modify bylaws. The draft generated tense arguments in the Constitutional Commission but is expected to pass with ease: The AKP has joined forces with the ultranationalist MHP — the smallest party in parliament — to guarantee a majority vote.
The proposed changes are quite broad: Some are rather arbitrary and petty, while others are well-calculated to have a lasting impact on Turkish politics. Most opposition lawmakers refer to the package as the “palace regime,” saying it's no longer about the parliament, AKP or even the prime minister and his Cabinet. Rather, it's about serving the presidential palace's interests.
What are these changes? First, there are stylistic ones, such as changes to the parliamentary dress code. Parliament Speaker Ismail Kahraman, an outspoken Islamist, has never been happy with the current code, which requires him to wear a black tailcoat and white bow tie. Under the proposed changes, that uniform would no longer be required. There also has been debate about removing ties as a requirement for all male lawmakers.
Other changes are more substantial and are expected to have significant consequences. Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Muharrem Erkek, a Constitutional Commission member, said in a television interview, “Those who drafted this proposal must have specifically singled out the instances [in which] opposition lawmakers speak up and influence public opinion, when they actually alter the course of public discussions, and now [the authors] propose to erase those few opportunities so lawmakers can no longer talk and inform the public.”
For example, parliamentary bylaws allot 40 minutes for lawmakers to discuss a matter; this would be reduced to 14 minutes. The legislator bringing a matter to parliament's attention would get five minutes, and three other parties couild take three minutes each to respond.
Reporting from the parliament floor is so crucial that several CHP and Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) members have been using their own mobile gadgets and apps (such as Periscope video streaming) to reach the public when state-controlled TV fails to air opposition members’ speeches. The public’s interest in these speeches has been overwhelming. The opposition's contributions seen through Periscope become trending topics on social media, particularly during heated constitutional amendment debates.
In January, it became clear just how much opposition lawmakers’ live reporting annoyed AKP members. A profile appeared on Twitter under the name Yeliz Adaley. Adaley started her own Periscope broadcasting from parliament with critical remarks about opposition lawmakers. Yet there are no lawmakers in the Turkish parliament with this name. Opposition parties started to investigate and found out a male AKP lawmaker, Ahmet Hamdi Camli — who at one time had been Erdogan’s driver — was responsible. After the discovery, the troll account was shut down, but Camli hasn't been able to shake his female nickname in Ankara.
Under the proposed regulations, AKP members would no longer need to create gender-bending troll identities to distract the public.
Secret balloting appears to be at risk. If 20 lawmakers agree, open voting would be accepted on almost all votes. This was a particularly thorny issue during voting for constitutional amendments when AKP and MHP members recklessly broke the secret ballot rules. Several procedural rules also would change. For instance, at least one-third of the membership currently must assent to a call for a vote on the floor. With the updates, no roll call would be necessary.
The most mind-boggling proposed change addresses words lawmakers may say in parliament. Words and phrases found to be offensive to Turkey's history — that are deemed damaging to the public’s faith and belief in the future — would be sanctioned. This could entail almost anything. For example, anyone could be penalized for using words such as "Amed" (the Kurdish name for Diyarbakir province) or simply for saying "Kurdistan" or "Armenian genocide." Similarly, lawmakers criticizing historic figures or decisions could be required to pay one-third of their monthly salaries as a fine. One-third of the salary is 12,000 Turkish liras, about $3,400.
If lawmakers are temporarily suspended from parliament, the fine would be two-thirds of their monthly salary.
The AKP has been able to pass every law it has wanted so far, so why the urgency to pass such draconian measures to erase even the symbolic values of the legislative body? One reason is that by November 2019, when the next presidential election is scheduled, parliament needs to pass about 2,000 transition laws and regulations so that the new constitution can go into effect immediately.
The voices of those in the opposition, some members of which are in jail, still serve two crucial purposes. First, they raise public awareness about proposed laws' potential consequences and possibly turn public opinion against the government. HDP council member Alp Altinors told Al-Monitor that parliamentary debate has been instrumental in stopping extreme AKP proposals such as the “marrying your rapist” bill, which was shelved due to strong public reaction.
Next, even though they can't stop most of the proposed laws, opposition members can delay them. With thousands of new regulations to be passed in the next 27 months, AKP members complain about a lack of time and say they need legislation to clear the parliament quickly. This would mean no deliberation and would devolve parliament into a merely symbolic venue to unconditionally rubber-stamp the palace’s wishes.
Altinors said the proposed restrictions on lawmakers are unconstitutional. Focusing on the ban on criticizing historical events, he cited the Dersim Massacre in the 1930s, when the military killed more than 13,000 Kurdish citizens. In 2011, Erdogan issued an official apology.
“Now, this kind of a statement from the parliament would [draw] a hefty fine," Altinors remarked.
Altinors claims the current administration has been diligently working to erase the reality of Kurds and others. In a July 15 speech, Erdogan spoke of the country's "50 million people,” though the entire Turkish population surpasses 80 million.
Altinors asked, "Is it really possible to deny the reality of Kurdistan by punishing the lawmakers who dare to talk of it, when the Iraqi Kurdish flag went up at Istanbul airport Feb. 26?” These arbitrary restrictions would only increase tension inside an already-tense parliament. If the proposals pass, will their effects spill over to the public as well? For example, will regular citizens be prosecuted for uttering words not approved by the palace?
This vague, arbitrary and broad set of proposals aims to take away the last legitimate venue available to opposition members to voice their concerns and represent their constituents. Where and how will the political demands of “others” be represented in Turkey?