Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, making his first visit to Brussels in five years, faced sharp criticism from European Union leaders on January 21 over a crackdown on the judiciary and the police. A draft bill of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, which would give the government greater control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, has raised alarm in Brussels. EU leaders urged Erdogan to redraft the law, saying the bill is contrary to the European constitutional norms on the separation of powers.
The contested judiciary bill is currently being pushed through parliament in Ankara. The main opposition Republican People's party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP), which both oppose the changes proposed by Erdogan’s government, called for the bill to be put to the parliamentary constitutional commission.
Largest overhaul of the judiciary in history
Even as Erdogan met officials in Brussels, his government launched another wave of dismissals of judges and prosecutors. On 21 January, in the largest overhaul of the judiciary seen in Turkey’s republican history, 96 judges and prosecutors across the country have been removed of their posts. Erdogan explained that the government’s reform intended to enhance “the judiciary’s neutrality.” “If you try to use the judiciary’s independence by departing from the principle of neutrality, this will cause problems. To overcome them, it is the duty of the legislative power to set the principles of both the independence and neutrality of the judiciary,” he said.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, warned that EU membership talks with Turkey might need to be frozen because of Erdogan's conduct. The negotiations only resumed in November 2013 after being suspended for 40 months because of various other disputes. There are 35 policy areas, or chapters, in which candidate-states must meet EU standards in order to join the 28-member bloc. So far Turkey and the EU have only opened 14 chapters, and just one has been provisionally closed.
Biggest corruption scandal in years
Erdogan's robust defence of his controversial policies followed the allegations of corruption on a huge scale at the heart of his government, also implicating the prime minister's family. In December 2013, the sons of three ministers, along with dozens of others, were arrested over alleged wrongdoing in construction contracts and deals with Iran. The three ministers resigned after the arrestment of their sons. Erdogan has told supporters that allegations of corruption in his government are a ‘foreign plot’, initialed by US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen to topple the government. Erdogan's war with Turkey's judges and police is ascribed to a bitter power struggle with his former ally Gülen, who runs networks of religious schools and cultural bodies in Turkey and who is said to have high-powered followers within the state's security and judicial structures.
Dismissing the corruption investigation against members of the AKP and Erdogan’s close circles into allegations of a foreign plot, Erdogan has moved to deprive police officers of their ranks and to exert greater control over the judiciary. According to the European Commission (EC), some 2,000 senior police officers, including most of those in key intelligence and investigative roles, have been fired or re-assigned in the past month.
Supporters are afraid that the corruption scandal has become a part of the AK Party’s image and that it could influence the ruling party’s position during the local elections, which are scheduled for March 30. It is in this situation that the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), could seriously challenge the AKP candidates in Ankara and Istanbul in the forthcoming elections. For the government to lose a significant number of votes in the local elections is becoming a possibility. The AKP could come out of the local elections as a downsized party.
If the AK Party votes in the local elections drop from the 50 percent level (the 2011 general elections) even a few points, that could threaten Erdogan’s chances of being elected in August as the next president of the country, replacing Abdullah Gül.
Sources: Reuters, BBC, The Guardian, Al Monitor