CHP Backed Lifting Immunity For MPs. Today Its Lawmaker Jailed

CHP lawmaker Enis Berberoglu speaks to the press outside an Istanbul courthouse.

In May 2016, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced a bill in Parliament to lift immunity for Kurdish lawmakers in a move regarded as an unsavory policy that could exacerbate the Kurdish conflict and jeopardize political solution.

When the draft bill first came to the parliamentary committee before a general vote in Parliament in early May, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was already on board and offered an eager embrace of the new measure to ax the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) for its alleged ties to the militant PKK. The MHP’s position was not surprising given its dogged position that favors a military solution to the decades-old problem, loathing HDP’s ascent to 3rd place in Parliament by sinking MHP to 4th place.

But, in a session that was gripped by a nascent brawl among deputies, the stance taken by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) came as upsetting last year. The party threw all its support behind the AKP legislation that paved the way for prosecution of lawmakers over terrorism-related charges. Given broad and vaguely defined Turkey’s counter-terrorism laws, it was seen as a blank check to the government to crush the Kurdish political party. So it did.

That same law backed by CHP came to haunt the party today.

On Wednesday, an Istanbul court delivered 25-year prison sentence to Enis Berberoglu, a senior CHP lawmaker, in an espionage case. He was accused of leaking highly classified state secrets. The court verdict produced a political storm, prompting CHP members in Parliament to leave the podium in a boycott of the legislative body.

Speaking to the press outside the Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul, CHP Deputy Chairman Engin Altay portrayed the decision as an effort to intimidate opponents of AKP and anyone who disagrees with its policies.

“The decision is intimidation to the opposition. This decision is intimidation to all who are displeased with the AKP.”

He lamented about the way how judges reached their decision, citing political pressure on the judiciary. “If judges make their decisions thinking ‘how can I please the dictator, how will my rulings make the dictator looks at me sympathetically to the point that the dictator advances me [in my career]?’ Then God damn such justice,” the Hurriyet daily quoted Mr. Altay as saying.

Erdem Gul, Ankara bureau chief of the Cumhuriyet daily, said the verdict aimed to curb journalism in Turkey. Mr. Berberoglu delivered to the Cumhuriyet daily in May 2015 a video purported to be showing Turkish intelligence-led weapons supply to warring sides in Syria when gendarmerie forces intercepted several trucks in southern Turkey in early 2014. The trucks belonged to the Turkish intelligence, authorities later admitted.

In a call to arms for party supporters, CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu addressed streets for nationwide protests against the court ruling. To the dismay of restive grassroots and young party members, he preferred to tread a careful line in aftermath of the controversial referendum in April. Drawing a clear line between the party establishment and the more activist wing had been a major staple of his party management over the past 5 years.

But after Mr. Berberoglu was sent to jail, he dropped all caution and announced that he and other CHP deputies will march to Istanbul from Ankara on foot in a protest until justice is served. 

“Shocked & Appalled by jailing of main opposition MP #Berberoglu in Turkey. This has nothing to do with rule of law and fair trial! #CHP,” European Parliament’s Turkey Rapporteur Kati Piri wrote on Twitter.

CHP Contributed To Own Predicament

CHP deputy Berberoglu is not the first lawmaker who ended up in jail. Since failed July coup attempt, HDP saw 13 of its lawmakers and thousands of members imprisoned in an escalating crackdown. And CHP had a role in today’s political dispute given its role during debates over lifting immunities in May 2016.

“This decision is the confirmation of fascism,” senior CHP lawmaker Ozgur Ozel fumed in his reaction to the court ruling. But the secular opposition’s outcry has met with cynical responses from different parts across the political spectrum.

When CHP exploded in fury after Berberoglu’s imprisonment, AKP Deputy Chairman Bulent Turan mockingly disparaged the opposition lawmakers, reminding them of their support for the bill to remove immunity of lawmakers from prosecution last year.

“You say Yes when immunities are lifted. Then you leave here [Parliament],” Mr. Turan said.

Erhan Akcay, the parliamentary group leader of the nationalist MHP, echoed his criticism. He refrained from directly criticizing the court decision against CHP deputy, saying that his imprisonment was a natural consequence of the legal process to end immunities began last year. In his comment, there was a veiled rebuke of CHP outcry.

In 2016, CHP endorsed the bill that sent HDP lawmakers to jail; today, the Kurdish party strongly condemned the imprisonment of CHP deputy Berberoglu.

Indifferent to potential fallout and consequences of its embrace of the AKP-led bill, the main opposition party then even espoused a nationalist credo normally represented by nationalist MHP, eyeing to attract nationalist votes. Since the collapse of the ceasefire between PKK and the Turkish state in the southeast in 2015, the escalation of fighting led to swelling nationalism among Turks, a factor on which ruling AKP capitalized by arousing more bellicose, nationalist discourse.

The more the fight escalates, the more Turkey’s politics become illiberal with ominous side effects for pro-Kurdish HDP, which has grown isolated in Turkish Parliament.

CHP’s Blindness To Turkey’s Unpleasant Facts

“Has CHP just realized that Turkey is in the grip of fascism?” asked Yavuz Baydar, a keen observer of the party’s internal dynamics and recent intra-party turmoil.

For over 3 past years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been building an authoritarian regime step by step while inertia and failure of understanding the gravity of the situation have dogged Turkey’s main opposition party.

To Mr. Baydar and other critics, the furious reaction of the shell-shocked CHP seems to be absurd.

To appreciate the fact that fascism is taking firm hold in Turkey, did they have to wait that long after seeing 150,000 public servants dismissed, over 40,000, including 170 journalists, imprisoned and 500,000 Kurds displaced and lost their homes, 13 MPs of the 3rd largest party in Turkish Parliament and thousands of its members jailed, Mr. Baydar asked, questioning the recent awakening of CHP to Turkey’s painful reality. Why it took so long for CHP to come to grips with fascism or authoritarianism, which has already entrenched in the political psyche of the country in recent years, was the centerpiece of his argument.

But there is another unsettling prospect that looms large over both the party and Turkey.

Speaking to The Globe Post, Mr. Bayar said the political pressure has recently expanded to Mr. Berberoglu and other CHP deputies. Once unthinkable, the main opposition party has now found itself at the government’s crosshair.

“Today’s decision even is an attempt for the government to test a new threshold for itself to see how far it can go,” he said. If CHP reaction appears meek, it would embolden the government to raise the bar for further crackdown with impunity.

It will be CHP, not the AKP and Palace, that would collapse in a political train wreck, Mr. Bayar said, warning CHP elites against their naive expectation that any form of “targeting CHP would bring the demise of AKP.”

The government is testing waters and would emerge more robust, unassailed and fearless in its expanding clampdown on political opponents, which now extended to involve the oldest party of the Republic. 

For Mr. Baydar and others, days of appeasement or bandwagoning with the government have long gone. The only way to stop the political wind of authoritarianism is to push back anti-democratic policies with all available means, mobilizing a collective battle on legal front to lift the state of emergency.

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