Post Coup Turkey: Implications for Judicial Independence

16 Aug, 2016    ·   5103

Samanvya Hooda analyses Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan's actions and the motivations for those, following the July 2016 coup attempt

The events of the 15 July coup d'etat attempt in Turkey have huge ramifications for the country’s political structure. Nearly 16,000 people have been detained so far, including journalists, prosecutors, judges, school teachers, university heads, and those military members who allegedly orchestrated the coup attempt. It is important to study the incarceration of members of Turkey’s judiciary and its consequences for the country’s political landscape.

Past Friction 
The judiciary has always played an important role in checking the power balances in the country. When Necmettin Erbakan, a mentor of incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan showed Islamist tendencies during his prime ministerial term in the 1990s, the military stepped in and deposed him in a bloodless coup. However, it was the Constitutional Court's banning of his Welfare Party, and later sentencing of several party members in the ‘Lost Trillion Case’ that lent this coup a semblance of legitimacy. Erbakan was banned from politics because the Court felt that his policies were in direct contravention to the constitution’s secular underpinnings.
Erdogan’s government is also Islamist, and in many ways more than that of Erbakan's, because of the lack of significant opposition to his policies in the country. Experiencing his mentor getting banned from politics using judicial channels has no doubt created in him a certain distrust of the judiciary, and suspicions regarding where their true loyalties lie. This was exacerbated during a December 2013 investigation into corruption, which implicated several individuals in and close to his family along with other senior ministers. This led to the reassignment of 3,750 judges and prosecutors in the country, all of whom showed inclinations towards questioning Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. Reasons for this are clear. Erbakan’s dismissal created a certain fear of the judiciary in Erdogan, and an investigation into members of his family was the proverbial last straw.

Post Coup Crackdown and Implications
A total of 2,745 judges and prosecutors have been detained/ suspended following the coup attempt.  Attention needs to be paid to the speed with which the government has proceeded with these arrests, as gathering intelligence and evidence on the vast number of people detained or suspended (estimates put the number at 60,000) is not feasible in such a brief period of time. Apart from the tag of ‘Gulenist sympathies’, no evidence against has been forthcoming from the government against most of those accused. This indicates the existence of a pre-prepared list of individuals who oppose Erdogan, and the coup being a perfect opportunity for the government to get rid of them. Senior military officers notwithstanding, it is inconceivable to imagine the large number of schoolteachers, university staff, lawyers and journalists who have been detained based on allegation of having played a role in the coup attempt.

It is evident that apart from the military, Erdogan is also attempting to replace the existing deep state apparatus with one that is more suited to his policies. While a large part of the current rhetoric should be considered an excuse to remove any opposition to Erdogan, the fact remains that Fethullah Gülen still holds a great deal of influence in the country. The old deep state refers to individuals at senior positions in various institutions in the country who are sympathetic towards Gülen and his softer approach to Islamism than Erdogan. They are possibly the points of opposition to Erdogan, as they disagree with the latter's many conservative and authoritarian leanings. Erdogan made use of this to garner support for himself while the two were still allies, and now views it as a hindrance.

By replacing this perceived deep state, which includes actual Gulen supporters as well as individuals who disagree with his policies, Erdogan has removed certain obstacles to his pursuit of more executive power. Seeing as he has absolute power over the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), he does not have any opposition to his policies from within the executive. The AKP currently holds 317 seats out a total of 550 in the country's unicameral legislature, with the sole sizeable opposition controlling only 133 seats. By purging the judiciary of his opponents and creating his own deep state, he has ensured very little separation of power in the country leaving him with near-absolute power in all three branches of government. Because of the fear and wide-scale crackdown on various public sector employees, it is unlikely that he will face opposition from other sectors as well.

Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to shift the Turkish form of governance from parliamentary to presidential. A part of the executive powers involved include control of the legislature, and the power to appoint half the members of the higher courts. The new deep state in Turkey is now equipped to push the country towards this goal.

However, one must not forget a crucial aspect – Erdogan enjoys huge popular support, especially in the rural areas. For all his authoritarian leanings, he and the AKP have been voted into power consistently, always with sizeable majorities. It is important to take this into consideration while studying Turkey’s political landscape because it involves an individual with vast popular support, who, by  promising to purge the country of the ‘virus’ behind the coup, is slowly moving the country towards a quasi-dictatorial form of governance. He can now do this with no significant opposition, and with a new deep state that is loyal to him alone.