By Hamdi Firat Buyuk
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on his critics has accelerated during the COVID-19 outbreak. Like many other autocrats in the world, he is using the opportunity of the health crisis to maximise power and undermine opponents, passing new laws during the pandemic.
The Turkish strongman’s latest target is professional organisations within public institution status, such as bar associations, unions and chambers, as these are some of the few institutions that he has not seized control of already, experts say.
“We have witnessed various attacks by the Ankara Bar Association and similar institutions, which have the same mind-set against the head of our religious authority and Islam,” Erdogan said on May 5. “This example alone has showed the importance and the urgency of changing these institutions’ election methods,” he added.
Erdogan was referring to the Ankara Bar Association’s criticism of homophobic statements made by chief cleric Ali Erbas, which Erdogan supported. A legal investigation has since started against the bar for allegedly insulting Islam and people’s beliefs.
Kemal Vuraldogan, a former legal counsellor to the Ankara Bar Association and a lawyer in Ankara, said Erdogan’s demands for changes to their election systems had nothing to do with current dispute between the Bar Association and the religious authorities.
“The ruling Justice and Development Party government does not want to see any professional organisation that can criticize its irrational policies and projects,” he said. “The AKP only wants to see organisations that are dependent and supportive of itself and its policies,” Vuraldogan added.
President determined to ‘consolidate all power’:
The current election system in local bar associations is that the list that receives the highest number of votes from member lawyers presides over the bar.
At national level, delegates from the local bar associations vote for a president. Every delegate represents 100 lawyers.
Vuraldogan said there were two main reasons why Erdogan wants to change the system.
“First, he wants to keep Metin Feyzioglu as president of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, TBB, since he has turned from an arch-enemy to an ardent Erdogan supporter in the last two years especially,” he said.
“Erdogan knows that under the current election system, Feyzioglu cannot be re-elected, as he lost the support of major bar associations, such as Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir and Diyarbakir,” he added.
“The second … reason why Erdogan wants to change the system is because he wants to consolidate all power in his hands. They undermine, harm and defame every institution that is not controlled by the government,” Vuraldogan continued.
Feyzioglu said on Friday that work on a new law had started in parliament.
“The new election system is not undermine the power of bars but to increase their plurality, MPs and Ministers have assured me,” Feyzioglu said, suggesting it meant giving more votes to small bars in Anatolia.
Most bar associations do not support either President Erdogan, or the current national bar association head Feyzioglu.
This is especially so in bar associations in major cities that have a high number of delegates, because of the large number of registered lawyers known as critics of Erdogan and Feyzioglu, because of the government’s poor record on human rights and democracy.
“They aim to make us the closed eyes of the government with a change to our election system. The Ankara Bar is the voice of lawyers and people. Lawyers will continue to reject obeying,” the Ankara Bar Association said in a statement on Friday.
In a joint statement, they said a new president was needed to undo the distrust created by Feyzioglu. However, the TBB rejected the calls as contrary to its rules, and the bar associations did not challenge this decision, as elections are scheduled for this October.
Last strongholds of secular thought:
Mutlu Arslan, press advisor for the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, TMMOB, one of the largest professional unions in the country, told BIRN that Erdogan was threatening them because they defended human rights and secularism.
“Erdogan wants to change the election system to make these organisations dysfunctional. The lists that the government supported lost elections many times with very high margins,” he noted. “So, the new election system plans to put some names into the administration to undermine the actual work of our union,” Arslan said.
President Erdogan has not given out any exact details for the new election systems he wants to see in place, but said a draft bill would come to parliament very soon.
Experts and representatives of the organisations in question are certain that the basic aim of the new election system is to bring Erdogan supporters to power at least some levels, since they do not have the numbers to win at all levels.
Government supporters say action is needed now. Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist, wrote on May 6 that a new law on the election system in these organisations would come before parliament once the pandemic crisis is over.
Arslan and Vuraldogan said these professional organisations are some of the few remaining strongholds of democracy in Turkey that President Erdogan has not seized.
“These organisations have two main areas of activity. First, they protect the rights of their members and regulate their work. Second, they aim to inform and to enlighten the public,” Arslan said.
“Our work, press statements, court cases on government policies and projects make the government very uncomfortable,” Arslan added.
For instance, on March 31, the TMMOB applied to the courts for a stay of execution of the Kanal Istanbul Project, under which the government plans to build a second canal as an alternative to the Bosphorus, but at a major cost to nature and water resources.
The government previously announced its desire to change the election systems of these organisations, in 2019, but failed to follow through because of the hostile reaction.
But things have since changed. “Autocratic leaders have become more powerful elsewhere in the world. This is result of the global erosion of democracies since 2010,” Vuraldogan concluded.
“Furthermore, the current pandemic crisis has given these autocrats a perfect environment and Erdogan is also using this in his favour. It is no surprise that he wants to make these changes now,” he concluded.