By Abdullah Bozkurt
May 09, 2014
Hampering the democratic functioning of Parliament under the abuse of the majority represented in Parliament by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been a worrying development, one that has aggravated press freedom woes in Turkey and that has gone largely unnoticed.
If the functioning of the national Parliament in overseeing the executive branch was rendered ineffective because of obstructions by the majority, the role of the media in serving as a public interest body to watch over any excesses of government authority has also been dealt a significant blow.
Unfortunately, that has been the case in Turkey under chief political Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government, which sees Parliament as a simple “law factory” that produces the bills that help him govern the country in the way he sees fit, disregarding decades-long traditions in parliamentary rules and procedures as well as universally accepted democratic principles. The opposition parties were not given enough opportunity to express their views on bills and motions tabled by the ruling party's parliamentary group and endorsed by the government.
The Parliament speaker, a deputy from the ruling AKP, has often resorted to formal rules in order to set aside democratic principles and traditions such as limiting the broadcast of debates in Parliament by public TV and thereby preventing citizens from following the activities of Parliament. The parliamentary debate on setting up a commission to investigate graft allegations that forced four Cabinet ministers to resign was not aired on public TV with the decision of Speaker Cemil Çiçek. Private broadcast stations were not allowed to set up a link to the floor, either.
Moreover, access to public radio or television by opposition deputies is severely restricted under the Erdoğan government, especially during election periods. This is quite unprecedented and in fact goes against the rules and regulations that are supposed to secure the fair and well-balanced coverage by the public broadcaster of political debate in Turkey. According to the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), the broadcast regulatory authority, public broadcaster the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) allocated 13 hours and 32 minutes of campaign coverage time to the ruling AKP, but a total of only 95 minutes to the three opposition parties represented in Parliament in a 12-day period between Feb. 22 and March 2.
The governing party also abuses the working hours and timetable of meetings in Parliament, giving the opposition little or no time to prepare themselves for a debate on upcoming bills and resolutions. Since Erdoğan commands the majority in Parliament, he is the one who sets the agenda in Parliament, killing the oppositions' motions with unfair rules of procedure. The democratic quality of Parliament has been significantly reduced because of limited means available to the opposition to perform its duty of oversight, criticism and prevention of misuse and dysfunction in government agencies.
This dramatic departure from democratic accountability in governance and transparency in public decision in fact represents another dimension of an authoritarian tendency that has been a dominant feature in the Erdoğan government in recent years. The opposition in Parliament is stripped of means to play an effective, responsible and constructive role. In most cases, the opposition deputies do not enjoy the same treatment and privileges given to ruling AKP deputies. For instance, independent İstanbul deputy Muhammed Çetin, who recently resigned from the ruling AKP, was discriminated against and blacklisted by national flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY).
The opposition was also shorted-changed by the Erdoğan government when its right to receive auditing information from the Court of Accounts was violated, citing a new revision in the law for the last three years. Parliament's oversight role was not properly functioning when the opposition did not have any informed opinion on budgetary, auditing and finance matters. Without comprehensive reports and reliable sources of information on government expenditures, the opposition could not fulfill its duty of monitoring the government.
The leaked audio that was posted on YouTube in March revealed how the government was afraid of auditing reports coming to Parliament for review. The audio, purportedly belonging to the ruling party's parliamentary group deputy chairman, Nurettin Canikli, and Prime Minister Erdoğan's personal secretary, Hasan Doğan, shows how the men were complaining about auditing reports, blasting the Court of Accounts for tightening the screws around the ministries by auditing their public spending. Canikli is heard saying in the voice recording that "thankfully" the 2012 audit reports, which he described as "terrible," had not come to Parliament. The court was prevented from fully auditing government institutions and ministries for 2012 due to a lack of cooperation from the relevant institutions.
The political opposition is also facing physical threats in Parliament, which is dominated by ruling party deputies. During discussion of controversial bills either in the commissions or on the floor, the ruling party's deputies who resort to fist fights to intimidate the opposition have not been harshly censured by Erdoğan. In fact, rumor has it that Erdoğan privately encourages and appreciates deputies who initiate brawls in Parliament. Confrontations with frequent outbursts of anger and physical fights have erupted over corruption allegations, the situation in Syria, education reform and the Kurdish settlement. The ruling party, instead of showing political maturity and respect, often uses arm-wrestling to get what it wants from Parliament.
The watering down of the right to information to which the opposition is entitled in Parliament has exacerbated the terrible state of press freedom in the Turkish media, which are accustomed to source their information based on official responses provided by the government to inquiry motions filed by the opposition deputies. Since this information represents official accounts by the government, it is supposed to give reliable and authoritative responses for the public including the press. Unfortunately, the exercise of this right to ask written and oral questions, and to receive reasonable replies to these questions, has been hampered a great deal by the Erdoğan government.
The government in most cases refuses to respond to parliamentary questions submitted by opposition parties on a variety of issues in order to save itself from oversight of its actions. What is more, when it responds, the government provides totally irrelevant answers, giving rise to claims that it is seeking unlimited authority and power by blocking all means of auditing its actions. For example, Özcan Yeniçeri, who has directed 4,162 parliamentary questions to the government, the highest-ever number for one deputy, has said the government has not given satisfactory answers to 80 percent of his inquiries. The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Altan Tan, who has directed 855 parliamentary questions to the government, says 95 percent of his questions on financial issues, foreign policy and domestic security have been left unanswered by the government.
The rate of parliamentary written questions answered on time by the 26-member Cabinet, including Prime Minister Erdoğan, is 18 percent. The rules require the government to respond to questions within two weeks. The rate of parliamentary questions answered by ministers, including those that have been answered late, is 37 percent. Interior Minister Efkan Ala is the worst performer in terms of answering parliamentary questions. He did not respond to any of the 971 written parliamentary questions on time that have been sent to him since Dec. 26, 2013, when he was appointed interior minister. In fact, he has answered only six written parliamentary questions in total.
What is most shocking is that two ministers, whose portfolio covers Turkey's relations with other countries and should have set an example by respecting the parliamentary oversight role, have performed terribly. One is the European Union Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who responded to parliamentary inquiries with only 1 percent of questions answered on time. Considering that Çavuşoğlu had served as the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for two years between 2010 and 2012, he should have been ashamed for blatantly disregarding Parliament's role of scrutiny. The other is the foreign minister, who responded to only 79 questions on time out of 850 inquiries submitted by the opposition, corresponding to 9 percent overall.
Prime Minister Erdoğan is also among the Cabinet members whose rate of answering written parliamentary questions on time is below 18 percent. Erdoğan has been sent 8,055 parliamentary questions through the Parliament Speaker's Office, but the prime minister has answered only 1,398 of them on time.
All in all, the Erdoğan government has severely restricted the opposition's right to exercise scrutiny in Parliament, risking formation of an opposition outside of Parliament, which may not necessarily be peaceful. The weakened opposition in Parliament is an important gauge in measuring the maturity of democracy in Turkey. Erdoğan, who has been more assertive in displaying his political Islamist ideology in recent years and started building a country in his own image, is now the main driver in reversing hard-earned democratic gains that this country has been able to achieve after a painstaking process and turbulent decades.