Turkish courts are at each other’s throat. But why?

Bar associations across Turkey reacted with demonstrations, marches and legal actions Friday to a constitutional crisis in which a lower-ranking appeals court filed an unprecedented criminal complaint against Supreme Court judges over their decision to release a jailed parliamentarian.  Erdogan and Bahceli sided with the lower appeals court to attack the Supreme Court.



This is different

While Turkey’s three high courts namely the High Court of Appeals, the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Court were never at ease with each other, this is the first time such heated rhetoric has been used. It is also the first time when a lower court openly refused to honor Supreme Court verdicts. Clearly, Erdogan and Bahceli are egging Court of Cassation to ratchet up tensions, but why?  Energizing their bases to demand a new constitution may be the reason.

Chaos ensues in a single night

Parliamentarians from opposition parties have started a “justice watch” campaign, refusing to leave the parliament until the issue is brought to the floor for discussion, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan caused further consternation Friday by weighing in on the side of the lower court.

Can Atalay, a Turkey’s Workers Party (TIP) parliamentarian representing the southern province of Hatay, has been held in custody since April of last year when a local court charged him with “assisting the overthrow of the government” during the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the largest protests against Erdogan’s government.

Lawyers for Atalay, 47, took his case to the Supreme Court, where nine of the 15 judges ruled on October 25 that the MP’s imprisonment breached his rights “to be elected” and “to have personal freedom and security.”


Opposition calls it a “judicial coup”

But rather than comply with the ruling, the local court that first charged Atalay took the case to the Court of Cassation, the nation’s highest appeals court, which  sided with the court of first instance, as well as  issuing a scathing condemnation of Supreme Court, where it was accused of judicial activism.  The Third Circuit of Court of Cassation also  filed a criminal complaint against the nine Supreme Court judges.


That action, in apparent violation of the Turkish Constitution, prompted an immediate uproar from opposition politicians, among others.


At the call of the main opposition party CHP, several MPs remained seated in the parliament overnight Thursday, demanding that the speaker of the parliament, Numan Kurtulmus, bring the issue to the floor.


Several opposition leaders, including the head of TIP, Erkan Bas, and CHP’s newly elected chair, Ozgur Ozel, described the Court of Cassation’s action as a “judiciary coup attempt.”

Erdogan, meanwhile, entered the debate for the first time Friday, seeming to come down in support of the lower court.

“Firstly, I guess, nobody can deny that the Court of Cassation is also a high court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has come to a point where it has been making mistakes, one after another, in this regard. And, this seriously saddens us,” Erdogan said.

As criticism of the president’s comments grew, he made another statement asserting he was “not taking sides but rather acting as an arbitrator as the head of the state.”

How is Erdogan involved?


However, independent analysts were not persuaded by Erdogan’s disclaimer.

“Erdogan is not outside of this judiciary game. He is absolutely not inactive,” said Ismet Akca in an interview with VOA Turkish. Akca is a former professor of political science at Turkey’s Yildiz Technical University and a former nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “He is an actor in this game. As always, he first watched everything, he waited, and then, he delivered his position.”


Erdogan on the verge of shedding any pretense to democracy


Ibrahim Kaboglu, a retired law professor from Marmara University and former MP from CHP, told VOA Turkish that as president, Erdogan “has a constitutional duty to ensure the constitution is abided by” and warned that the crisis could feed into growing doubts about Turkey’s commitment to constitutional rule among its Western allies.

Speaking to VOA Turkish, Ankara Bar Association head Mustafa Koroglu said a lower court refusing to comply with a Supreme Court decision “stands as a first in legal literature.”

“In the history of law, constitutional courts are the courts that have been established to eliminate fascism,” Koroglu added.

“Today in Turkey, the Supreme Court is being accused. Where is the rule of law and where is Turkey being dragged to with fascism and similar systems?”


Why now?  What is the objective?

By Saturday night a rough and ready consensus emerged among Turkish pundits that the court of Cassation was provoked by Erdogan and his nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli (MHP) to challenge the established court order.  The duo have different aims. Erdogan apparently once more public engagement for a new constitution, which among other amendments could grant him a third term. Bahceli is mad at the Supreme court was foot-dragging on shutting down pro-Kurdish Rights party HDP, now renamed HEDEP.


It could also be the case that Erdogan simply wants to intimidate rebel justices to make sure several key pieces of legislation don’t get struck down on appeal. The foremost among these is a brand-new “Urban Renewal Bill” which gives the authority to the newly established Ministry of Urban Affairs to vacate whole neighborhoods on account of buildings not being earthquake resistant with very little judicial review. Opposition experts claim the bill will be used to clear out prima land in the midst of large cities, which can then be converted to luxury housing, projects certain to be awarded to Erdogan’s cronies.


At the end, the scandal could escalate if a prosecutor seriously tries to try high court justices, or if as CHP leader Ozel wants people march on the streets to defend the Constitution.  Turkey’s very brief post-election political calm has ended.   The country is facing increasing turbulence between now and end-March local elections.

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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.