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July 06, 2012, Friday

Scorecard for Turkey’s AK Party since election victory

I would have described the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government's performance on campaign promises on fundamental rights as merely lackluster, after more than a year since parliamentary elections were held on June 12, 2011, if there was any evidence to support it.

However, looking at the legislative work completed by the AK Party group, the largest bloc in Parliament with a decisive majority, after Parliament went into holiday recess last Wednesday for three months, it does not even qualify for the word “lackluster.” Maybe the expression “rolling back gains” better suits this party today.

I went back and re-read the campaign manifesto released by the AK Party on the eve of elections. It was posted on the party's official website in both Turkish and English, and millions of copies were distributed on campaign tours. In the section titled “Fundamental Rights and Political Principles” it is stated, “Constitutional obstacles preventing prosecution of deputies and ministers shall be lifted, immunities shall be taken up together with all privileges and obstacles against trial of all public officials, and the immunity shall be confined to the votes and speeches of deputies during their parliamentary activities.”

From a series of pieces of legislation we have seen pushed through Parliament by the government, I have to say that not only has the AK Party failed to deliver on this promise, it has in fact made it worse than it was before by providing broader immunities and protections for government employees as well. First the government specifically shielded intelligence operatives from any kind of prosecution through a special exemption amendment to National Intelligence Organization (MİT) law to save a political appointee from legal troubles. Then came overarching immunity for all public employees, right before the Parliamentary recess. The Turkish public, advocacy groups and opposition deputies were kept in the dark about this until the very last minute, when AK Party deputies proposed the amendment during the debate over the third judicial reform package last week.

In this ostensible reform package, Parliament passed several amendments to the Turkish Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK), after heated debates among deputies in the early hours of Monday morning. One of these amendments abolished specially authorized courts and restricted the powers of prosecutors to investigate public employees for crimes involving corruption, gang membership and drug smuggling. Before this change, prosecutors were free to investigate any state officer, no matter the crime. These courts proved to work well in dismantling crime syndicates over the last decade, as we have seen in landmark trials in Turkey. Forcing prosecutors to seek permission from suspects' supervisors before investigating public employees was a major setback to the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. It also dealt a blow to another promise made by the AK Party's program: equality before the law.

In the section titled “Public Administration,” the AK Party included a specific clause reading that “the powers of Chief Prosecutors' Offices shall be increased for combating corruption in public administration.” With the exception it added to the law last week, the party in fact did completely the opposite, curtailing the powers of prosecutors to investigate corruption. Not only that: The government, on the last day of Parliamentary work on Tuesday, also significantly reduced the powers of the Council of Accounts to examine the accounts of public agencies, again in contrast to a promise by the AK Party to strengthen the powers of the Court of Accounts. The AK Party's promise that “transparency, accountability and foreseeability in the public administration shall be introduced in every area and stage of the government” remained merely in the party's program paper and was not reflected in the actions of the government, a year after the elections.

Moreover, the government established exceptions to the rules of public procurement, giving the Public Procurement Authority (KİK) special powers to exclude potential bidders from public tenders. According to the new amendment approved by Parliament, KİK can now have closed tenders in which only invited companies will be able to compete. This has prompted much criticism from opposition deputies, who accuse the government of attempting to assign lucrative state contracts to its supporters. Considering that there is already a trial going on of two senior KİK officials arrested on charges of corruption for allegedly rigging public procurement tenders, the government should have tightened the rules instead of relaxing them.

On the foreign policy front, the program reads that “Turkey shall rapidly fulfill its promises in its relations with the European Union and the conditions which the union demands of other candidate nations as well. Thus it shall prevent the occupation of the agenda with artificial problems.” The government failed on this promise as well, not only halting progress on EU-oriented reforms but also rolling back some achievements in that regard. The most striking deficiency was the failure of government to bring most of the required bills to Parliament in order to harmonize Turkish legislation with the constitutional reform package that was approved by the Turkish people in a public referendum in 2010 and endorsed by the EU and the Council of Europe.

In several bills that the government submitted to Parliament in lieu of constitutional amendments, it significantly watered down the powers of state agencies that are supposed to have powers of oversight of the government, dealing a blow to the AK Party's pledge of increased transparency. The prime example of this is the Ombudsman Law, in which the government excluded the military from oversight of the ombudsman's office. Though the AK Party program assured “access to information and documents in order for citizens to participate in the administration and to inspect the administration,” a series of laws, including the Ombudsman Law, have restricted public access to information. The proposed Law on State Secrets would also give exclusive powers to the executive branch to classify any information as a “state secret” for a period of 50 years.

The party program noted: “Our Party takes as a basis the right of all our citizens to be freely informed and to express their thoughts. One of the essential conditions of contemporary democracies is the existence of the free press. Therefore, the entire legal framework regarding the media shall be revised, while bans and penalties against the media's freedom of expression and not befitting the requirements of democratic social arrangements shall be lifted, beginning with the Constitution. The freedoms of the written press and visual media shall be meticulously protected and monopolization shall not be allowed.” New changes endorsed by the AK Party, however, have made the already problematic freedom of speech and freedom of the press issues in Turkey even worse by imposing harsher jail sentences for reporters who rely on whistleblowers, confidential sources or leakers of government information.

The most important promise on which the AK Party campaigned on the eve of the elections, and also included in its manifesto, was a brand new constitution to replace the current military-era one. But the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission set up to draft this new constitution, comprising representatives of all four parties in Parliament, is moving rather slowly, and the government does not seem to be in a hurry to nudge the commission to work faster. As we have seen evidence that Parliament can enact a law in a single day when determined to rush, the slow pace of the work on the constitution garners a lot of criticism from the public.

The party program also mentions reforming laws governing political parties, election campaign financing and the election law, but none of these have been raised in Parliament in the last year -- with the exception of campaign financing laws, made even worse on Tuesday. According to changes, business firms are now able to donate money to parties without a cap on the amount. This is terrible. It paves the way for the huge influence of big money. The AK Party also pledged to implement the principle of separation of powers “meticulously.” Instead, we have seen increasing evidence that the government has begun to usurp the powers of Parliament and to exert undue influence on the judiciary.

The program concludes by saying that “the most important aspect of this program is that it does not include rhetoric, which cannot be converted to action.” Judging by the AK Party government's performance so far, the promises and pledges on rights and principles seem to be mostly rhetoric, as the converse has sometimes been enacted by the party. The AK Party received 49 percent of the vote based on this campaign program, unveiled just prior to the elections. Now it seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what it promised the Turkish public, inviting a voter backlash in the next elections.

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