Turkey’s new president-elect is expected to change the political system, but experts say Erdogan faces many challenges.
Istanbul, Turkey – On a recent evening in the southwestern Turkish city of Manisa, 29-year-old Salih Kara gathered with fellow activists to protest the detention of Onur Kilic, a left-wing politician arrested for calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “thief” on Facebook.
Hours after Kara returned from the small, nonviolent gathering in the city centre, police arrived at his doorstep, searched his home and declared that he, too, was under arrest for insulting Erdogan.
“If only I had shared my feelings online, I could have been arrested without the hassle of protesting at all,” said Kara, whose tongue-in-cheek attitude could not conceal his fearful tone. “Every day, protesting becomes more of a crime.”
Concern has flared over the right to free assembly in Turkey after parliament partially approved a new security bill this week, vastly expanding police powers to detain demonstrators, conduct warrantless searches and use deadly force during violent protests.
“No one will be allowed to drag Turkey into an environment of chaos,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared in a televised address on Thursday.
Davutoglu described the bill as a security upgrade before parliamentary elections in June, warning against a repeat of deadly pro-Kurdish demonstrations that rocked the country in October. Almost 50 died during those protests, which erupted over Ankara’s refusal to aid the Kurdish defenders of Kobane, a Syrian border town besieged by fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
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The bill faces unanimous opposition from parliament’s three minority parties, but the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds 312 of 550 seats in parliament and has pledged to approve the bill unilaterally.
Parliament has since been rocked by two fistfights, a multiparty sit-in by opposition deputies, and nightly filibusters. After nine days of debate, only 33 of 132 articles have been approved.
“I have never seen parliament so angry and tense, so divided between the AKP and everyone else,” said Aykut Erdogdu, a deputy for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Injured when a gavel struck him in the chest during a brawl last week, Erdogdu warned that the bill allows police to initiate strip searches or vehicle searches without a court warrant. That provision was approved earlier this week, along with an article extending non-court-approved detention periods from 24 to 48 hours, he said.
The death of eight people during nationwide protests in 2013 garnered international concern for police abuses in Turkey, “but the new law goes a step further, formalising the most troubling practices of the police,” Erdogdu told Al Jazeera.
Davutoglu has dismissed criticisms of the law, declaring on Thursday that “every sentence of the law conforms to universal [human rights] standards”. He argued that the criminalisation of protesters covering their faces had been copied from similar laws in EU states, while an article that allows police to use firearms against Molotov-cocktail-wielding protesters would reduce violence in the country’s predominately Kurdish southeast.
“All [opposition parties] are now defending the Molotov cocktail,” by filibustering the bill, Davutoglu said. “They are a Molotov coalition.”
But even pro-government pundits have even expressed concerns over the law.
“Honestly, I find the powers of detention being granted to police and civil authorities to be problematic,” wrote columnist Abulkadir Selvi in Yeni Safak, a leading pro-AKP daily.
Turkey’s history of police violence has been in the spotlight since 2013, when the country was rocked by a summer of anti-government protests.
By expanding, rather than curtailing, police powers in the aftermath of those protests, Ankara “is sending a message that police are not going to be held accountable for cracking down on protests the government does not like,” Nate Schenkkan, a Eurasia expert at Freedom House, told Al Jazeera.
My friend was arrested for protesting my arrest, which occurred because I protested the arrest of someone else. It's a very bad time to give the police even more power.
The law has also complicated the government’s bid to conclude a bloody, three-decade insurgency waged by Kurdish separatists in the country’s southeast.
On Saturday, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) made a joint peace statement with Ankara, renewing the party’s commitment to a two-year-old ceasefire.
Kurdish politicians had earlier refused to read the statement, citing concerns over the security bill. “Our worries still haven’t changed,” HDP deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu told Al Jazeera. “Looking at the contents of this law, we have to ask: Is this a government preparing for peace?”
Kurds have taken to the streets against police violence as recently as January, when two boys, aged 12 and 14, were killed in the town of Cizre, a short drive from Turkey’s Syrian border. Police were widely blamed for both shootings, and two security officials have since been arrested in the death of the 12-year-old, Nihat Kazanhan. “Making it easier for police to use firearms will bring about more barbarous events like this,” Kurkcu said.
Kurds also warn that the law has undercut a chief Kurdish demand in its negotiations with Ankara. While Kurds desire expanded regional autonomy in the southeast, the law strengthens the authority of regional governors, who are appointed by the central government.
Under the new law, “governors could demand that elected officials provide personnel and vehicles to help put down protests,” Kurkcu said. In the Kurdish southeast, officials are often elected by those protesting in the streets, he added. “Refusing to crack down on them would be punishable with up to a year in prison. Any political party could face this situation, and even government supporters could be stopped and arbitrarily searched in the future,” Kurkcu said. “Everybody will lose if this law is passed.”
In the small Anatolian city of Manisa, protester Salih Kara agreed.
After Kara was arrested last week, one of his friends, Onder Konuk, shared details of the incident on Facebook, referring to Erdogan as a “thief and killer”. Two days later, Konuk was also arrested for insulting the president.
“My friend was arrested for protesting my arrest, which occurred because I protested the arrest of someone else,” Kara told Al Jazeera. “It’s a very bad time to give the police even more power.”