What’s behind Turkey’s bill of immunity

Is it a democratic move or another step towards a one-man rule?

Binali Yildirim, the likely new leader of Turkey''s ruling AK Party, poses with MPs as he votes during a debate at the Turkish parliament in Ankara
The new leader of the AKP, Binali Yildirim [centre] poses with MPs as he casts his vote during a debate to lift the immunity of Turkish parliamentarians [Reuters]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly been calling for the prosecution of the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) members of the parliament, accusing them of acting as a political wing of the outlawed terrorist organisation, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

More than 40,000 Turks and Kurds have been killed since the conflict between Turkey’s military and the PKK began in 1984. Erdogan was the first leader to lead a bold process of reconciliation that ceased the fire for more than three years and saved the lives of innocent Turks and Kurds.

Under the rule of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and for the first time in Turkish history, a pro-Kurdish party succeeded to enter the Turkish Parliament as a party after gaining 13 percent of all votes in elections on June 7, 2015.

The end of the ‘peace process’

Last year’s terrorist attack in the Turkish Suruc province that killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 100 was the dramatic turning point of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process.

Promptly after the explosion, a snowball of attacks and government backlashes led to hundreds dead, thousands of casualties and cities and towns of debris and ruins as the ceasefire between Ankara and the outlawed PKK fell apart. The so-called peace process was on hold, and the military escalation dominated the scene.

Provokingly, several HDP deputies participated the funerals of the PKK affiliates, who carried out suicide bombings in Turkey – an action that deeply outraged the people of Turkey.

In 2015, and in accordance with the Turkish constitution, Erdogan openly declared that the Turkish Parliament should not be a safe harbour for those who support the traitors of Turkey.

Demirtas warned that in case he ends up in jail, Kurdish youth would entirely lose faith in the political process and, accordingly, would resort to violence and military options.


At that time, the HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas challenged Erdogan and suggested that the president aims to perform a palace coup against the will of the people who voted for the HDP in the June 7 election.

Demirtas further announced that his 80 legislators are ready to submit a petition to the Turkish parliament asking for the stripping of their parliamentary immunity to appear before a judicial body for prosecution – in an invitation to generalise the move to all other parties.

The Turkish constitution stipulates that the parliament has the full right to lift legislators’ immunity based on its own discretion and under any perceived distinct conditions.

Subsequently, on May 20, 376 MPs in the 550-member Turkish parliament decided that the country is living under special circumstances and thus voted in favour of the controversial bill. With that number of votes, the bill to strip off the immunity of the MPs now does not require approval through a national referendum.

Party reactions

In a dramatic change, Demirtas, who previously proposed a petition asking parliament to strip his parliamentary bloc’s immunity, unwaveringly opposed the bill.

Whereas both the main opposition the Republican People’s Party (CHP) along with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) startlingly supported the bill offered by the AKP, despite the fact that their leaders could face legal proceedings over insults to President Erdogan. The MPs of the ruling party could also face court cases after Erdogan’s approval of the bill.

A total of 138 deputies whose dossiers have been brought to the Turkish parliament – 51 deputies from the CHP, 50 from the HDP, 27 from the AKP, nine from the MHP and one independent lawmaker – may risk prosecution after the law is passed.

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The overwhelming parliamentary majority that voted in favour of the bill did not leave room for HDP to manoeuvre. Nonetheless, the repercussions of the bill have started to be reflected in the steps and statements of the HDP co-chair, who started to evoke the sympathy of the European Union with an open letter criticising the bill and labelling it as unconstitutional.

Demirtas reiterates that passing such a bill and the rescission of parliamentary immunity would be a precedent that will inflict harm not only to his party but to the entire democratic system of Turkey.

Such a move undoubtedly would extend Erdogan’s autocratic grip on the legislative body. However, back in 1994, the parliamentary immunity of four deputies of the Democracy Party (DEP) – a predecessor of the HDP – was revoked on charges of them supporting the PKK, which definitely harmed the entire democratic process and attempts for a Kurdish reconciliation.

Back to square one?

Demirtas is concerned that the majority of his 59 MPs may end up in jail. He warned that in case he ends up in jail, Kurdish youth would entirely lose faith in the political process and, accordingly, would resort to violence and military options.

He also announced that Erdogan would regret jailing him as he would be of great help – and would play a more effective role towards peace – if he continues to accomplish his political role in the parliament.

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Demirtas promotes the notion that the ruling AKP aims at wiping out his party as a serious political competitor, especially after the departure of the AKP’s former chairman, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in favour of reviving the peace process. He suggests that such a move would only serve Erdogan’s “totalitarian grip on power”.

Demirtas repeatedly attempts to depict the bill as a push by Erdogan to strip his party’s legislators of their immunity in an attempt to target the Kurdish nation – and that would constitute a genuine risk that may exacerbate tensions in an already highly polarised country.


However, the AKP members bluntly and decidedly announce that the HDP members are always bluffing – they tirelessly claim that they are against all forms of violence, but they neither oppose the PKK violence nor do they try to distance themselves from its perpetrators.

The AKP spokespersons permanently stress that anybody who backs the PKK insurgents or abets terrorism should not seek harbour in the Turkish parliament.

Ahmed al-Burai is a lecturer at Istanbul Aydin University. He worked with BBC World Service Trust and LA Times in Gaza. He is currently based in Istanbul and mainly interested in Middle East issues.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.