Erdoğan to gain more Constitutional Court influence in near future

As all major opinion polls reveal continuous losing public support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a social media post by a member of Turkey’s Constitutional Court (AYM) can very well act as a lifesaver for the government.

AYM member Engin Yıldırım posted a photo of the court’s building on Tuesday night, along with the caption “The lights are on”, after an Istanbul penal court refused the retrial motion for former opposition deputy Enis Berberoğlu despite a binding AYM ruling in Berberoğlu’s favour that his rights had been violated.

Government circles interpreted the Twitter post as a sign of coup plotting, based on previous instances of Turkey’s General Staff keeping its lights on at night before military coups. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu tweeted a photo of the ministry, saying, “Our lights are always on.”

Yıldırım apologised for his comment the next day and said he meant the light of justice was ever present. The AYM issued a statement that personal views of any member did not reflect those of the court.

Still, several government officials tweeted condemnations, including Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül, who said: “The nation will turn the lights on or off.” Pro-government newspaper Takvim accused Yıldırım of affiliation with the Gülen movement, which Turkey holds responsible for the failed coup of July 15, 2016, and threatened to run the AYM member up a flagpole.

The publicised issue was a boon for the AKP government, after its officials failed to claim victimhood over similar discussions in May.

On May 5, journalist Ragıp Zarakolu wrote an article titled “There is no escaping fate”, in which he recounted several military coups from Turkey’s recent history.

The week before the article was published, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, Istanbul chairwoman for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), had said in a televised interview that she saw “a change in government, even a system change coming”, be it “in the next elections, in snap elections or in some other manner”. CHP deputy Özgür Özel followed her comments and said: “The end of the palace regime is coming.”

An investigation was launched against Zarakolu for calling for a military coup, and pro-government media penned hit pieces against the CHP officials, but discussions eventually died down in Turkey’s ever-shifting news cycle.

In mid-September, Interior Minister Soylu had a short dispute with AYM Chairman Zühtü Arslan over the court’s ruling to lift a ban on public gatherings on main roads. Shortly after, Devlet Bahçeli, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s junior partner and leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), called for an overhaul of Turkey’s top court and for the AYM’s restructuring to better fit the executive presidential system. Erdoğan said he would “love to support such a change to the AYM”.

On Wednesday, Erdoğan called on the AYM to “do what is necessary if the chairman and other members don’t agree” with Yıldırım and responded to a question on a possible restructuring of the court by saying, “Inshallah” – meaning “God willing”.

However, changing the structure of the AYM requires a constitutional amendment, and the AKP and MHP do not have the necessary seats in parliament for it. Unless the CHP offers support, such an amendment is not possible.

Political pundits and AKP officials have called for Yıldırım’s resignation, two years before the end of his term. Erdoğan’s comments have been interpreted as a warning to the court to actually dismiss Yıldırım. If Yıldırım is dismissed, the Higher Education Board (YÖK) will have to replace him by presenting three candidates for the president to choose from.

In addition to this, Erdoğan will appoint a replacement for another AYM member, whose term will end in January, which will further shift the court's balance in his favour. Apart from the chairman, there are currently 15 members of the AYM: three members were appointed by parliament and five others by former President Abdullah Gül. With one of Gül’s appointees leaving in January, there will be seven members appointed by Erdoğan.

The opposition said that claims of government opponents calling for a military coup were preposterous and the anti-AYM campaign championed by government circles were artificially trumped-up discussions. It also noted that such accusations and polemics are a sign that the governing alliance is beginning to crack at the seams.

Yet, it is clear that the government has seized an opportunity in this current situation and will capitalise on this newfound victim status to the utmost limit.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.