A symbol of the modern Turkish Republic, the parliament building in Ankara holds fewer guests than it once did. Between 2007 and 2011, the Grand National Assembly received an annual average of 550,000 visitors, according to figures from the parliament’s press office. This dropped to 445,000 in 2018 and again to 334,000 in 2019.
Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, once described parliament as evidence that “sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the Nation”. But do declining visitor numbers indicate a weakening of the country’s democratic institutions, as the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) pursues a more authoritarian style of leadership?
After the 2017 constitutional referendum, which increased the powers of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the AKP’s success in the 2018 elections, the government moved to restrict the power of a number of state institutions including parliament. This has led community activists, as well as some elected deputies, to complain that it is now harder for ordinary citizens to have their problems resolved.
Mustafa Özdil, 62, a former neighbourhood official in Kırklareli, a province north-west of Istanbul, used to frequently contact Ankara on behalf of locals. Last time he tried, however – asking a parliamentary deputy for help increasing the local budget for drinking water infrastructure in his village – he didn’t receive a response.
“You can solve your local problems if you’re [politically] close to the government,” Özdil said. “But in a democracy your personal views shouldn’t affect the results of your request.”
Özdil said that increasingly, the relationship between a deputy and the government was critical to the outcome of such requests, and that even those close to the administration sometimes struggled to have an impact.
Zarife Köknaroğlu, a 46 year-old resident of Istanbul, is part of a group that campaigns for pension rights for people affected by an increase in the retirement age introduced in 1999. Their campaign has been supported by opposition deputies, but Köknaroğlu is pessimistic about their chances.
“Even if our lawmakers vote a bill in, it’s all for nothing if the president doesn’t approve it,” Köknaroğlu said.
“We tell opposition lawmakers about our issues, and they’ll bring it up. But the AKP has the majority in parliament, so bills will just get shut down, and nothing changes,” said 48-year-old Tuncay Öztürk, who has also been petitioning the government for retirement benefits.
Some deputies are unhappy with the new presidential system of government.
“We used to have small offices. Staff would share space. Today, we each have larger offices with computers, but there’s a massive gap between what our authority used to be and what it is now,” said İbrahim Halil Oral, a deputy for the opposition Good Party (İYİ) who has sat in parliament under both systems.
“Ministers can’t reach the president, deputies of the AKP can’t reach him. How are we supposed to? Deputies had easy access to even prime ministers in the parliamentary system,” Oral said.
“It’s understandably impossible to reach the president in this environment,” acknowledged Zülfü Demirbağ, an AKP lawmaker. It’s impossible for everyone but we meet with ministers. We can’t solve everything but we solve some things.”
Bureaucratic delays were part of the problem, explained Oral. Thousands of written questions submitted by deputies to the president over the past two years went unanswered, causing deadlock.
Another issue was that the cabinet was now answerable directly to the president, breaking a crucial link between parliament and individual ministries. This made it more difficult for deputies to raise issues directly with ministers.
Oral said that parliament’s credibility had suffered, adding that some presidential aides had more impact than deputies. “In short, we have a harder time serving people as deputies,” he concluded.
Emin Ekmen, deputy chair of the liberal Democracy and Development Party (DEVA) and a former AKP deputy under the old system, told Inside Turkey that citizens’ complaints were piling up as deputies struggled to deal with them.
“Deputies are frustrated that they can’t help people as a result of their restricted authority,” he said. “We see that sensitivity to deputies has decreased under the presidential system, as lawmakers report directly to the president instead of parliament.”
Some politicians advocate a return to the parliament-led system of government.
“The presidential system falls outside of the judicial and legislative framework and is anti-democratic,” said Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a deputy with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). A parliament-led system would “serve the public better”, he said.
As a result of these changes, the presidential residence in Ankara is becoming the main symbol of power in Turkey, rather than parliament. On July 21, Erdoğan responded to criticism of the new system by saying that “our hearts and politics are open to change” should a better alternative be found.
“Parliament has lost its inquisitional skills,” warned Nesibe Kırış, a human rights lawyer. Kırış explained that although the number of deputies was increased from 550 to 600, some of parliament’s key functions had been eliminated.
“Quantity-wise, the system was grown, but quality-wise, it was diminished. Parliament felt responsible to its people for anything that happened in the country,” Kırış said of the previous system. “Lawmakers were granted questions on the floor and parliamentary inquiries to represent and speak up for the people. None of these avenues are available today.”
Erdoğan’s frequent use of presidential decrees to pass laws has further undermined the role of parliament, said Kırış. “Budgets for all 81 provinces are prepared by the presidency and deputies aren’t even given a chance to contribute.”
As a result, according to Kırış, public trust of politicians was in decline. Instead, some people look to celebrities to amplify their causes: a recent example being the rock singer Haluk Levent and his charity AHBAP, which helps disadvantaged social groups.
This year, a neighbourhood representative in Niğde, a province in central Anatolia, asked Levent to help collect and distribute food aid to locals. Levent played a similar role in Izmir, in western Turkey, after the earthquake there in October. Köknaroğlu, the pensions campaigner, said that her group would now try to make their voices heard via social media, rather than through parliament.
She was grateful for those deputies who have tried to support her cause, however, adding, “We’ll show our support for those who were our voice in parliament when the next election comes.”