Turkey's ruling alliance using death penalty debate as decoy

Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a minor partner of the ruling People's Alliance, began a new discussion by announcing his proposal to bring back the death penalty at a time when public concern over the number of coronavirus deaths, a slumping economy and aggressive foreign policy is rapidly spreading in Turkey.

"To overlook the murders of our innocent children reflected in the media every day and the deaths of women disguised as suicide, will never be compatible with our faith and culture acquis. In this regard, the inclusion of the death penalty in our legislation again will dissuade sickening and barbaric crimes," he said, citing the increasing incidents of violence against women, rape, sexual abuse and femicides.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004, although no executions have taken place since 1984. Restoring the death penalty would put an end to Turkey’s already-dormant bid to join the European Union.

After the failed putsch on July 15, 2016, the death penalty debate and the demands for the execution of the coup’s plotters have emerged. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded by saying: "If the Parliament passes the law, I will approve it without delay."

His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also responded positively to Bahçeli's call.

"I think there should be a death penalty for very limited and specific crimes," AKP parliamentary speaker Mustafa Şentop said. Meanwhile, Cahit Özkan, AKP deputy chairman, said: "If our citizens want the death penalty for crimes that threaten the peace and tranquillity of the country, we have to do what is necessary at parliament."

The Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), led by Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister who split from the AKP last year, strongly rebuked the proposal.

"The right to live is the most fundamental right that a state must protect,” DEVA said in a statement. “We do not accept the discussion of the death penalty to be brought up once again to hide the decay of the country with empty discussions. The death penalty, which leaves bitter memories in our country's memory, cannot be returned."

In an attempt similar to the proposal announcement, Turkey’s ruling alliance tried to change the political agenda and swiftly renew the public support it has lost recently by opening Istanbul's Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship in July.

Then, on Aug. 21, Erdoğan said that Turkey discovered a 320 billion cubic metres reserve of natural gas off its northwestern Black Sea coast. When it became apparent that it would take a long time to extract natural gas and that the initiative required billions of dollars of investment, the impact of the good news waned rapidly.

It is understood that the ruling alliance has found it fit to bring the death penalty debate back to the fore. In addition to the AKP spokesmen's cherry-picking of Bahçeli's call, Erdoğan also backed the call by reiterating that he would approve the decision.

However, contrary to the proposed death penalty for violence against women and children, Erdoğan's government is discussing withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which is widely seen as the most powerful global compact to combat violence against women. Turkey was the convention’s first signatory in 2011.

Therefore, the ruling partners who brought the death penalty to the agenda to deter crimes against women and children are contradicting themselves by discussing withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. It confirms the claims of the opposition, which argues that the discussions are used as a political decoy.

Although the government has a majority in parliament to reinsert the death penalty into the penal code, this also requires a constitutional amendment which necessitates at least two-thirds of the vote. Without the support of the opposition parties in parliament, the government cannot reach this number, and it is impossible to get such support from the opposition. For this reason, Bahçeli's call is only to change the agenda.

It should be noted that reinstating the death penalty would mean Turkey's withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights and giving up the dreams of the country's accession to the European Union. The outcomes would be further isolation and alienation of Turkey on the global scene and inevitable economic and political collapse.