President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday sharply criticised Turkish lawyers who boycotted a judicial ceremony on the grounds of his presidential palace, saying their method of electing bar association members should be changed.
Last month, at least 19 bar associations representing a vast majority of lawyers across Turkey, including in the three largest cities, said they would boycott the annual opening ceremony of the judicial year because it would be held on the premises of the presidential palace.
Many of the bar associations said holding the ceremony in a location linked to the presidency signals a lack of separation of powers and the erosion of judicial independence in Turkey.
Speaking at the ceremony on Monday, Erdogan said Turkey’s new all-powerful executive presidential system, approved in a referendum last year, did not affect the separation of powers and added that the presidential palace was the people’s home.
“Many of the accusations directed at the president, who is also the head of the executive branch, about the separation of powers under the new system are baseless,” Erdogan said.
“This venue does not belong to me. As I have always said, this venue is the home of the people and all state institutions have the right to easily use it.”
Erdogan added, “I congratulate the chairmen of our Court of Cassation and Turkish Bar’s Association (TBB) on behalf of my people for the strong and democratic stance they showed against this bigoted and provocative imposition.”
Erdogan also said on Monday that the election methods of bar associations were not “in line with representative democracy” and that this was an issue his government would tackle.
TBB Chairman Metin Feyzioglu, previously an outspoken critic of Erdogan and his governments, has come under fire for recently shifting position and appearing closer to the president. He was at Monday’s ceremony for the first time in five years.
“For us, if the question is our nation, the rest is not important. That is why we are here today,” Feyzigolu said in a speech. “We are here today because our citizens have an expectation from us.”
Turkey’s judicial independence has been hotly debated in recent years, especially since a crackdown on the judiciary and other state bodies after the abortive July 2016 coup and the country’s switch to an executive presidency in June last year.
Critics say the courts are under pressure from Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party. The government has repeatedly said the judiciary is independent and makes its own decisions.
“We didn’t attend the opening ceremony held at the palace today because it is as important to us that the judiciary looks independent as much as its actual independence,” Erinc Sagkan, head of the capital Ankara’s bar association, told Reuters.
“An opening ceremony that is held under the domination, the pressure, the roof of the executive powers will bring irreparable damage to the independence of the judiciary.”