Commissions and branches

The system of a division into five branches (§ubes) of Ottoman times seems to have been all but abandoned in 1920: deputies were no longer recorded as members of certain branches in roll calls. In 1920, one deputy suggested that branch meetings were impossible due to an insufficient number of rooms in the new parliament building in Ankara.148 However, in 1923, the purely administrative task of checking electoral credentials of new deputies was clearly performed by five branches.149

The TBMM also deviated from the nizamname in initially having only 11, rather than 15, commissions. According to art. 12 of the nizamname, the 15 permanent commissions of 15 members each were to deal with (1) petitions, (2) forests, mining, and agriculture, (3) land registry and immovable property, (4) postal and telegraph services, trade and industry, taxes and customs, (5) foreign affairs, (6) domestic affairs, (7) public health, (8) justice, (9) military affairs, (10) religious affairs and pious endowments, (11) financial law, (12) bills, (13) education, (14) budget law, and (15) public works.150

The TBMM initially had only 11 commissions, whose members were not elected (another violation of the rules) but (according to îhsan Ezherli) simply decided by themselves which commission they wanted to join.151 The TBMM (at least in this first period) lacked commissions dealing with petitions and with budget law. Some other tasks were now named differently (such as “national defense commission” instead of “military commission”). Some commissions had as few as 5, others as many as 25 members. A commission tasked with drawing up a constitution was soon added,152 and a commission for petitions seems to have been formed again by 1927.153 According to the 1914 nizamname, all deputies had the right to attend all commission (and branch) meetings, and to ask for the documents considered there.154 The nizamname of 1927 changed this rule by stipulating that particular ministers or one-third of the commission members could ask for closed (so-called “secret”) meetings.155 According to a specification added in 1947, “secret” meant that any information shared there was supposed to remain secret.156

A case in point: the declaration of the Republic in October 1923

An interesting case in point against which to compare practice to the rules is the October 1923 change of the Basic Law {Te§kilat-i Esasiye Kanunu) that officially changed the form of state to a republic. This may seem a minor change at first sight: after all, the Sultanate had already been abolished in November 1922, and the civil authorities of Istanbul had accepted Ankara’s rule in early 1923. That said, Turkey had been a monarchy for at least 400 years, and the Sultan still acted as the Caliph of Islam, not least because loyalty to him continued to be an important pillar of governance in the country. The word “republic” had never been a part of nationalist propaganda during the War of Independence, which many people had joined simply to get rid of Allied occupation (and their returned former Christian neighbors). It therefore does not come as a surprise that an interview in late September 1923, in which Mustafa Kemal casually mentioned that the time had come to call the state what it was anyway - a republic - caused serious opposition in the TBMM. We know from newspaper reports that many deputies opposed not so much the idea of a republic itself but that of creating the office of a state President whose holder would be able to act much more independently from parliament than he previously had as President of the TBMM - one is tempted to say: his powers would be reminiscent of those of the Sultans.157 The issue, in other words, was that a division of powers was proposed to the parliament that was holding them alone and was unwilling to share them.

Mustafa Kemal, whom we must call the de facto, if not de jure President of the nascent state, tasked an expert commission that was comprised of several ministers, the parliamentary commission for the Constitution, and several hand-picked experts to work out the relevant changes to the constitutional text. He did this without even consulting the TBMM. The special commission met in the Ankara train station, a point that an oppositional newspaper satirized like this:

As far as we know, republics are born not in train stations, but in national assemblies. The only thing that emerges from train stations are - trains. But gentlemen like Agaoglu Ahmet and Ziya Gbkalp [two of the experts, who were not deputies] have quite some self-confidence. As far as they are concerned, it is the easiest thing for a train station to produce a republic or a constitution, and for a national assembly to produce an express train.158

We know from contemporary newspapers that the proposed changes were also discussed in several meetings of the Party group in parliament (which, given that almost all deputies were Party members, was almost identical with the General Assembly). According to the newspaper reports, many deputies strongly opposed the bill in those meetings, and were adamant at refusing to grant constitutional rights to the President that were quite similar to those previously enjoyed by the Ottoman Sultan. We do not know much more about those meetings, but it is likely that some changes were made in order to appease parliamentary opposition within the Party. Apparently, opposition was so strong as to suggest that a majority would not be found. At this point, Mustafa Kemal saw to it that the government resigned.

He basically blackmailed the assembly by only letting them have a competent government if they first approved of the republic.159

The bill was brought to the General Assembly on October 29, 1923, as an “urgent” bill, meaning that only one consideration was enough and that the text did not have to be circulated several days before consideration. (This was in conformity with the rales.) The bill included some very serious changes, including the stipulation in art. 12 that the Prime Minister (who was to be named by the President) could form governments even when the parliament did not sit, and have the government approved by the parliament later. Yunus Nadi, the chairman of the constitutional committee, rather lamely explained that this "not sitting” merely referred to holidays and other short periods of time.1601 think that this point must have raised red flags, as it was reminiscent of Sultan Abdülhamit’s “temporary” dissolution of the parliament in 1878, which had actually lasted 30 years.

The deputies, however, did not raise this point. Apart from one lone deputy who suggested that the presidential election be left to the next assembly, the law was voted through, first paragraph by paragraph, and then as a whole (this again was in accordance with the rales). What is intriguing, however, is that neither the number of deputies present nor their votes were recorded in the minutes (as was usually done). According to §105 of the nizamname of 1914, constitutional changes had to be supported by at least two-thirds of all deputies (including absent ones) for the change to be valid. (The rales passed in 1927 are even clearer on this point: one-third of all deputies had to declare their willingness to change the Constitution in writing, and the Constitution could only be changed by a two-thirds majority.)161 It is possible that ísmet (Eker), who was chairing the session as second vice president, refrained from performing a roll call because he knew that the quorum would not be met. Nobody mentioned the two-thirds majority requirement. The law was simply voted on openly, by raising hands. The minutes of this session, however, never mention any numbers, merely stating that the “bill was accepted unanimously” (milttefikan kabul edilmiftir efendim))62

How many deputies voted for the republic? The total number of deputies elected to the second assembly in 1923 was 325, so a two-thirds majority would have required 216 or 217 votes.163 Judging from the minutes of other sessions around that time, during which votes were counted, it is highly unlikely that even 200 deputies bothered to show up. For instance, Mustafa Kemal was elected chamber President on August 13, 1923, with 196 of 197 votes cast.164 His election as President of the Republic on October 30,1923 (the day after the suspicious decision concerning the republic) was accomplished unanimously with only 159 votes.165 These numbers, together with the suspicious non-counting of votes on October 29, 1923, strongly suggest that the decision to turn the Ottoman state into a republic was taken in violation of both the Ottoman Constitution and the TBMM’s internal rales.

For a historian of early Republican Turkey, it is not particularly surprising to discover that one of the most important constitutional changes in that country’s history was voted on in a fashion that was technically illegal. People lived in revolutionary times, and they were not only aware of it, but said so. Mustafa Kemal Pasa said more than once that “the revolution’s law is superior to preexisting legislation.”166 To be sure, the establishment of the TBMM and of a government in Ankara in themselves violated the Constitution, and many of the laws issued between 1920 and 1923 - such as the one abolishing the Sultanate, issued in late 1922 - had revolutionary character. One may well say that that Ottoman Constitution was merely an empty shell by 1923, when the republic was declared.

The issue at hand, however, was different in the case of the 1923 vote because what was at stake here was not legality, but legitimacy. At least in their own perception, the deputies in the TBMM had started off with very little of the former and much of the latter - but they were rapidly losing their legitimacy by 1923, when the Independence War had been won and the common enemy had been crashed. If the constitutional change of 1923 was indeed made by a chamber that did not meet the quorum, this happened not because the deputies wanted a republic but because they did not: it was a decision taken by a parliament against itself. The lack of a counting of votes strongly suggests that not only the Ottoman Constitution but also parliamentary freedom, and thus the internal regulation, were an empty shell, too: maintaining its tremendous power only on paper, the parliament had been hijacked by its own government, whose decision it could merely sanction, but no longer challenge in any meaningful way. In this, the TBMM had started to resemble the wartime MM under CUP rale. Now, however, it was not the government that broke the rales, but the parliament itself.

The longue durée approach followed here suggests that, in authoritarian states such as inter-war Turkey, there is a direct relationship between the constitutional rights of an assembly and the level of violence and threats used against its members. The Ottoman Empire, and later Turkey, remained first an autocratic and then an authoritarian state throughout the period studied here. During this time, however, the Chamber of Deputies saw an increase in its constitutional powers, such as that to draft and pass laws by itself and pass them on directly to the Sultan (according to the 1909 constitutional amendment). This competence was even further bolstered when the BMM started to operate without the Sultan, the Senate, and the State Council. It is striking that the two earlier Ottoman Chambers of Deputies were rather pedestrian institutions that usually played by their own rales, confining themselves to criticizing governments and holding debates about important issues. This, I argue, is due to their relative insignificance compared to the other constitutional institutions, which broke the rales quite frequently. Once parliamentary power increased, however, there was a surge in violence used against deputies, in electoral fraud, and eventually, in rale violations by parliament itself. This, I argue, was due not to the increase in powers as such but to the relationship between de jure and de facto powers of parliament and the importance of parliamentarism for the political legitimization of the emerging one-party regime in Turkey.

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