(Nov. 3, 2020) During the first two weeks of October 2020, bar associations in Turkey initiated protests and legal action against the government over the cancellation of general assembly meetings and elections of provincial bar associations imposed as a preventive measure against COVID-19 spikes during the upcoming cold season.
The controversy had originated on October 1, 2020, when the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board of Turkey (CSAB) issued an advisory letter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, advising the ministry to take measures to prohibit and postpone all large public meetings of nongovernmental organizations, professional organizations with public institution status (e.g., bar associations), and other unions and cooperatives where physical distancing would be difficult to maintain. (Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board of Turkey, Letter No. 13588366/149/1604 of Oct. 1, 2020 (unpublished).)
Progression of the Dispute
On the basis of the CSAB’s advisory letter, the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued on October 2, 2020, a circular instructing the governorships of all provinces to order provincial and county-level public hygiene committees to prohibit the holding of all large public meetings until December 1, 2020. In the following days, provincial public hygiene committees around the country issued decisions ordering the postponement of such meetings until after December 1, 2020.
On the same day that the ministry issued its circular, the Supreme Election Council of Turkey (SEC), acting on a county election board’s request for an advisory opinion, issued a decision allowing political parties to convene their general assemblies but prohibiting provincial bar associations from convening their general assemblies and holding their elections. According to the Law on Attorneys (Law No. 1136), provincial bar associations must hold elections in the first week of October every two years. These elections must be supervised by a judge appointed by the county election board or by the SEC. (Law No. 1136, supplemental art. 3.)
Following the SEC’s decision, county election boards cancelled the scheduled bar association elections in their provinces, which led to 24 provincial bar associations filing objections with provincial election boards. When their objections were dismissed, these bar associations filed a joint objection to the SEC requesting it to rescind its decision, but this joint objection was likewise dismissed. Subsequently, several provincial bar associations filed complaints in provincial administrative courts requesting emergency injunctions to stop the enforcement of the sections in the provincial public hygiene committee decisions regarding the meetings of professional organizations on the grounds that the mandatory election dates stipulated in Law No. 1136 cannot be superseded by administrative orders.
It has been reported that several administrative courts have issued ex parte temporary injunctions pending answers from the administration, while some courts have declined to issue temporary injunctions. The largest bar association in Turkey, the Istanbul Bar Association (IBA), had scheduled its general assembly meeting and elections for October 10–11. On October 16, the IBA released a statement reporting that their request for an injunction had been rejected by the court, which gave the administration 10 days to respond to the suit. The statement noted that it had to postpone its general assembly meeting and elections under the circumstances because holding elections was not possible without judicial supervision. The Ankara Bar Association, the second largest bar association in the county, has reported that its request for an injunction was rejected outright by the Ankara 5. Administrative Court. The Izmir Bar Association (IzBA), the third largest, on succeeding in obtaining an ex parte temporary order from the Izmir 6. Administrative Court suspending the execution of the Izmir provincial public hygiene committee decision, decided to proceed with its plans to convene its general assembly and hold elections on October 17–18. However, on October 15, the IzBA released a statement reporting that the county election board had issued a final refusal of their request to hold elections despite the administrative court’s injunction, and called for its members to nevertheless gather for the general assembly meeting on October 17 in protest. On October 21, the IzBA announced that it was rescheduling its elections to take place on November 21–22.