It was certainly a memorable dinner on the night of May 5, 2009, at the Swiss Hotel in Ankara where Turkey’s newly appointed foreign policy chief Ahmet Davutoğlu made his first appearance in an international gathering after taking the oath in Parliament only a couple of hours earlier. Participants at the dinner were Turkish, Pakistani and Afghan parliamentarians who all came together during the day to talk about common issues as part of the trilateral dialogue Turkey had been pushing to resolve some of the outstanding problems between the two brotherly nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Davutoğlu was not the lawmaker at the time, and in fact he was the only member of the Cabinet who was appointed on May 1, 2009, from outside of Parliament by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He visited the legislative body only after last year’s elections. I was invited to this friendship dinner by Murat Mercan, then head of Parliament’s Foreign Relations Commission, who was the host of the gathering. While we were waiting for the guests to arrive, Mercan was telling me how he had convinced Davutoğlu to rush to the dinner within hours of taking the oath in Parliament. As expected, Davutoğlu arrived for the dinner attended by prominent lawmakers like Asfandyar Wali Khan, chairman of the Pakistani parliament’s Foreign Relations Commission, and Mohammad Shaker Kargar, vice chairman of the Afghan parliament’s International Relations Commission.
I remember Davutoğlu’s speech at the dinner as if it were yesterday. He was talking about how important it was to involve legislative bodies in making dialogue among countries actually work. Trilateral dialogue can only be implemented and accepted if parliamentarians put their heart into it, he asserted, adding that Turkey attaches great importance to stability in the region. He touted the idea that the trilateral dialogue process is the backbone of Turkey’s diversified foreign policy in Southeast Asia. He even went as far as claiming that the process is a model of cooperation in solving problems on a regional basis as well as on a global scale.
It was certainly encouraging to witness how much importance Davutoğlu attached to Parliament on his first day on the job. Yet, as he celebrated his three-year anniversary as the foreign minister of Turkey last week, the lackluster track record of his ministry’s relationship with Parliament during that time certainly deserves criticism. The poor performance of Davutoğlu on parliamentary questions posed by members of Parliament from the opposition parties both in the current 24th term as well as in the 23rd term is clear evidence that he and his staff do not pay much attention to what is going on in Parliament.
On April 25, Deputy Parliament Speaker Mehmet Sağlam released statistics on how many questions remain unanswered or were responded to very late by Davutoğlu. The constitution in Article 98 grants Parliament oversight powers using questions, parliamentary inquiries, general debates and motions of censure. According to Article 99 of the parliamentary bylaws, written parliamentary questions must be answered by the government within 15 days of submission to the Parliament Speaker’s Office. If it is not answered within that time, the speaker has to send a notice to the minister, reminding him/her of the responsibility to provide a response to queries. If the minister still fails to reply, he/she is exposed in the registry published by the Speaker’s Office.
According to the exposé provided by Sağlam, Davutoğlu has received 97 written questions from members of Parliament from the start of the 24th term of Parliament on June 12, 2011, until April 19, 2012. He never answered 37 of them, while sending a late response for 26 questions. As such, he failed to respond to 38 percent of all questions posed by deputies. In the 23rd term, which covered the period from June 2007 to April 2011 during which time Ali Babacan was the foreign minister until May 2009, the Foreign Ministry did not respond to 16 percent of all questions filed by deputies, while responding late to 51 percent of all questions. Percentagewise, Davutoğlu more than doubled the number of unanswered questions in the current 24th term in comparison to the previous term. Considering that 28 percent of all parliamentary questions remain unanswered in the current legislative session, Davutoğlu’s 38 percent record is way over that average. This does not good look for him.
The fact that members of Parliament may raise questions about any aspect of administrative activity, including the Foreign Ministry, is an important tool for ensuring accountability and good governance as well as transparency in government. Questions are one of the many ways Parliament can hold the executive branch accountable. The high percentage of questions that remain unanswered by Davutoğlu has certainly dealt a blow to these principles, exposing the foreign policy to questions of legitimacy. If anybody should know better, it has to be Davutoğlu himself, an academic-turned-diplomat and politician.
Opposition parties have been questioning for some time now not only the number of questions that remain unanswered or were responded to late but also the quality of content in responses the government provided to these questions. They say the government is evasive in some responses. For example, Republican People’s Party (CHP) member Atilla Kart, incidentally a deputy representing the same province as Davutoğlu, said: “Some answers given to our parliamentary questions lack seriousness. I do not want to be unfair to ministers who take the parliamentary questions very seriously, but some ministers answer the questions carelessly, as if they just want to satisfy their egos by acting arrogantly and giving irrelevant answers. I can provide many examples of this.” He is asking the parliament speaker to take the initiative in order to ensure the proper functioning of Parliament.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group deputy chairman Mehmet Şandır told our reporter that although they appreciate that some ministers have given comprehensive answers to parliamentary questions, most others were non-serious in their approach toward the question motions, which reduces the quality of lawmaking in Parliament. The lack of responsiveness by the government even prompted Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek to send a letter of complaint to Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ on Jan. 1, 2012, asking him to instruct ministers to pay due attention to parliamentary questions.
Foreign ministers in Turkey have been mostly uncontroversial figures, receiving respect from all sides in Parliament, simply because foreign policy issues were traditionally bipartisan matters that were supported by almost all parties represented in Parliament. When tested with emerging challenges in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, be it Syria, Iraq or Iran, Davutoğlu’s proactive diplomacy and diversified agenda have recently met with quite a bit of criticism from the floor. That can be seen when Davutoğlu makes a rare appearance in Parliament, trying to deliver a speech amid loud shouting and too many interruptions. As he has numerous urgent issues on the table he has to attend to, Davutoğlu simply does not need such a low record hanging over his head. He has to remind his staff of how important it is to respond to queries from deputies who represent the Turkish people.