All power to the president
Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to change the form of government, from a parliamentary republic to a presidential one. How will the people react?
- Monday, 27 February 2017
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the integrity and future of Turkey have never been so fragile. The country faces threats from terrorism, economic recession, a deterioration of state institutions and corroded democracy.
Turkey has historically been in the grip of a pernicious polarization between secularist republicans and religious conservatives, but social fault lines are deepening as Turkey is now on the verge of fundamental regime change.
At the time of writing in January, the Turkish parliament is voting on articles to change the constitution, with lawmakers coming to blows in the types of brawls which have not been seen in some time.
Having had a parliamentary regime for a century, Turkish nationals are preparing for a radical shake-up of the existing system. The articles would establish an executive presidential system, allowing president Tayyip Erdogan to tighten his grip on the country.
Under the current constitution, the president’s powers are mostly ceremonial, and he is legally prevented from maintaining ties to a political party. But Erdogan has been redefining his presidential mission. Since winning Turkey’s first-ever direct presidential election in 2014, he has been sinking his hooks into the government’s executive power.
It’s not a secret that Erdogan currently manages the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and that he has eliminated other high-profile co-founders of the party over time. Now the president is seeking legitimacy for his “de facto” presidential rule, which would require a constitutional change via a referendum.
Erdogan needs to obtain a parliamentary super-majority in order to call a referendum, and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chairman Devlet Bahceli is lending the president a hand.
The amendment would require 330 votes from the 550-seat assembly, and would have to be ratified in a national referendum which is expected to be held next April.
The AKP currently holds 317 seats, less than the number needed to put the changes to a popular vote. But the MHP, which has 40 seats in the assembly, can make up this shortfall.
Erdogan’s supporters argue that the new system will be a Turkish take on those of the US or France. But the “Turkish style” presidential system is a far cry from the constitutional checks and balances embedded in the American or French models.
The controversial constitutional amendment would reduce many of the legislature’s powers and strengthen Erdogan’s authority: all executive power currently belonging to the prime minister and the cabinet would be transferred to the president, who would have the authority to pass legislation by decree and return laws to the parliament for review.
If passed, the change would go into effect in 2019. It would allow Erdogan to appoint and terminate ministers and senior public officials as well as issue presidential decrees on issues related to executive power.
Opponents worry that the constitutional change would weaken the separation of powers and initiate a limitless expansion of executive authority.
They fear that the new presidential system would turn Turkey into a more authoritarian state, further erode its record on human rights and freedoms, and that a “one-man rule” would further undermine a democratic system which is already threatened by the ongoing crackdown on secularists, leftists and pro-Kurdish politicians.
Erdogan’s power reached a new zenith after Turkey was shaken by a failed military coup on 15 July. The US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose loyalists had permeated the pillars of the Turkish state for decades, is accused of having been behind the putsch.
The Turkish government declared a state of emergency and Erdogan issued several decree laws to purge those allegedly linked to Gulen movement. Tens of thousands of civil servants and officials have either been detained or removed from their posts, the government has taken over many businesses, more than 130 media outlets have been closed and 3% of all academics have lost their positions. None of these measures have been subject to judicial oversight.
The state of emergency has already been extended several times and Turkey is likely to decide the historical referendum under the post-putsch decrees.
Critics say that the focus of the current state of emergency measures has gone well beyond coup plotters and has resulted in large-scale crackdowns on government opponents.
Many opposition figures have also been detained, including Kurdish lawmakers, mayors of some majority-Kurdish southern provinces, leftist and secularist academics as well as journalists.
According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Turkey has imprisoned at least 81 journalists on anti-state charges, outstripping China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. More than 3,000 Turkish citizens have faced charges of insulting the president.
It is obviously a bad time to consult the people about a new constitution.
The Turkish leadership’s crackdown is not new, but it is part of an escalating trend, as Erdogan uses the failed coup as an alibi to purge opponents, arguing that the measures are intended to address the “terror threat”.
Social and political cleavages in Turkey have also been growing over deepening terrorism and security problems.
In the early hours of 1 January, a lone gunman stormed into the packed Reina nightclub and killed 39 people, wounding 69 others, as they were celebrating the New Year. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, describing Turkey as “the servant of the cross”, and suggesting that the attack was in retaliation for Turkish military offensives against IS in Syria and Iraq.
Whether from Islamist terrorists or separatist Kurdish militants, Turkey has been deeply shaken by terror attacks every few weeks, killing more than 430 people since June 2015.
Turkey launched a cross-border military campaign into Syria in August (Operation Euphrates Shield), which has effectively forced IS back from its southern border. The campaign has also prevented Syrian Kurds in Turkey, which Turkey considers to be an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from connecting with Kurdish cantons that are pursuing an autonomous territory in northern Syria.
Until the elections on 7 June 2015, the Turkish government had been at the table with PKK leaders, aiming to end the three-decade old insurgency in southern Turkey that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
But the elections resulted in a dramatic decrease in the seats of the ruling AKP. The historic success of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has renewed conflicts between the Turkish government and the PKK.
Following the vote, the AKP has tended toward nationalist policies. Meanwhile, aspiring to match the achievements of Syrian Kurds who have consolidated control over large portions of the country’s north, the PKK ended a fragile ceasefire by resuming violence in 2015.
The cumulative effect of these atrocities is not only a fearful and increasingly unstable country. It has also shaken an economy that is signaling recession in 2017.
Only a few years ago, Turkey was the fastest-growing economy in the G20. Now the years of plenty have gone, as risk indicators are rising over political uncertainty and the security threat. Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s cut Turkey’s sovereign credit rating to non-investment grade in 2016.
In addition to the flight of foreign capital, upon which the Turkish economy is heavily reliant, the Turkish lira hit record lows against US dollar in 2016. The slump of the lira accelerated in the fourth quarter of the year, following news of the potential political transformation of Turkey into a strong executive presidency. And the Turkish lira continued to tumble after the European Parliament called for freezing Turkey’s EU membership talks over deteriorating democracy in the candidate country.
Because Turkish voters are often driven by economic considerations, a prolonged period of economic insecurity is the key threat to the ruling party’s popularity. Erdogan is therefore pushing to bring the constitutional referendum to a popular vote as soon as possible.