Turkey at polls; will decide very nature of governmental system

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16 in what both the ruling party and the opposition describe as the most important vote in the country’s history, with the nation to decide on whether or not to change the very nature of its governmental system.

On April 16, Turkish voters will be asked whether or not they approve a series of amendments to the current constitution, changing the country from a parliamentary system of government to one with an executive presidency, consolidating much of the state’s authority in the hands of the head of state.

For many across all hues of Turkey’s political spectrum the referendum is about one man, rather than a system of government: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the driving force behind the movement to overhaul the constitution.

Campaigning in the lead-up to the referendum has widened already-yawning gaps between supporters of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the fractured coalition
of opponents that stand against the amendments, including secularists, the main Kurdish political bloc, labor and rights groups.

Core issues

Central to the reforms being put to the vote is the creation of an executive presidency, turning what was envisaged as a largely ceremonial role into the peak position within government. If the Yes vote prevails, the president will be empowered to name a cabinet not drawn from the elected parliament, have sole authority for setting policy and be able to rule by decree, not needing any parliamentary approval for legislative actions or ministerial appointments.

The president will also be allowed to be a member of a political party, rather than an – at least nominally – an apolitical figure, as at present. He or she will have increased powers to directly appoint senior officers of the judiciary and will only be subject to a very narrow criminal liability, with legal actions dependant on a vote in favor by two-thirds of the deputies by the parliament, a legislature that will be expanded from 550 seats to 600 under another amendment.

In its reduced role, the Turkish parliament will be stripped of most of its authority. The position of prime minister will be abolished, counterbalanced by the creation of two vice-presidential posts, to be appointed by the president. Along with no longer having ministers appointed from its elected ranks, the parliament will also lose its right of interpellation, i.e., being able to pose questions to the government or president over issues of policy.

The reforms were approved by a vote of parliament in late January, with the support of the far-right opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The backing of the party’s 40 deputies was essential to give the government the 330 votes necessary to ratify the amendments and send them to a referendum, though not enough to clear the two-thirds majority to pass the changes without requiring a plebiscite.

Another factor that has raised concerns of critics is that, while the president is limited to two terms, the first of these does not take effect until after the next scheduled election, not due until 2019. This would allow Erdoğan to remain in office until 2029, when he will be 75, and mean he will have held the reins of power in Turkey – first as prime
minister and then as head of state – since 2003.

Tense times

The vote comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is cooling, with unemployment and inflation both creeping above ten percent, the local currency having depreciated by a similar rate against the dollar, while growth has slowed, dipping into negative territory in the third quarter of 2016 and falling well below government projections for last year.

The AKP has argued, with no small degree of justification, that a rise in terrorist activity by both the Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and ISIL, combined with the failed coup attempt last July, were responsible for the headwinds blowing across the economy.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has said the shift to one-man rule will end contradictions in the Turkish governmental system, ending potential conflict between the role of the president and the parliament. This would allow for a faster and smoother implementation of policy and see an end to terrorist activity in Turkey, Yıldırım told rallies up and down the country.

Opponents, such as Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), say that this streamlining of government will remove parliamentary oversight from government, while the president having the right to appoint senior judges could undermine legal impartiality. The CHP leader has also questioned government claims that the new system will bring security and economic prosperity.

“They have been ruling for 15 years. What has kept them from ending terror?” Kılıçdaroğlu said while campaigning. “One party for 15 years. There is a majority in parliament, all ministers belong to them, laws are issued, they get the decisions they want. What is the regime’s relation to not ensuring stability in
the economy?”

An added cause of tension heading toward the polls is the gaoling of 13 of the 59 deputies of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the two co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish bloc, the third-largest in the parliament. Most of those imprisoned have been charges with supporting terrorism, though a number also face charges of insulting President Erdoğan.

While no verdicts are expected before the referendum, the indictments do mean that the HDP – which is strongly opposed to the reforms – has been stripped of many of its most powerful campaigners, nullifying an advocate for the No vote.

A check on balances?

The referendum fundamentally comes down to a choice of whether to make the regime more democratic or have the power concentrated in the hands of one man, says professor of political science Doğu Ergil, though for many Turks the issue is complicated by society’s longing for strong leadership.

“They say if power is concentrated and checks and balances are limited, then an extraordinary man would solve the problems of Turkey and everything will be fine,” he told TRENDS.

“Everything hinges on the popularity of the president and his charisma, which suggests that he is able to do anything, that he is able to improve the deteriorating conditions and that he would at least make Turkey the leader of this part of the world,” said Ergil.

People are voting for this hope rather than that institutions will deliver a better Turkey, he said, with the premise of the referendum being that things will be better if a strong presidency is created.

According to Murat Somer, an associate profession of political sciences at Koç University, the move toward a consolidation of central power is not unique to Turkey. There is a tendency towards stronger presidencies with weak checks and balances in many parts of the world, he told TRENDS.

What does make it unique is that this tendency is something new to modern Turkey, not based on past experiences, meaning society could be entering uncharted waters, he added.

“It will create some kind of super presidential center of power that has never actually existed in Turkey before and it is very unclear how this strong instrument of power will be checked and balanced, and how this power will be exercised,” said Somer.

Also unclear is how Turkish voters, civil society, the judiciary and other political institutions will relate to this strong presidency, which may end up directly impacting the democratic rights and powers that have evolved since Ottoman times, he explained.

Snap chat

Even if the Yes campaign does not win at the ballot box, President Erdoğan could still find an alternative route to the executive presidency that he seeks. There have also been suggestions that if the proposition is indeed voted down, the government could call a snap election, well ahead of the 2019 due date, in order to seek an expanded mandate to push the constitutional amendments through parliament.

However, under the current electoral laws, a party must gain at least ten percent of the national vote before it is allowed to take up seats in the parliament. Falling short of the ten percent threshold, the votes of a party are distributed proportionally to parties that have passed the barrier.

According to opinion poll that was taken in the lead-up to the referendum, both the pro-Kurdish HDP and the far-right MHP would fail to pass the threshold. In the 2002 general election, despite garnering only 34 percent of the vote, the AKP gained 363 seats in the parliament, just short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, as the only other party to pass the threshold was the CHP.

With the AKP’s support far higher than it was 15 years ago, having won 49 percent of the vote in the November 2015 general election, a potential two-horse race could see the ruling party vault clear of the 367-seat barrier.

Cross-country rally

Some of the most heated exchanges during the campaign, however, were not between proponents and opponents of the Yes vote, but between officials of the Turkish and German governments.

A number of towns across Germany blocked AKP ministers from holding rallies seeking to woo the 1.4 million Turkish voters in that country, prompting Ankara to accuse Berlin of interfering in the referendum and of blocking free speech.

The heat of the argument was turned up a notch when President Erdoğan weighed in, saying the actions of present day German authorities were the same as those of the Nazis.

The bans were seen as targeting the AKP, which has strong support among the Turkish expatriate community in Europe and has campaigned actively across the continent in the lead up to previous elections.

Allegations of Euro-bias gained credence, with no effort was made to block a senior CHP parliamentary deputy from holding a rally in Germany, though the party itself cancelled the event.

It is not just Germany that has incurred the AKP’s ire, with Austria and the Netherlands also moving to block referendum campaigning by Turkish politicians, both countries citing security concerns and fears of importing social tensions.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is likely that ties between the
EU – which has criticized the constitutional reform package for narrowing rather than expanding democratic and European principles – and Germany in particular will be strained following
the vote.

And the winner is…

Ahead of the April 16 ballot, surveys found little difference between the Yes and No vote, with just a few percentage points the gap, any advantage swinging to the pro-change camp, but the gap is still within the margin of error.

While the result may be too close to call, the fallout from the referendum may be easier to predict: Turkish society is likely to be as deeply divided after the vote as before it, while the distance between Turkey and Europe may become even greater than ever.