The Turkish government has presented plans to parliament that, if approved, would change the constitution and see the country adopt a presidential system, expanding Erdogan’s powers. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.
The government claims that under the new constitution a presidential system will avoid potential conflict between the president and prime minister, produce a better environment for economic development, and is more suited to Turkey’s culture and history.
The draft constitutional changes were agreed earlier this month by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the right-wing nationalist movement party (MHP).
To pass into law, the 12-article amendment will now need to be passed by a two-thirds majority in parliament and then ratified in a national referendum. According to the AKP’s constitutional commission chairman, Mustafa Şentop, the draft is likely to pass parliament and the referendumcould be held next April. A senior government official contacted by DW said that Turkey had experienced a lot of problems in the past due to weak coalition governments. “The average coalition government survived for 15 months and people from across the political spectrum believe that the country needs a mechanism that will produce a united executive,” he told DW.
However, some are skeptical of the government’s motives.
“The whole thing will have enormous effects, it’s not just change to the system, it’s a total change to the whole national regime,” said one Turkish judge, a former justice of the European Court of Human Rights and former member of Turkey’s constitutional committee.
“The purpose of this appears to be simply to give more powers to the president. But we already have enough power concentration in the hands of one man as it is. What Turkish democracy needs is for power to be shared more widely, not more concentration of power.”
Under the current rules, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is legally prevented from maintaining ties to a political party such as the AKP although opponents claim these rules have been flaunted for years.
“It’s clear that the current president will also become chairman of the ruling party and with that he will be able to control the parliament, because the majority party will be the chairman of that majority too,” the judge, who wished to remain anonymous, told DW.
“The whole idea of a parliamentary system is to curb the powers of a president so as not to lead to authoritarianism and dictatorship. But under these plans, the president will be able to directly control the judges and the legislative branch.”
The judge also claimed that contrary to the government’s claims, the history of Turkish democracy has been based on a parliamentary system that goes back to 1876.
“We do need a new constitution because the current one is a post-coup constitution from the 1980s, it is designed to protect the state against the people and of course that should be the other way around,” he said. “But this is not how you write a new constitution. You need a democratic method for writing it: wide consultation with all segments of society.”
Greater presidential powers
Turkey is currently ruled under a state of emergency laws instituted following a failed military coup in July that has resulted in large scale crackdowns on government opponents – a bad time, critics say, for democratic consultations on a new constitution.
“What I don’t understand is why we are going through this process while there is a state of emergency in place, is it really necessary to do this right now when we can’t all follow the process?” said Zeynep Deniz, a civil servant working in Istanbul.
“It seems like we are going through a period where political power is becoming personified in the president, and this is creating more and more polarization between government supporters and opponents,” she told DW.
According to Karabekir Akkoyunlu, assistant professor at the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, the new plans may allow Erdogan to extend his period in office well beyond the current term limit.
“The draft plan calls for an election in 2019. Since this would be a constitutional change, Erdogan can start afresh under the new system, and run as if it’s the first time. Then he can stand for re-election in 2024, meaning he can stay in power until 2029 without having the bend the rules,” Akkoyunlu told DW.
“The new powers would effectively complete Turkey’s regime change; its transition into a super-executive presidential system.”
A new Turkey?
Akkoyunlu argues that until now Erdogan has been relying on his charisma, the AKP’s parliamentary majority, and the state of emergency to govern the country, however under the existing rules he could theoretically be taken to court for violating the constitution due to his close relationship with AKP.
“This is partly why he is suppressing all potential challengers to his authority within politics and the state bureaucracy, while simultaneously pushing to change the constitution; so that the new system is established before he can be brought down and tried,” Akkoyunulu said.
In his view, the plans for a new constitution are yet another stage in the AKP’s attempt to forge a new Turkey in a symbolic break from the secular military order imposed by the governments of the pre-AKP days.
“Driven by a personality cult, the new regime is illiberal, majoritarian, anti-western, nationalist and Islamist in character; at least that’s how it’s meant to be. Ironically, despite its historical opposition of the secular ‘old Turkey,’ the consolidation of the ‘new Turkey’ also uses a lot of the same top-down methods of its nemesis.”