On 16 April, Turkish voters will decide whether they want to significantly expand the powers of the president, among other constitutional changes. The referendum will turn Turkey into a presidential republic, allowing the president to issue decrees, dismiss parliament, and appoint judges and ministers. The office of the prime minister would be abolished, and executive power would rest completely under the president.
Since its development in 1923 as a parliamentary republic, Turkey has vested its executive powers in the prime minister and his council of ministers, who are indirectly elected by parliament. The president has largely maintained a ceremonial role as head of state, and has remained unaffiliated to a political party while in office. The contract has largely held, with a strong institutional commitment to secularism. However, the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002 marked the beginning of a political dominance that has not wavered since. After founding the AK Party a year earlier, Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2002, a post he held until 2014. In 2014, he assumed the presidency, a hitherto ceremonial role, in the country’s first direct elections for head of state. He has remained Turkey’s most dominant political figure, and has perhaps increased his hold on power since a failed military coup against him in July 2016.
After this sustained period of political dominance, President Erdogan proposed the sweeping constitutional changes on the ballot for this April. If the referendum passes, he may hold on to power until 2029. The bill to approve the referendum in parliament itself speaks of the authoritative role Erdogan has already acquired in Turkey. As the AK Party fell short of the required 330 votes to pass a referendum in parliament, the party sought votes from the MHP, a small, far-right party. It has been reported that the party’s MPs were intimidated by tactics such as man-to-man marking and videoing the voting booths, in order to ‘flush out rebels.’ Indeed, the country’s authoritative tilt took a serious turn following the failed coup against Erdogan last year. Since then, the president has reportedly jailed and dismissed thousands of judges, police officers, military officials, and even journalists and academics. The country’s judicial independence has fallen and it now ranks 151 out of 180 in Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders.
It is why some of the referendum’s propositions are particularly troubling, one of which includes abolishing the power of parliament to scrutinise the executive. It will take away the ability of parliament to begin inquiries against the actions of ministers. The president will also have the power to dismiss parliament. Many successful democracies practice a presidential form of government. The checks and balances that form many of these democracies are missing in the referendum. The president does not need the approval of parliament to appoint a cabinet, and can appoint most of the judges to the nation’s highest court. The legislature retains the ability to impeach a president, but the technical requirements make it harder than it currently is.
Looking past the terms of the proposal, it is the circumstances that led to the referendum in Turkey that have raised eyebrows around the world. The political climate remains unstable, not just because of the attempted coup, but also due to increased terrorist attacks and the war against ISIS. The country remains in a state of emergency, and so opposition to the referendum is being thwarted. The leading opposition parties to the plan are the centre-left CHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP, both of whom have party leaders and MPs in prison. The government has argued the HDP is linked to Kurdish terrorists, and has equated support for the party to support for terrorists. Police recently attacked a group campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, while media outlets are stifling out those who have said that they will vote no.
It is worth noting that President Erdogan remains a popular figure. While considered divisive for deviating the country from its strong traditions of secularism, Erdogan is willing to bet that at least half the country’s voters will sign off on his proposed changes. As Prime Minister, Erdogan was responsible for a decade of economic stability, with growth averaging 4.5 per cent and inflation kept under control. The government argues that the new presidential system will streamline decision making against the internal and external security problems it now faces, and will not be hampered by the wide coalitions that have kept power in recent years. Indeed, Ahmet Kasim Han, a political scientist at Kadir Has University has explained, ‘It doesn’t look as bad as the opposition paints it and it’s definitely not as benevolent as the government depicts it. The real weakness is that in its hurry to pass the reform, the government hasn’t really explained the 2,000 laws that would change.’
Opinion polls indicate that the outcome of the referendum will be close. Interestingly, groups that are ideologically opposed and work at odds, such as Kurds, nationalists, and secularists, are collaborating on the grassroots level to defeat the referendum. The proposals on the ballot in April are the most sweeping reforms to Turkey’s political system since 1923. It is reasonable for a parliamentary republic to consider changes to its system, and vice versa. However, given the political climate in Turkey, with a leader having shown his tendencies to hold on to power and suppress opposition, it will be better for Turkish democracy to reject the changes on 17 April.