I recently returned from Istanbul, traveling there so that I could get a read on the upcoming April 16 constitutional referendum that could change the foundations of Turkey’s political system. My first inclination is to describe this great city’s atmosphere simply as “tense.” Yet, this characterization seems too subjective. I’ll qualify it with some observations:
Since June 2015, there have been by one count at least 20 terrorist incidents in Turkey, the bulk occurring in Ankara, Istanbul, and Diyarbakir. They have involved bombings, assassinations, as well as one mass shooting.
In my meetings with business leaders, academics, journalists, and activists, not a single one was confident about an upward economic trend in the future. Even Turks of comparatively modest means are keeping their savings in accounts abroad or as hard currency in safety deposit boxes.
Equally telling is the dripping brain drain of Turkey’s leading academics, causing graduates of Turkey’s top high schools to seek their college education in foreign lands. As one professor explained, “It’s not enough to be neutral. You have to show your support [for the ruling AK Party].”
Unsurprisingly, the streets are rife with conspiracy theories. My favorite so far is a poorly worded television ad for a chocolate bar, whose April Fools’ Day intentions were promptly denounced as foreshadowing another possible coup attempt.
In sum, high anxiety rules the day.
Against this backdrop, Turks will go to the polls this coming Sunday to vote up-or-down a set of 18 proposed constitutional amendments that, if approved, would shift the Republic’s 94-year-old parliamentary system to a presidential one. Polls—as much as still reliable—indicate that the victorious side will win by a small margin. Regardless, the short-term consequences of a “yes” or a “no” result are likely limited; however, what a hyper-executive branch may entail for Turkey’s once-consolidating democracy is anything but encouraging.
The Proposed Amendments
Efforts at constitutional reform have been underway for the past few years, spurred onward by the shortcomings of the current version (borne of the 1982 coup d’état) and President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions. The proposed amendments include the following changes:
The president becomes both the head of state and government with powers to appoint and remove ministers and vice-presidents. The prime minister position would be abolished. Moreover, the president may remain as head of his related political party while in office (amended art. 104).
The president may call for renewed presidential elections, which under an amended constitution, would be held concurrently with parliamentary ones (amended art. 77 and 116).
The power of parliament to hold the government to account via ministerial oversight and scrutiny would be removed (amended art. 87).
The president would receive increased executive authority over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, whose function is to oversee the admission of judges and public prosecutors and to investigate alleged wrongdoings. Under the proposed changes, the president would, in effect, appoint almost one-half of its 13 members (amended art. 159).
These examples (and others unlisted) bode poorly for any purportedly democratic state. Taken as a whole, the above amendments grant the president the ability to determine his cabinet unfettered, dissolve parliament on the pretext of a needed presidential election, and stock the judiciary with a leadership whom the executive could arguably call upon to pursue perceived “enemies” within the court system. No wonder the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) issued in March its disapproving opinion of these amendments, as adopted by the Grand National Assembly.
“Yea” or “Nay,” More of the Same – For Now
Indeed, this amendment package is far reaching, the operative term being “far.” In multiple discussions with various Turkey hands here and abroad, no one with whom I spoke saw the amendments as bearing great significance on Turkey’s governance in the short term, i.e. between now and the next round of elections in 2019.
Regardless of the outcome, Turkey still will face a number of challenges domestically and internationally. No feasible economic strategy to chart the choppy waters ahead is forthcoming, only a continued rise in public debt. Regarding Syria, Ankara will find itself increasingly at the margins as presently beholden to Russia (e.g. negotiating table, tactical maneuverability, energy, and trade concerns) and with limited leverage in Washington beyond its continued use of Incirlik airbase for anti-ISIS sorties. And while a securely ensconced Erdoğan may moderate vis-à-vis the ongoing live war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), too great would be the risk of losing the nationalist bloc represented by fellow “yes” campaigners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Yet, a “no” outcome could have a certain immediate effect on the political scene; namely, certain damage and possibly an end to MHP leader Devlet Bahceli’s nearly 20-year reign as party leader. Bahceli tied his political fortune to Erdoğan’s hopeful “yes” vote as payback for Erdoğan rescuing him from an attempted MHP inner-party putsch last summer. Despite the party’s official support for the proposed package, deep splits within MHP rank-and-file reportedly remain. A failed “deal with the devil” would likely give Bahceli’s enemies just the ammunition needed to oust him. Consequently, a more moderate MHP free of indebtedness to Erdoğan would grant it a freer hand to deal, provided they can maintain the 10% needed to clear the electoral threshold to have seats in parliament.
Clashes with police during protests in Ankara in 2013. (Source: Mstyslav Chernov)
Unlike his newfound friend’s career, Erdoğan’s political career isn’t quite on the line. Turks are currently living under a de facto presidential system; a “yes” win would simply serve to secure powers now exercised through constitutional legitimization. More important to the president is his survival and that of his family. The corruption scandals that rocked Erdoğan’s inner circle in December 2013 exposed the president to an intolerable level of vulnerability. Taken in conjunction with rising public dissatisfaction towards Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule as witnessed in the Gezi Park protests that year and the ruling party’s poor showing in June 2015 parliamentary elections, Erdoğan concluded that a presidential system with him at the head—potentially until 2029 if “yes”—would ensure the necessary security for him and his agenda.
Accordingly, a “no” result will leave the presidential palace uneasy. Policy calculations increasingly will be made out of personal rather than national interests, the former to be witnessed in the field of electoral politics. Any potential window for negotiations to end the fighting with PKK will remain shuttered. The state will continue to persecute perceived enemies while ginning up new ones most likely in the West should the recent dust-up with the Dutch and Germans be any indicator. Substantive talk of greatly needed reforms for rule of law and economic growth will remain on the shelf.
“Yes” campaigners and proponents maintain that increased executive powers will afford greater predictability and thus stability for Turkey’s future. This stance’s basic argument is as follows: the current president, feeling empowered and so emboldened, will probably act with the nation’s concerns ahead of his own. Hardly a winning argument for a presidency designed to predominate the citizens’ judiciary and legislature.
Once enacted, it is difficult to see when and from where an attempted rollback of executive authority will arise. Given the proposed simultaneity of parliamentary and presidential elections, there is a greater likelihood that both institutions will represent the same party, sapping the political will to diminish executive powers. The future impact on the judiciary is also worrying. To equitably and effectively adjudicate, a judge needs years of education and experience at the bench. As a well poisoned with politics, the judiciary cannot be replenished overnight, thereby inhibiting any potential reforms facing staunch political opposition.
Most worrying are the social repercussions of this concentration of power in a single person. Erdoğan’s and the AK Party’s eventual demise won’t leave Turkish society any less divided than it is now, which some argue is more so than ever before. In this atmosphere of distrust and fear, where identity supplants genuine political discourse, personalities tend to prevail over institutional integrity—hardly an environment for hopes of lasting democratic reform.