Meet the New Boss – Same as the Old Boss: Still Unchained in Ankara

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.
  • Not unrelated, a recent poll of 14,000 women indicated that 72% feel that the streets are not safe.
  • 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.

Beyond 2019

“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.

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Turkey’s Greater Unknowns

On July 15 at approximately 10 PM, an attempted coup d’etat was staged by elements of Turkey’s military. Parliament and the presidential palace were bombed. An assassination attempt was made on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tanks took to streets, seizing the Bosphorus Bridge, now renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in memory of the 230 Turks who died that night. Surviving the attack, Erdogan implored people to take to streets in response. Of the deceased, 145 were people protesting the attempt.

A 90-day state of emergency has been declared, giving the state sweeping powers in its pursuit of those allegedly complicit in the action. To date, approximately 60,000 soldiers, police officers, teachers, and civil servants have been suspended, detained, or placed under investigation. 6,000 arrested in a sweep anti-Gulen dragnet. 2,431 schools, unions, charities, and health care centers have been closed. Thirty-five percent (124 of 358) of Turkey’s generals and admirals are under arrest. Forty-two journalists were indicted. Gulen-related businesses are being shuttered. The government suspended the European Human Rights Convention. There are calls to reintroduce the death penalty.

The military and other state institutions have been significantly weakened and are now vulnerable. This is happening while jihadists kill scores of Turkish civilians, outright war is being fought against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents in the southeast, and the Turkish military is nominally engaged in the coalition against ISIS.

What is the likelihood of Fetullah Gulen’s extradition?

Fetullah Gulen is the clerical leader of the global Hizmet. A murky Islamic-social-educational movement comprised of various service-based organizations, its unifying theme is interfaith and cultural dialogue.  Gulen provides spiritual and executive direction from his Pennsylvania estate, where he has lived in exile since 1999. While Gulen was an erstwhile ally of the ruling AK Party (AKP), Erdogan is at present placing all blame for the attempted coup on Gulen and his followers and has asked the US to extradite him to Turkey.

The US and Turkey have had an extradition treaty since 1979. Officials at the Department of Justice are responding to Turkey’s extradition request. The Turkish state will have to bear the burden of proof, which includes an arrest warrant, statement of facts, and evidence that the offense is prosecutable in the US, although it occurred in Turkey. In sum, it is possible.

Current and past efforts to evidence crimes against the state were a categorical mockery; i.e. in the Sledgehammer cases of 2012, prosecutors presented the alleged 2003 coup plans on documents generated by Microsoft Word 2007. AKP needs to do better than that to win in a US federal magistrate’s court. And if Amnesty International can verify the accusations of suspected coup-plotters being beaten, raped, and tortured, then submitted confessions won’t count for much.

In case of no extradition – What’s the impact on US-Turkey relations?

If a federal judge denies the extradition request, the judgment will likely be problematic for US-Turkey relations. The latter will see it as a political decision, rather than a genuine legal ruling.

At greatest risk would be the end the government’s (i.e. the ruling and two largest opposition parties’) tolerance of continued US material and financial support of a ground force highly effective in killing ISIS recruits in Syria – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Then, there’s the US Air Force’s use of the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey, from which at least 25 sorties are flown daily. Without it, American strike capabilities in Syria would be drastically limited.

Finally, there’s the concern of Turkey withdrawing from NATO. The USSR is no more, anti-Americanism is running exceptionally high, the European Community staggers from crisis to crisis (and it is not likely Turks believe they’ll someday be living in an EU Member State, according to polls), so what’s the point as long as there is trade? Diminished sovereignty in exchange for what, exactly?

Yet another go at alliances on eastern horizons?

Something rather extraordinary happened in late 2013. After centuries of wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, topped off with decades of teeth bared at the border between the USSR and Turkey, then prime minister Erdogan proposed the idea of a Turkish bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Comprising member states such as Russia, China, and Uzbekistan, this Eurasian political, military, and economic group is as far in aims and practices from the EU as it is geographically. Primarily a swipe at the EU’s foot-dragging on Turkey’s EU membership accession process, it nonetheless struck a rather anxious chord in the West.

Fed up with constant cries of an increasingly “authoritarian” Turkey in the halls of European capitals, worn of limited sovereignty, and boiling mad over what will be a lengthy extradition process regardless, might Erdogan throw up his hands and be done with whole affair?

And enmity between Turkey and Russia over the former’s downing of the latter’s jet in November last year? Well, a genuinely authoritarian Turkey would be a boon to the geostrategic interests of Putin, whose cronies seize each and every opportunity to weaken the Trans-Atlantic Alliance and the EU. Values are a feel-good luxury when one is a political animal of such ruthless caliber. Case in point: Erdogan finally came around to apologizing for the affair to Putin just last month and is set to fly to Moscow on August 9.

Is a broader witch hunt coming?

This remains to be seen. If the ruling party’s previous court-approved purges such as Ergenekon and the aforementioned Sledgehammer afford a guide, then the spies are in the shadows and evil-doers at every pass. The sheer magnitude of detentions, arrests, and investigations suggest that a greater net may be soon cast.  

Yet there is a silver lining. Turkish entities once considered enemies of AKP rejected the attempt outright. Backed into a corner, Erdogan took full advantage of the video chat application FaceTime—despite his repeated attacks on social media—to call citizens to the streets. This was broadcast live by CNN-Turk, previously lambasted by the president with accusations of working to undermine the government. On July 24 the main opposition party CHP and AKP held the joint “Republic and Democracy” rally in Istanbul on the following day. The following Monday, Erdogan met with the leaders of all major political parties (except the People’s Democratic Party – HDP) to discuss post-coup plans and measures. Could the base for a limited-but-unifying common ground be forming in a society otherwise toxically divided?

Consider that Turks of every political and social color came out in solidarity to protest the Friday coup attempt. The message was this:  We’re done. We’ve moved on from those days. Our rights to democratically participate in our own governance won’t be denied yet again.

These are the same Turks who voted down the mighty AKP in June 2015, forcing them to try to form a coalition government after years of parliamentary dominance. Why? AKP was bruised by corruption scandals and, perhaps more importantly, polls consistently indicated that Turks were weary of their president’s efforts to corral and then enlarge executive powers. Unfortunately, the renewed war with the PKK in the south changed that trend with November’s elections. People quite like stability, after all. Yet coupled with last summer’s election and strikingly unified stances taken on and after July 15, there is a genuine sign of hope, and one most deserving of our respect.

Editor’s Note: In view of the current ambiguities in Turkey concerning academics and journalists, the author wishes to remain anonymous.

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Turkey’s Parliamentary System has a Presidential Stage-Manager

In the summer of 2015, I wrote a profile of Turkey’s electoral system and noted the following:

“In essence, the [June] 2015 election was not only a high stakes gamble for the Kurds, it was also a referendum on Erdoğan himself and his ability to affect the structure of the Turkish electoral system.”

Nearly a year later, on May 5th of 2016, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was pressured by strongman Erdoğan to resign from his position, and on May 22nd the seemingly more pliable Binali Yildirim was elected in his place as the leader of the AKP and new prime minister of Turkey.

Ancient World Map of Turkey

Meanwhile, on May 20th, Turkey’s parliament voted in favor of a law that will lift the legislative immunity of 138 parliamentarians, allowing them to be prosecuted for outstanding offenses, whereas before they were protected. While the parliamentarians who will now be subject to prosecution are not all from one party, the law is clearly meant to target members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose two co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, both face potential prosecution.

The international community is not blind to the connection between these two developments or to the concerning tendencies of the man pulling the strings behind them both: Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.

For some time now, it has been apparent that Erdoğan has harbored aspirations to increase the executive power of the president in Turkey. Yet, in response to the obstacles he has encountered in his quest to formally—that is, constitutionally—change Turkey’s government structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan’s tactics have become increasingly varied and unconventional.

Until he is able to obtain the political capital to overhaul the parliamentary system completely, Erdoğan has busied himself by slowly chipping away at it from within by increasing his own de facto power, ignoring rules meant to ensure a separation of powers, and manipulating the political landscape to set the stage for a constitutional referendum.

Erodgan’s plan for the June 2015 elections was for the AKP (the party which he had formerly led and of which he is still the unofficial leader, despite the fact that the Turkish president is, by law, not allowed to be affiliated with any political party) to win enough seats in the parliament to constitutionally transform Turkey into a presidential system. In terms of numbers, this means that he was hoping for the AKP to win 367 out of 500 parliamentary seats to unilaterally pass the measure. Or, in a more likely scenario, he hoped to garner the support of 330 out of the 500 parliamentary votes in favor of changing the constitution in order to send the measure to the Turkish people in a public referendum.

Yet last summer Erdoğan fell well short of his goal in large part due to an aspect unique to Turkey’s electoral system: the country’s extremely high electoral threshold.

At 10%, Turkey’s electoral threshold is the highest in the world, meaning that a party must win a minimum of 10% of the total vote in order to earn any seats in the parliament. In most countries with a threshold, that number is closer to 5%. This excludes smaller-sized parties from participating in the parliament while over-representing larger parties.

In the June 2015 election, Kurdish candidates who had previously run as independent candidates out of fear of not reaching the 10% threshold should they have run as a party, decided to run for the first time as the HDP. The Kurds won 13.1% of the vote, securing 80 seats in parliament, while the AKP only managed to win 258 seats.

A snap election was held in November of 2015 after a summer of violent clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists as well as coalition talks that failed to lead to the formation of a functional government. The November election led to results more favorable for Erdoğan, but still not sufficient for amending the constitution. The AKP won 317 seats (still short of the 330 needed for a public referendum), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 134 seats and 40 seats respectively, and the Kurdish HDP won 59 seats after just surpassing the electoral threshold with 10.7% of the vote.


Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s newest pawn, has not been subtle about his intentions in the position. Just after he assumed office, he gave a speech in which he stated:

“The most important mission we have today is to legalize the de facto situation, to bring to an end this confusion by changing the constitution…The new constitution will be on an executive presidential system.”

It is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey has a parliamentary system on paper but has become a presidential state in practice. Turkey is not the only country masquerading as something that it is not. Brazil has a presidential system that, because of the high number of operational parties, acts as a de facto parliamentary system. As Brazil experiences its own political controversies, this has raised some interesting questions about how to oust an unpopular leader within this convoluted political system.

The biggest problem with Turkey is that its de facto presidential system seems to be teetering on the edge of authoritarianism and nobody is sure quite how far Erdoğan will go in his quest for power.

There is no doubt that a referendum and constitutional change is the strongest and longest-lasting method for changing the Turkish system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. This still seems to be Erdoğan’s goal, yet the developments of the past month show that there are other political tools that Erdoğan is using to slowly change the way the Turkish government operates and, more troublingly, to concentrate his own political power.

Last June I thought the success of the HDP had quelled Erdoğan’s presidential aspirations, at least in the short-term; today, I feel there is little that will stop him.

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