By Mithat Sancar, member of the Turkish parliament for Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), professor of political science and constitutional law
As the referendum day in Turkey draws near, there are fewer discussions about the content of the constitutional amendments. The president and the government instead prefer a propaganda strategy to increase polarisation between voters. Thus they aim to consolidate the votes of their own constituency and simultaneously to attract more votes from Turkish nationalists. Since the government strategy is to fuel excessive tension and polarization at every opportunity, it is now having a hard time to find new ammunition at home to pursue these tactics and has turned its focus on “foreign affairs” and stoking up a fierce conflict with European countries and institutions for the purpose of creating the perception at home of a show-down with powerful “external enemies”. An important result of such a strategy is bypassing discussions about the essential content of this constitutional amendment.
The government and proponents of the amendment say it will usher in a ‘presidential system’ or a ‘Turkish-style presidency’. By associating their project with the presidential system in the US, they aim to create the perception that they are not out of line with democratic governmental systems. In fact the proposed system has nothing to do with the one in the US. First of all it does away with the principle of a ‘separation of powers’ because power is substantially assigned to the president. Far from representing a “strict separation of powers” as the government claims, it is rather a system based on “intensification of power”. Correspondingly, “checks and balances” as the irreplaceable imperative of democratic systems are completely suspended. The power of the executive becomes limitless and uncontrolled. With the president controlling the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which administers the entire justice system and appoints judges and prosecutors, as well as members of the Constitutional Court, the judiciary entirely loses its independence. The key authority currently held by Turkey’s parliament, namely law-making, is weakened too by giving the president the power to issue decrees. The president can decide to renew parliamentary elections on a whim, whereas parliament would need the approval of 3/5 of all deputies (360) to make such a decision. Grossly misrepresenting this provision in the amendment, the government has recently claimed that this would empower parliament rather than amount to its arbitrary dissolution.
The huge powers the president gains are not matched by being invested with obligations and the right to be held accountable. “The responsibility carried by the president” constantly advertised by proponents of the amendment is effectively non-functional. Initiating a criminal investigation into the president would be possible if proposed by 301 deputies in parliament but there would be neither a prosecution carried out by prosecutors nor a proper trial process. Instead a commission chosen from members of parliamentary parties, which means some of them directly appointed by the president, would investigate the case. If the commission takes a decision against the president, this decision would then be put to a parliamentary vote…A staggering 400 votes (out of 600) would be necessary to take the case before the Constitutional Court which is authorized to convene a supreme tribunal to put a president or ministers on trial. In other words, even if this complex and multi-leveled process were managed, the authority that will finally judge the president would be the Constitutional Court which is composed of 15 members, 12 of whom are directly appointed by the president. In short, the president and ministers effectively enjoy lifelong immunity. This complicated procedure means they will be able to avoid trial for crimes committed during their tenure.
The real name of this system is “autocracy” and such a system can easily turn out to be a “modern dictatorship”.
Constitutions take the form of the settings and conditions they are established in, and this amendment reflects the spirit of authoritarianism of this era. Eleven deputies and the two co-chairs of the third strongest party in parliament, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are imprisoned arbitrarily, as well as thousands of party members. The country is ruled by decrees issued by the president and the government. Legal control over them is nonexistent. As a result, basic human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press have been suspended. What we are going through today is most certainly a rehearsal for what will be made permanent if the result of this referendum is a “yes” vote.
A “Yes” vote, if it prevails, will come as a result of at least half the population being vilified and treated as enemies. It will feed, deepen and extend the various conflicts and chronic polarization which already exist. It will carry a high risk of triggering a crisis of governance. Conversely, a “No” vote will pave the way to normalization; it will be a choice for dialogue as the path to overcome conflict and polarization. Even if not a magic wand to erase all conflict, a “No” vote would be a vote against the consolidation of centralized power and for empowering local democracy. Easing the current tension between parties and paving the way for reasonable negotiations between opposition and government will only be possible if a “No” vote wins out. A “Yes” vote will undoubtedly not mean the end of everything. It may make the situation harder, but our struggle for peace, democracy, equality, freedom, women rights and the environment will continue more seriously and with a greater sense of responsibility than ever.
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