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Turkish constitutional referendum: TRexit from parliamentary democracy?

Everything you need to know about the constitutional referendum in Turkey. What are the changes to Turkey's current constitution?

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Turkish constitutional referendum: TRexit from parliamentary democracy?

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By Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek, senior policy advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy

The political system governing Turkey is on the verge of a profound change. In the case of a “yes” vote on 16 April, Turkey will be transformed from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, in which the President will have an unprecedented role. Even Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic, did not have such power.

A presidential system is not a bad thing per se; there are certainly good examples. Moreover, the presidential system discussion is not new in Turkish political history either. The issue was previously raised by the late President Turgut Özal, a key political figure in the transition of Turkey to a western-style liberal economy in the 1980s. However, the focus of these past discussions has always been the American system with a strong emphasis on the separation of power. The newly proposed system, literally described as “a la Turca” presidency by the Turkish government, has little in common with presidential systems in the Western world. Many elements in the constitutional package increase concerns regarding democracy, separation of powers and checks and balances.

Out of 18 proposed changes, there are 6 that have raised widespread concern:

Article 7: While the current constitution does not allow the president to be affiliated with a political party in order to maintain the president’s impartial status following the election, this article will allow the president to be a member and even a chairperson of a political party. As a result, the president may run the party as well as the country. A “party state” may emerge out of this, especially considering the powers of political party leaders under current Political Parties Law. As candidates for parliamentary elections are chosen to a large extent by party leaders, the president may also select and control the majority of parliamentarians in case the president’s party has the majority in the parliament. In this way, the president may control both the executive and legislative bodies.

Article 8: This article will abolish the prime minister’s office and transfer all executive power currently belonging to the prime minister and ministers to the president. The president will also gain some legislative power through the right of issuing decrees. However, it should be noted that the scope of this right is narrow and laws will still have precedence over decrees.

Article 9: New impeachment procedures introduced by this article will make the process almost impossible. This is very important in terms of the accountability of a president whom enjoys unprecedented powers. Signatures of a simple majority of parliamentarians will be required to start proceedings. A three-fifths majority will be needed to set up an Inquiry Commission. If the commission decides to send the president to the Supreme Court then this decision will at least need to be backed by a two-thirds majority.

Article 10: The president will be able to appoint one or more vice-presidents without any restrictions. The vice-presidents, as non-elected officials, will replace the president and rule the country by using all of the president’s powers if the president is absent, seriously ill or in the event of his/her death.

Article 11: This article will give extra power to the president on the legislative body. The president will have the right to dissolve the Parliament without any reason. Although, as presidential and parliamentary elections will always be renewed simultaneously, the president will be directly affected by this decision. Furthermore, the parliament will also be able to call for early elections with a three-fifths majority.

Article 14: This will increase the power of the president over the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, a key actor for the independence of the judiciary. With this article, the president may directly and indirectly, through the parliament if the president’s party has a sufficient majority, play an important role in the selection of the Council’s members. However, it is not possible to claim that the president will have full control on the judiciary.

In the case of a “yes” vote, the main concern is the emergence of “one-man rule”. While this concern is mainly raised by the opposition, this is indeed a major risk for everyone. Debating the issue by simply taking into account the current president is not very healthy. This is a fundamental change about the future of the country. President Erdogan will not be ruling the country forever. AKP supporters may even be the victims of this system in the future if an anti-AKP person were to be elected as the president with these powers.

While the result of the referendum is highly unpredictable with different polling companies estimating significantly different results, the government does not seem to be very confident about the success, considering that the “no” campaign consists of many political actors from diverse backgrounds including the main opposition CHP, the pro-Kurdish HDP, opposition groups within nationalist MHP and surprisingly the Islamist-leaning Saadet Party.

The European Union is also closely following this historical referendum. In Europe, there are major concerns about the future of Turkish democracy. However, a “yes” vote would not be the end of Turkey’s strained relations with the EU, considering de facto frozen accession negotiations and the EU’s short term priorities. While the issue-based cooperation, which started with the refugee deal, will most likely continue in any case, Turkey will certainly be a more difficult partner in the case of a “yes” vote.

Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek, Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy

Picture: Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 8, 2017.

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