Power grab or stability amid the turmoil? Turkey's presidential referendum explained

Power grab or stability amid the turmoil? Turkey's presidential referendum explained
By Chris Harris
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This Sunday Turkey votes on whether to grant President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers.


This Sunday Turkey votes on whether to grant President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers.

The proposed reform would mark one of the biggest changes to how the country is run in more than a century.

Critics have branded it undemocratic and a power grab, while proponents argue it would hand Turkey stability at a time of turmoil.

Here we take a look at what changes the referendum could herald and what their impact would be both domestically and internationally.

What is the referendum about?

The vote will ask Turks to approve or reject a new draft constitution that would change the country from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.

If approved, it would mean:

  • the president, currently just the head of state, becomes both the head of state and head of the executive.
  • the role of prime minister is scrapped; position of vice president created.
  • the president being able to issue decrees, declare emergency rule and appoint ministers and top officials.
  • the president being limited to two, five-year terms.
  • parliamentary and presidential elections being held every five years, on the same day.
  • parliament being able to investigate or impeach the president via a majority vote in parliament. It would need a two-thirds majority to send the president to trial.

What are the arguments in favour?

Erdoğan’s supporters view the plans as a guarantee of stability at a time of turmoil, with Turkey’s security threatened by wars in neighbouring Syria and Iraq and a spate of ISIL and Kurdish militant attacks.

They argue it is a chance to modernise Turkey’s constitution, drawn up in the aftermath of the military coup in 1980.

Proponents also say it will improve decision-making because you would not have conflict between the president and prime minister or difficult-to-manage coalitions.

What are the arguments against?

Claims the changes would bring stability and avoid coalitions are not convincing, according to Esra Özyürek, an associate professor and chair for contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.

She told Euronews the president and prime minister had been running the country single-handedly for the last 14 years and that there hadn’t been any coalition in this time.

But the key concern is if these plans are approved there will be no checks and balances on Erdoğan’s power.

“He will be head of state, head of government and have full power over the judiciary,” added Dr Özyürek. “He will have the power to issue decrees, which is huge, because it pretty much makes parliament ineffective.”

How did we get to this stage?

There has long been talk of a move to a presidential system. Finally, in 2007, Turkey embraced a semi-presidential system, putting the election of the president to a public vote, as opposed to being appointed via a parliamentary poll. Erdoğan thus became Turkey’s first directly-elected president in 2014.

But there was a desire to move to a fully presidential system and the failed coup attempt last year gave Erdoğan the excuse he needed, experts claim.

“Right after the coup attempt President Erdogan said this was a God-sent opportunity,” said Dr Özyürek. “We can now do things we could not do earlier.

“He used the coup attempt as a pretext to further limit democracies and tighten his iron fist on all opposition, it’s a major break from democracy.”

Since last July’s coup, 46,875 people have been arrested; 4,070 judges and prosecutors fired, 7,316 academics sacked; and 162 journalists arrested, according to turkeypurge.com, which claims to track the knock-on effects of the rebellion.


“The people who can powerfully say no [in the referendum] are already in prison,” claimed Dr Özyürek. “The leaders of the [opposition] HDP [left-wing political party] and a good number of MPs, democratically-elected mayors, party representatives, more than hundred journalists and academics. At the moment Turkey has the best-educated prison population in the world.”

What would a yes vote mean for Turkey?

It would mean Turkey’s parliament being robbed of its power, according to Brett Wilson, an expert on Turkish history from the Central European University.

“The strange thing about it is that the current situation is that the president is basically doing whatever he wants despite the fact that theoretically there is a system in place to control him,” added Wilson. “In some ways it’s a formality but in other ways it’s eliminating those potential checks on presidential power.

“It’s short-sighted to restructure things in a way that will definitely make Turkey less democratic and they will have to live with the results of that for a long time because it’s very hard to change the constitution.”

Other implications include Kurds losing out because their representatives in parliament will have less power.


“If the political parties of the Kurdish wing are in a sense robbed of their actual powers would that result in increased desperation on the part of radicals?” asked Wilson. “Would mainstream Kurdish voters feel they have to go towards different parties?”

The changes, if approved, would come into effect in 2019, opening up the prospect of Erdoğan staying in power until 2029.

And relations with the EU?

While the EU needs Turkey in terms of its help with controlling migration into Europe, the country’s prospects of joining the bloc look increasingly unlikely.

It began talks with Brussels on becoming a member in 2005, but recent events have seemingly soured the relationship.

MEPs have called for talks to be suspended over the government’s post-coup crackdown, while the Council of Europe says ‘space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly’ since the uprising last July.


More recently, Erdoğan has accused Germany of ‘fascist actions’ after rallies over the cancellation of political rallies aimed at drumming up support for him among 1.5 million Turkish citizens in the country.

“European leaders should probably know that their thinly veiled support to the “no” campaign will actually hurt the opponents of constitutional reform and provide the “yes” campaign with plenty of ammunition at home,” wrote Burhanettin Duran in an opinion piece for the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah

What is the atmosphere in Turkey ahead of the referendum?

After tense and violent parliamentary debates about the constitutional reforms, people are now being shamed into voting yes, according to Wilson.

“There’s a real uncertainty among a lot of groups about whether they should approve this referendum,” he said. “I think that’s also evident in the fact the government is using very aggressive language, trying to threaten and shame people, even from their own constituents, to vote yes and make voting no a non-option.”

“Some imams, who are state employees tell their congregations to vote yes,” said Dr Özyürek. “And people who distribute leaflets saying ‘‘No’‘ are detained. TV personalities who tell they will vote no are fired under government pressure. This is not an atmosphere of free elections where different positions are defended freely and fairly.”


See what people are saying about Turkey’s presidential powers referendum elsewhere on euronews.com

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