On April 16, Turkey is going to the polls to vote on a hotly debated constitutional amendments package. The country has had referenda for constitutional amendments before now, but this is going to be the first one to change the system of government as a whole.
Ever since the establishment of the Republic in 1923, the country has had a parliamentary system, albeit with its own idiosyncrasies. The proposed presidential system will also not be a system like that of the U.S., for example, but rather a kind of super presidency. If the proposal is accepted in the referendum, elections for the president and members of parliament will be held simultaneously. The “Super President” will then be free to set up a cabinet without parliamentary approval (that is, a vote of confidence). He will also be the main player in appointing judges to the Constitutional Court.
With the composition of political parties in Turkey being tightly controlled by party bosses, there is little chance that the legislature will move against a sitting president. This means that the president will, in effect, oversee the executive, legislature and judiciary branches of government. The reasoning behind this is that elections in parliamentary systems can lead to hung parliaments and unstable coalitions, and this system will eliminate such possibilities by creating an unassailable centre of power in government. This will be a complete overhaul of Turkey’s system of government. If accepted, it will be far more consequential to the country than Brexit for Britain.
The country has a problem with its current system of government, but the current proposal does not provide a sustainable solution. This referendum is not going to disperse the clouds of uncertainty over the Turkish economy. Why then, is Turkey going in for it? It’s just as Marx said, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The answer to this question lies in recent Turkish history.
The presidential system has been debated in Turkey before now, during the presidencies of the late Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel in the 1990s. Transitioning from the parliamentary to the presidential system should be seen within the context of Turkey’s political transformation. Those who raised the debate before were leaders of political parties that they had themselves established. Both won elections, acted as prime ministers and controlled parliamentary majorities before becoming president–just like President Erdoğan himself.
Turkey had an idiosyncratic system of checks and balances established after the 1960 coup d’etat. On paper, the country had a parliamentary system, meaning that a strong prime minister controlled both the executive and legislative branches. The presidency was designed as a balancing factor between the prime minister and the two veto players of the 1961 constitution: the National Security Council, channelling the military, and the Constitutional Court. It was the president’s task to ensure a harmonious relationship between the elected prime minister and the appointed veto players.
After the 1980 coup d’etat, the executive powers of the president were enhanced, and the presidency was designed as a separate veto player in the 1982 constitution.
This system ended in April 2007 when President Sezer’s term came to a close. Turkey has since been in a turbulent process of political normalisation. Just before the ruling AK Party was nominating Abdullah Gül, an AK Party founder, for president, the military published a threatening message on its website, hinting at the possibility of a coup. This incident came to be referred to as the “e-memorandum”.
Then the AK Party pushed forward with the first constitutional referendum in the last 10 years—to henceforth be used as a mechanism for voter mobilisation. The 2007 referendum, passed by 69%, allowed the next president to be elected by direct popular vote. It seemed like the political crisis was resolved at the time. In retrospect, it was only just beginning.
In 2008, the chief public prosecutor filed a case with the Constitutional Court to shut down the AK Party. That was the year when the followers of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen became really popular in Ankara, and were firmly allied with the government. A group of Gülenist public prosecutors launched a show trial that initiated the first purge, of mainly anti-Gülenists, of course, in the military as a reprisal. That so-called Ergenekon case was followed by the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case in 2009. The purge continued, opening the military’s arteries for further infiltration by Gülenist officers.
Then came the second constitutional referendum. In 2010, the proposal to restructure the way the judicial system works was accepted by a majority of 58%. This widened the extent of the purge from the military to the judiciary, strengthening the Gülenist network further.
By the time the 2011 general elections came around, the Gulenists had been fighting the shadow wars of the government, holding key positions and eliminating the government’s enemies in the bureaucracy. So when the AK Party was putting together its electoral lists, the Gulenists sought a bigger share of power. When they were denied it, all hell broke loose. The first shot was fired in February 2013, when a Gülenist public prosecutor asked Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s chief of intelligence, to come to testify in court. It became an open war between the government and the Gülenists with the corruption probe on 17 December 2013, and again December 25, when Gulenist elements in the media and bureaucracy released compromising recordings of senior government officials.
Matters escalated then onwards, with the decisive battle being fought on the night of the failed coup on 15 July 2016. Today it looks as if the government, in the person of President Erdoğan, won the fight.
On 16 April 2017, Turkey will have its third constitutional referendum in the last 10 years. Like the other referenda, this one has been a way of mobilising society. If the proposition is adopted, Turkey will have changed 75% of its 1982 constitution. The vast majority of these changes have been done in parliament, and mostly in accordance with the EU accession process. Changes by referendum are exceptions, and this one is the greatest one of them. In many ways, this one puts Turkey on uncharted waters, the outcomes unknown, and the country moving from one unbalanced system to another.
What Turkey has yet to have is a modern, liberal and effective system of checks and balances. It had a window in which it was moving towards such a system in the 2000s, but the process got disrupted. The EU was weaker in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and was unable to pull Turkey into its sphere. Meanwhile, the increasingly vicious domestic squabbles in Turkey reduced politicians’ room for manoeuvre. Turkey has since been veering off the liberal path.
The economy too has a long way to go to achieve normalisation, and the referendum cannot hasten it. Whether it be a “yes” or “no” vote on Sunday, Turkey’s political crisis will deepen, and the economy will remain in limbo. The newly estimated GDP figures show that the 6.1% growth figure of 2015 has been halved to 2.9% in 2016.
Whichever way the referendum goes, Turkey has many problems, each requiring careful deliberation, but not receiving the deserved attention. This is part of a political crisis that can be traced back to 2007, and further back into Turkey’s recent history of coups and constitutions.
April 16 will see Turkey’s citizens go to the polls in what is perhaps the first of many decisive moments with the ballot box in coming months and years.
Dr. Güven Sak is Managing Director of The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV). He is also a professor of public economics at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the Ankara University & founder member of the board of trustees of the newly established TOBB University of Economics and Technology.
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