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People wave Turkish flags and portraits of modern Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, during a rally organized by the main opposition group, the secular and center-left Republican People's Party (CHO), on July 24, 2016 in Istanbul's Taksim square. (Photo: GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

Constitutional amendment would further centralize presidential system

ISTANBUL – An intense scuffle broke out recently in the Turkish Parliament during a vote for a controversial constitutional amendment package. If passed, it would transform the government into a highly centralized presidential system.

Parliamentarians from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) expressed anger at ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) members’ decision to show their votes in what is supposed to be a secret ballot.

“It was against the constitution itself because it’s written in the text very specifically that it should be a secret ballot. There was no secret ballot,” Şule Özsoy Boyunsuz, professor of constitutional law at Galatasaray University, told The Media Line.

When 338 Members of Parliament voted to open discussions on 18 articles of the amendment package, AKP MPs filmed each other openly showing their ballots. Health Minister Recep Akdağ was captured on video taken by a CHP MP saying, “I’m committing a crime. What’s it to you?”

“What is revealing about this is the [AKP] party members, they don’t trust each other,” İlter Turan, political science professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told The Media Line.

Amidst reports that some AKP politicians are hesitant over some of the proposed constitutional changes, experts speculate they filmed each other’s votes to compel them to vote yes and not break party ranks.

“Unfortunately party bosses in Turkey demand more or less absolute loyalty,” says Galip Dalay, senior associate fellow at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and research director at Al Sharq Forum.

If the constitutional amendment package passes through Parliament, as most experts predict, it will go to a national referendum within two months of being passed.

“I think it will probably pass through parliament. If it goes to referendum the government will do everything to make sure that it passes,” says Turan.

He thinks the AKP will make the vote about support for the party and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rather than focusing on the actual content of the package.

“I think the technique they’ll employ is to push for as much polarization as possible to make it costly for people not to support the government,” Turan says.

Dalay says polls show the public is uninformed about the constitutional changes and the AKP will likely want to keep it that way, focusing on political tribalism rather than explaining the details of the presidential system.

“Once again we’ll be talking about identity politics, and given the fact that the conservative-nationalist section of Turkey constitutes the majority, the government I think will expect to win,” Dalay says.

President Erdoğan says many countries have presidential systems and that a stronger system of governance will make it easier to eliminate the political violence and sharp economic downturn plaguing Turkey. Experts say the president is already endowed with very strong powers.

Dalay says there’s already “a significant amount of power to the president without any oversight.”

Boyunsuz says Turkey hasn’t been a democracy for some time and the new system won’t improve the situation.

“It’s not a democratic presidential system. [There will be] nothing similar to the United States’ system, because the US system is characterized by checks and balances,” she says. “There are no checks and balances in this one.”

The AKP has taken a severe authoritarian turn in recent years, particularly since the government declared a State of Emergency following the failed military coup of July 15. Tens of thousands of civil servants, including judges, teachers and journalists, have been fired, suspected of cooperating with the plotters of the coup.

The most controversial constitutional amendments, if approved, would grant Erdoğan even more extraordinary powers, including the ability to dissolve Parliament at will, appoint all top ministers and bureaucrats, and give him near total control over the composition of the judiciary.

Erodoğan, who served as prime minister from 2003 – 2014 and became Turkey’s first elected president in 2014, could theoretically hold his post until 2029 under the new system.

The opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), now closely allied with the AKP, is seen as key to passing the package. At least 330 votes are needed in Parliament to put the package to a referendum. The AKP has only 317 seats, so needs votes from the MHP’s 39 MPs.

The MHP was until recently adamantly opposed to the presidential system, but the government has courted the nationalist vote and made a deal with MHP head Devlet Bahçeli.

“The spirit of this constitution package is very much reflective of MHP’s political preferences. It’s very nationalistic, it’s very unitarian in nature,” says Dalay. “The AKP compromised significantly to accommodate the MHP.”

Bahçeli has faced major party leadership challenges that the government helped him quash, and several MHP MPs still don’t support the package.

“During the campaign for the referendum, we may have cracks within the MHP,” Turan says.

Meanwhile the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with its top leadership in jail, has boycotted the vote. However, getting its supporters to vote against the package could still play an important role.

“The significance will be whether the HDP will be able to mobilize its base to go to vote on referendum day. A lower turn-out will be beneficial to the government,” Dalay says.

He thinks the ability of the CHP and HDP to campaign against the package will be very limited.

“The HDP is very much crippled,” he says, and “CHP has trouble in reaching beyond its traditional constituency and I’m not sure to what extent they’ll be able to wage a very effective campaign through the mainstream media.”

Turkey’s critical media has been eviscerated by the AKP over the past few years, especially since Emergency Rule was declared following the failed coup. Over 140 journalists are in jail according to the Contemporary Journalists’ Association, and only a few tiny independent outlets are left.

Boyunsuz sees the presidential system, which has been Erdoğan’s ultimate goal for years, as simply one more step in his consolidation of power.

“He sees the law and the rule of law as an obstacle to his power.”

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