The Taksim Square in Istanbul | Chris McGrath/Getty Images
ISTANBUL — The cure-all for Turkey’s ills is close at hand — if you believe Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: a ‘yes’ result in next month’s referendum would restore security and stability, the president promises.
Yet opposition leaders warn that switching to a presidential system of government, as proposed by Erdoğan, would threaten democracy. To foreign observers, this may be strange to hear. After all, a number of democracies are governed by an executive presidency, among them the United States.
But in Turkey’s case, the term is used as shorthand for a constitutional reform package that — if approved — would represent the most radical political change since the modern republic’s foundation in 1923.
Critics, including the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, fear the new constitution would mark a point of no return for the country’s slide into authoritarianism.
At its core, the overhaul proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would replace Turkey’s parliamentary model of government with a presidential system, handing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan executive powers. Erdoğan would become both head of state and head of government — on paper, like the presidents of the U.S., Mexico, or Cyprus.
Erdoğan has invoked the U.S. model to soothe fears of authoritarian rule while also insisting that Turkey would design its own system. In January, the government finally laid out the plans for his “Turkish-style” model, proposing a powerful executive presidency and a significantly diminished parliament.
“Presidentialism à la Turca is a recipe for disaster. Whoever receives this much power would be in a position to abuse this much power” — Aykan Erdemir, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
In a report released this month, the Venice Commission saw “little resemblance” between Turkey’s proposals and the American model, noting that the amendments “would confer substantially more power on the president, and include substantially fewer checks and balances” than in the U.S. — an argument echoed by many of Erdoğan’s opponents.
“A presidential system doesn’t necessarily mean the erosion of the separation of powers,” said Aykan Erdemir, a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former MP for the main opposition party CHP. “But presidentialism à la Turca is a recipe for disaster. Whoever receives this much power would be in a position to abuse this much power.”
Ahead of the April 16 referendum, here’s a guide to the proposed changes.
A powerful president …
The existing Turkish constitution ascribes a mainly ceremonial role to the president, with the power largely in the hands of the prime minister and parliament — in theory, at least.
Ever since Erdoğan became Turkey’s first directly elected president in 2014, after more than a decade as prime minister and leader of the AKP, he has expanded the office beyond its constitutional limits, effectively remaining in charge of the country. A state of emergency imposed in the aftermath of last summer’s failed coup has allowed him to rule by decree.
Under the new constitution, the temporary powers granted to Erdoğan by emergency law would become permanent. While parliament would retain its legislative role, the president could simply bypass parliament by issuing decrees with the force of law.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” said Bertil Emrah Oder, a professor of constitutional law at Istanbul’s Koc University. Currently, she noted, presidential decrees have to be approved by the cabinet — a check on the president’s power that would no longer exist if the referendum passes.
The government argues that presidential decrees cannot alter existing laws or fundamental rights and freedoms. However, this changes under emergency law, according to Oder. “If a state of emergency is declared, he could, in fact, regulate even these rights and freedoms,” she said.
Erdoğan has flouted the neutrality rule since becoming president and repeatedly campaigned on behalf of the AKP.
The constitutional changes abolish the role of prime minister. Instead, Erdoğan could appoint one or several vice-presidents. The president would be able to appoint his own cabinet, selecting and firing ministers and other senior officials without needing approval from parliament. He would be responsible for the annual budget and national security policy.
On top of that, the president may be partisan. The current constitution requires the president to be neutral and give up any party affiliation — a law that casual Turkey-watchers may be unaware of, as Erdoğan has flouted the rule since becoming president and repeatedly campaigned on behalf of the AKP.
… and a weakened parliament
Parliament would keep some powers — to declare war, for instance. But its ability to control the executive is restricted under the new constitution.
While the president retains his right to dissolve parliament whenever he wishes, lawmakers have few resources to rid themselves of the president: the impeachment process is complex, requiring the support of an absolute majority in parliament and the approval of the Constitutional Court. And the president appoints a number of Constitutional Court members.
The constitutional amendments also revoke several checks on the executive, including parliament’s right to issue motions of censure (a formal strong rebuke), votes of no confidence or oral questions to the executive. Lawmakers may only raise written questions.
“Taking the general ineffectiveness of impeachment procedures into account, that cannot be regarded as sufficient checks and balances,” said Oder. Given the strict party discipline in Turkey, the president — who would keep his position as party leader — would have significant control over parliament, she added.
Parliament’s power to legislate is also weakened. Currently, the president may return bills to parliament to be reconsidered, but lawmakers can bypass his objections with a simple majority. Yet under the new constitution, the president gains veto rights on any law, a power that parliament can only override with an absolute majority.
Erdoğan and his supporters argue that these changes would reduce instability and prevent political stalemates created by any competing power centers. The government has dismissed suggestions that the new constitution would pave the way for more autocratic rule, insisting that the amendments would hand more power to the people, not the president.
“In the current system, society elects parliament, and parliament forms a government. That’s indirect legitimacy,” Erdoğan’s adviser Mehmet Ucum said during a conversation with reporters and others in Istanbul this week. “In the new system, society will elect the parliament and the government — so, direct legitimacy,” he said.
An ‘impartial’ judiciary?
At first glance, Turkey’s highly politicized justice system would be changed for the better under the new constitution. Military courts in peacetime would be abolished. Moreover, courts would have to act “on condition of impartiality” — but critics say this amendment is rendered meaningless by the new powers granted to the president.
The new constitution would enable Erdoğan to appoint four of 13 members of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors — the judiciary’s top disciplinary board overseeing appointment and dismissal of judges and public prosecutors — in addition to the minister and undersecretary of justice, who also sit on the Council. The remaining seven members are elected by parliament.
The proposed changes are projected to come into effect in 2019 and Erdoğan could, therefore, rule Turkey until 2029.
Currently, Erdoğan chooses only three appointees of a 22-member board — but the constitution requires him to make politically neutral choices. With the impartiality clause gone, the Venice Commission warned, the president could control the entire board if his party held a three-fifths majority in parliament. (The AKP is 13 seats short of a three-fifths majority.)
“That would place the independence of the judiciary in serious jeopardy,” the commission’s report concluded. “Getting control over this body… means getting control over judges and public prosecutors.”
Besides transforming Turkey into a presidential republic, the new constitution includes a series of minor changes, including lowering the minimum age for MP candidates from 25 to 18 and increasing the number of seats in parliament from 550 to 600.
Parliamentary elections would be held every five years instead of every four, with presidential elections taking place simultaneously. A president would only be allowed to stay in office for two full terms but would be permitted to stand for a de facto third term, in case of early elections.
The proposed changes are projected to come into effect in 2019 and Erdoğan could, therefore, rule Turkey until 2029 — that is if the referendum passes: current polls predict a close race, with the “no” vote slightly ahead of the government’s “yes” camp.