Handcuffs Used as Prop as Turkish Parliament Brawls Over Erdogan

  • President seeks expanded executive role after failed July coup
  • Lawmakers vote on changing constitution to presidential system

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign to secure sweeping executive authority is moving ahead amid brawls in Turkey’s parliament, where victory today could put him a step away from building a power center unrivaled since the days of Ataturk.

In a second round of voting, lawmakers approved 11 of 18 amendments to the constitution that will place the president at the head of the executive and abolish the job of prime minister. The session on Thursday featured a female lawmaker handcuffing herself to the parliament’s rostrum and a melee in which the artificial arm of another female legislator was pulled off. A result is expected Friday in parliament. Should it pass, Turks will have the final say in a referendum that could be held in early April.

The attempt to transform Turkey’s government has polarized the nation. Erdogan’s supporters say it’s needed to overcome deepening security and economic challenges, while critics warn the overhaul would concentrate a dangerous amount of power in a single authority, one who has already embarked on a broad crackdown on political opponents, journalists, academics and activists, among others. What they agree on is the ambition of the effort.

“The constitutional amendment will have a doping effect for our country when it goes into effect,” Erdogan said in Istanbul on Jan. 14. “With God’s permission, no one will be able to stop the building of ‘New Turkey.’”

‘One Man’

Erdogan’s proposal effectively “phases out the parliament and takes power away from the hands of the government,” said Ibrahim Kaboglu, a professor of constitutional law at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “The president moves to the center of executive power, reshaping the country’s regime around one man.”

A survey by Istanbul-based pollster Sonar in December found that the ruling AK Party acting alone lacks the support to win a referendum. But when respondents were asked to assume that the nationalist opposition MHP backed the changes, the tally of “yes” votes rose to 55.1 percent.

Read: Erdogan’s Path to More Power Via Constitutional Referendum: Q&A

The 62-year-old Erdogan has been seeking to empower the presidency since his election in 2014, after more than a decade as prime minister. He seized on a tumultuous and bloody period -- one punctuated by an attempted coup, war with Kurdish separatists and terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic State -- to press his case that Turkey needs a leader less restrained by political bureaucracy.

Bulent Turan, a whip from the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which Erdogan co-founded, rejected opposition claims that the amendments would create an elected dictatorship, saying they sought to allow for greater government oversight and to speed up decision making.

‘Magic Wand’

“The proposed system is a political model under which separation of powers is placed under the guarantee of law and makes the parliament superior over the government,” Mehmet Ucum, chief adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Thursday.

Read: Turkey Presidential System Would Keep Parliament Supreme: Ucum

The main opposition party differs. Parliament will be left “without any power,” said Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the secular Republican People’s Party. The presidential system would create a “one-man regime,” he said. Tezcan’s colleague, Leyla Karabiyik, said Turks were being asked to believe that “a magic wand will solve economic problems, terrorism, unemployment and poverty.”

Turkey’s parliament was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1920 as part of a secular and Western-oriented revolution that replaced the theocratic Ottoman Empire. Should Erdogan succeed, Turkey’s set to a have a president who will basically run the entire show for the first time since Ataturk.

Turkey has been drawn deeper into some of the region’s most intractable conflicts, especially in neighboring Syria. Islamic State militants based there have attacked Turkish cities and border posts, killing scores. A decades-old conflict with separatist Kurds has been reignited.

Kurdish Boycott

Lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish HDP, which opposes the charter changes, boycotted the voting in parliament. Eleven of its 59 lawmakers, including the top two leaders, have been jailed since Erdogan signed a constitutional amendment lifting their immunity from prosecution.

The overhaul needs the support of at least 330 lawmakers to trigger a referendum. While the AK Party lacks enough seats to carry parliament alone, the package was approved in the first round of voting with backing from the MHP. During the second round of voting on Wednesday and Thursday, the MHP again joined the AKP to pass the first 11 articles while the most critical article which allows Erdogan to concentrate power in his office was passed with 339 votes, the lowest number of votes cast over the changes so far.

“We are making this change together with MHP,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Jan. 17. “The result of the second round will be same as the first round. We have no hesitation about the referendum.”

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