Turkey Parliament Triggers Referendum on Presidential System

  • President one step away from concentrating power in his office
  • Erdogan wins backing of nationalist MHP in wake of failed coup

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign to secure sweeping executive authority won parliament’s approval early Saturday. Turks will have the final say in a referendum that could be held in early April.

The parliament voted 339-142 to make the president the head of the executive and abolish the job of prime minister, triggering a referendum on the proposal and putting Erdogan one step away from building a power center unrivaled since the days of parliamentary founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In Turkey’s system, amendments to the constitution need to be approved by 367 of 550 members to become law. Proposals that receive between 330 and 367 votes can be referred to a plebescite.

Binali Yildirim and lawmakers cast their vote on Jan 21.

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s still early to call a referendum date, we will share it when we pick up some momentum,” Erdogan said in a televised speech Sunday. “We see that our people favor a constitutional referendum and a president with party ties. We wouldn’t attempt this otherwise.”

As lawmakers from the ruling AK Party declared victory, legislators from opposition parties CHP and HDP warned that 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 the hands of a single authority who has already embarked on a crackdown on political opponents, journalists, academics and activists.

Nationalist Fervor

“Turkey’s drift toward authoritarianism will accelerate in 2017 and the odds that President Erdogan will be able to achieve a formal, full executive presidency through a referendum on a new constitution are favorable,” Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said in a report published last week. “This is partly a by-product
of the nationalist fervor Erdogan has drummed up in the aftermath of a failed coup to unseat him in July 2016.”

The moves to further empower Erdogan comes at a time when 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.

But even before Saturday’s vote, Erdogan had already arrogated to himself powers unusual for his ceremonial post. He’s led sessions of the policy-making cabinet, and forced out the previous prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, after he tried to assert his authority as head of the executive branch.

While the AK Party lacks enough seats to carry parliament alone, the package was approved with backing from the nationalist opposition MHP. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Jan. 17 that his party was making the changes together with the nationalist MHP. “We have no hesitation about the referendum,” the prime minister said.

Lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish HDP opposed the charter changes as 11 of its 59 lawmakers, including the top two leaders, remained jailed since Erdogan signed a constitutional amendment last year lifting their immunity from prosecution.

‘One Man’

If the legislative package is approved in a referendum, Erdogan’s ties to the ruling AK Party will be immediately restored while most of the measures, including powers granted to Erdogan to call elections or declare a state of emergency, will go into effect when the presidential and parliamentary elections are held Nov. 3, 2019. The legislative package, meanwhile, limits the parliament’s oversight over the executive branch and allows the president’s office to issue decrees with the force of law.

“The shift to a presidential system as outlined in the constitutional package will give Erdogan unparalleled power while the system of checks and balances has been literally thrown out of the window,” Teneo Intelligence Co-President Wolfango Piccoli said in e-mailed comments before the parliamentary vote. This raises concerns of “further interference in economic policy making by an ever-more-powerful Erdogan.”

Read: How Turkey’s Erdogan Might Get Still More Power: QuickTake Q&A

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

Bloody Period

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 Erdogan, said Thursday.

Read: Turkey Presidential System Would Keep Parliament Supreme: Ucum

The main opposition party differs.

The constitutional change only secures “one man’s future,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular Republican People’s Party, said at his faction’s meeting following the vote, state-run Anadolu Agency reported. “I believe our people will ruin this game that was played in parliament,” he said.

Turkey’s legislature was founded by Ataturk in 1920 as part of a secular and Western-oriented revolution that replaced the theocratic Ottoman Empire. Should Erdogan succeed, Turkey is set to a have a president who will basically concentrate as much power as Ataturk.

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.”

— With assistance by Tugce Ozsoy

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