The Kurdish HDP party campaigns for a voice in parliament.

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Futile Hopes for Democracy in Turkey

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Turkey's democracy is broken. So when Osman Can, a prominent constitutional lawyer with liberal instincts, says the new constitution he's drafting would help fix it, I want to believe him. 

Next month's parliamentary elections in Turkey amount to a vote on whether to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the supermajority he needs to push through a new constitution, creating a presidential republic that would consolidate power in his hands. And Can, who is running for election with Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (the AKP), is anxious to explain why it's wrong to assume this would entrench the country's path toward a Russian-style autocracy. 

To start, he says, the current system is irreparable. It's based on a law that was written by generals in 1982 to give themselves control over the courts, the police and other civilian institutions of power. This enabled the generals, in turn, to rein in unruly governments between their occasional coups d'etat. 

"We have to be careful in judging them," Can says disarmingly, as we talk in a cafe on Istanbul's Asian side. The constitution was drafted in such a way that "when a general reads the first few pages he feels it is his responsibility to carry out coups." 

Erdogan has by now broken the military's power, however. And because he also happens to control the ruling party's members of parliament, he now holds in his hands not only the generals' institutional levers but also the presidency, parliament and cabinet. 

"Before the balance was between the military and the government. Now we have no balance at all," says Can. That's hardly worse than living in the shadow of military coups, he says. To move forward, though, Turkey needs that new constitution. 

Can says the law he has helped to draft (which remains unpublished, Can says, to keep it from becoming a campaign target) is based on the U.S. system. It would, for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, create a clear division of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary, and devolve administrative control from the center to the regions. 

The draft, he continues enthusiastically, would also change the nature of parliament, eliminating the 10 percent threshold that parties have had to cross in order to win a seat -- a mechanism that has barred minority-based parties, such as the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Religious and ethnic diversity would be allowed to flourish, he says. 

Everything Can envisions for the new constitution suggests that it wouldn't be designed to increase Erdogan's powers, but to trim them. "We are cutting the link between the president and political parties," he says. 

As much I want to believe him, what he proposes bears no relation to Turkey's reality. 

Erdogan, when asked a day earlier what kind of presidential republic he wanted, said it should be like those in the U.S., France or Russia. That's quite a spread -- from a genuine if messy democracy to Putin's autocracy adorned by carefully managed elections. It suggests, at a minimum, that Erdogan hasn't quite signed up to the whole separation of powers idea. 

Which system would Erdogan choose? Well, there are plenty of clues. In recent years Turkey has jailed more journalists than China or Iran. The government has described protesters as terrorists, and legislated to give the police powers to use live ammunition for crowd control. It has also purged the courts of prosecutors who have sought to investigate allegations of its own corruption

Apart from which, the current constitution already requires Erdogan to cut his connections to any political party and remain nonpartisan. Instead he is storming the country to campaign for the AKP, attacking the other main parties as either having "blood on their hands" (the Kurdish HDP) or wanting to take the country back to the bad old days of military coups (the Republican People's Party). 

Can says that if Erdogan were to try to force through a Russian-style system, or even one that gave him the right to dissolve parliament (as in France), "it would not be approved by the Turkish people," who would have to vote for it in a referendum. 

All this requires giving Erdogan the benefit of the doubt when he says his goal is to improve Turkey's democracy rather than use it as a means to his own ends. That hasn't seemed plausible for several years. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net