On January 21, 2017, the Turkish Parliament passed a constitutional amendment bill with 18 articles to change the system of government. The bill proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and supported by its new-found ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), received 339 votes in favour in the 550-member parliament, clearing the required threshold of three-fifths (330) majority. If approved in a referendum, to be held within two months of presidential approval, the constitutional amendment will effectively convert Turkey into a presidential system of government. Media reports suggest that the referendum date will be announced shortly and is expected to be held in early April.
The procedure followed by the government to pass the amendment bill in parliament has come in for criticism from various quarters. Parliamentary debates have been marred by controversy, with the opposition and government members getting into shouting slugfests and brawls over various clauses. The first round of debates led to some changes in the draft bill, which were approved by a parliamentary committee in December 2016. The new draft bill was again presented for debate in the parliament, leading to final approval on January 21.
The proposed amendment has left the Turkish polity deeply divided. Opposition parties, especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is the oldest political organisation in Turkey and currently the second largest after AKP, and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), have vehemently opposed the bill accusing the ruling AKP of pushing for a one-man rule. It has been argued that, if approved, the new system can give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an opportunity to be elected for two more terms. His current term ends in 2019 and the new system will become effective the same year. Given its provision for two five-year terms, if Erdoğan wins, he can effectively rule Turkey until 2029.
On the other hand, the ruling AKP and its ally MHP have argued that the old system of governance has rendered Turkey unstable and hinders decision making and economic growth. The pro-amendment parties argue that a presidential system will provide the needed stability and a strong government that can take the country on the path of fast development. It has been presented as a pill that will cure Turkey of all its ills.
However, the concerns of the opposition and many intellectuals have become accentuated with the streak of recent developments. The AKP Government has taken measures that many believe is authoritarian in nature and scuttles Turkey’s democratic ethos. Though the AKP has been in power since 2002, it had started taking tough stand against the opposition after the Gezi Park protests erupted in mid-2013. Inspired by the Arab Spring protests, the demonstrators initially demanded the rollback of a government proposal for an urban redevelopment plan. However, the protests gradually evolved into a movement against the AKP government’s failures and solicited a strong response from then Prime Minister Erdoğan leading to police action and violence.
The political situation sharpened thereafter due to declining popular support for AKP. Though Erdoğan was elected president in the first direct presidential election held in August 2014 with a simple majority, winning 51.7 per cent of the votes, opinion polls showed that the AKP was losing popular support in the run up to the 2015 parliamentary elections. Expectedly, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 general elections, gaining 40.8 per cent of votes and 258 seats, 18 less than the required simple majority of 276. As coalition talks failed, a snap election was held in November and the AKP surprisingly won a majority with 49.5 per cent of popular votes, getting 316 seats in parliament. The ‘shocking’ election results were largely attributed to Erdoğan’s tough stand against militant Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and Turkey’s perceived strong action in Syria.
In fact, in the lead up to the snap elections, the peace negotiations with the PKK that started in March 2013 broke down leading to escalation in violence. It led to a strong action by the police against the PKK and its sympathisers. Further, action was taken against those perceived to be opposing the government’s action. While the election campaign was at peak, a crackdown on the media and civil society gave a glimpse of the days to come. The government took action against pro-opposition journalists and media houses. In October 2015, many media firms were shut down while journalists critical of AKP policies were fired or arrested.
The crackdown became frequent and massive after the failed coup in July 2016. An emergency was imposed initially for three months and has now been extended until early April 2017. Analysts have argued that the coup has provided a license for Erdoğan to target his opponents, with many pro-Kurdish opposition leaders and journalists, academics and intellectuals being fired from their jobs or forced to leave the country. The purge in the military, civil services and judiciary and even in universities has continued in the name of action against supporters and sympathisers of the Gulenist movement that has been accused of plotting the coup. Thousands of soldiers and civil servants have been fired and hundreds are under trial.
The constitutional amendment will change Turkey’s 94-year old parliamentary system of government, which it has been following since the foundation of the republic in 1923. Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian behaviour and the fact that the new system places extraordinary powers in the president, especially in appointments of constitutional and administrative functionaries, raise serious doubts about Turkey’s slide into an autocracy. AKP’s inability to address economic downturn and political problems and targeting of critiques, are a further cause of worry. The Turkish republic stands at a crucial juncture today. As the constitutional amendment bill awaits referendum, serious questions arise about the direction in which Turkey is heading. At the heart of the concern is, the new system might undo the democratic gains made over the past decades.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.