Since Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced a wide array of proposed constitutional amendments last December, the media has been awash with coverage of the upcoming referendum to decide on whether to approve or reject transforming Turkey’s democracy from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential one.
However, most interest in Turkey’s referendum in the western media has been focused on the campaign itself, with serious diplomatic spats erupting between Turkey and European powers, notably Denmark, Austria and Germany. Turkey branded some of these countries as “Nazi remnants” and accused them of having fascistic tendencies after they prevented Turkish ministers and diplomats from addressing rallies in favour of the constitutional changes or even accessing their own embassy, a breach of diplomatic norms and conventions.
But what is the referendum all about, and what is likely to happen to Turkey in the event of a “Yes” vote?
What’s the referendum about?
For many years now, AKP under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to secure a significant enough parliamentary majority in order to effect a constitutional change to an executive presidency without need for a referendum. Turkey is currently ruled by a parliamentary system whereby the party with the most votes at a general election get to form a new government led by a prime minister as the main wielder of executive power. In the current Turkish constitution, the president is a largely symbolic figure with very limited powers.
Although AKP have secured consecutive majorities in almost every election since 2002 – having briefly lost a majority in June 2015 before regaining it months later in a snap election – they have never secured enough seats to enact a constitutional change unilaterally and have now decided to attempt a referendum.
Since Erdogan gave up the prime ministry and won the first presidential election decided by a popular vote in 2014, he has had to relinquish his leadership of AKP, as well as resigning his membership to the party as Turkish law does not allow for a serving president to represent any party.
However, this has largely been a formality, as Erdogan has still wielded control and enormous influence over AKP and, by extension, the Turkish government. After a political spat with his previous prime minister, veteran AKP diplomat Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan replaced him with incumbent Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in May 2016 to much fanfare in the capital Ankara. Under Erdogan, then, the prime minister has almost become a cabinet position in his de facto presidential system that he is now seeking to formalise through a successful “Yes” vote this Sunday.
The basic issues
At a fundamental level, AKP and allies from the deeply fractured Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the fourth party in parliament, are calling for all executive powers to be vested in the president, and the abolishment of the office of the prime minister. The president will be able to be the head of state while simultaneously being the leader of a party, and the cabinet will no longer be answerable to parliament with the president being empowered to hire and fire ministers as he sees fit. Finally, parliamentary and presidential elections will take place at the same time, and every five years, with the president limited to two terms.
“Yes” campaigners say that such a move is critical for ensuring Turkey remains a stable country, economically, militarily and politically. Citing four successful coups and one failed coup last summer that occurred throughout the history of the Turkish republic, campaigners say that weak leadership and heavily divided and polarised parliaments and coalition governments led to successive military putsches and interference in democracy, and repeatedly threw the economy into an abyss of uncertainty. They also argue that a failure to ensure the stability of Turkey’s political system risks the security of the state in the face of increasing Kurdish leftist terrorism and Daesh militancy, as well as threatening the enormous economic gains made by the AKP administration since 2002, a large reason behind the party’s enduring popularity.
“No” campaigners, on the other hand, say that Turkey is already a de facto presidential system under President Erdogan, and that the power he currently wields is unconstitutional. They argue that if the amendments are passed, Erdogan would have a popular mandate to formally assume these powers and use them to become an authoritarian dictator. To substantiate their claims, the “No” camp point to alleged human rights abuses committed against dissidents and those suspected of being involved with the Fethullah Gulen organisation, a secretive group accused of orchestrating the botched coup last year that killed hundreds of Turkish civilians.
The Turkish authorities deny these allegations, with the “Yes” camp saying that, in any case, the current immunity enjoyed by the president will be lifted and he will become criminally liable, providing enough power for the judicial branch of government to take action against him or any other future president if abuses are committed. That said, the “No” camp respond that the appointment of senior prosecutors and judges would also be under the influence of the president.
Either way, Sunday’s plebiscite will be a historic and potentially game-changing moment in Turkish history. In a few days, we may see Erdogan rise to his latest and greatest triumph yet, and establish himself permanently as a political force that rivals the influence of Turkey’s ultra-secular founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself.