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Turkey barely votes 'Yes' to sweeping presidential powers referendum

April 16, 2017 at 6:59 pm

Turkey’s Prime Minister and Binali Yildirim greets the crowd during “yes” campaign, prior to the constitutional referendum in Istanbul, Turkey on 15 April, 2017. (Hakan Göktepe – Anadolu Agency)

Following a tense campaign filled with diplomatic spats with other countries, heated domestic exchanges and the trading of political barbs between the “Yes” and “No” camps, the “Yes” campaign has emerged barely victorious, paving the way for the country’s first ever executive presidency in 2019.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led a campaign to amend the constitution that has been in place since a military coup in 1980 brought General Kenan Evren to power. That constitution was drafted by a military regime, and “Yes” campaigners argued that it had made the country’s parliamentary system that is soon to be replaced inherently unstable by creating a succession of weak coalition governments.

Meanwhile, “No” campaigned against the constitutional changes, saying that it was a ploy by incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to focus ever-greater executive power into his hands, while also greatly influencing the legislative and judicial branches of government.

However, in a hard-fought and often stressful campaign that saw a voter turnout of reportedly 85.8 per cent, the AKP-led campaign has barely emerged victorious and with a bloodied nose, clinching an unconvincing 51.3 per cent share of the popular vote. Although there will be questions as to the extent of the legitimacy of the victory considering the scope of the changes proposed in the referendum, this now means that preparations will be made to abolish the office of prime minister, and to prepare for both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

One of the key concerns of the “No” camp was the fact that both presidential and parliamentary elections would be held on the same day. That meant that whichever party won the presidency would also likely win a majority in the legislature. Added to the fact that the president would now be entitled to be a party leader as opposed to the non-partisan figurehead that the post is currently meant to be, this would mean that the president would have significant influence over the legislation, and not only possess sweeping executive powers.

Even pro-AKP supporters voiced concerns about this move. Speaking to MEMO, Mehmet, who asked for his real name not to be used, said that he did not “feel that President Erdogan could move forward convincingly with such a weak outcome.”Mehmet also expressed concerns about future dictatorships:

I support President Erdogan, and trust him to use power responsibly for the benefit of our nation. But what happens after he leaves? If the president also controls a majority of MPs, they can never vote to impeach him, whatever the new constitution says.”

Mehmet was referring to the new rules that would make the president criminally liable for his actions, with a majority vote of MPs possessing the power to begin impeachment of the incumbent.

However, “Yes” campaigners argue that such extensive powers are necessary to keep political, economic and security crises at bay, and that concerns over dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are unwarranted.

Muttalip Meric, a postgraduate student who voted “Yes”, told MEMO that such fears were baseless.”

A parliamentary majority can impeach a president,” Meric said. “If someone, whether Erdogan or any future president, is clearly unfit to rule, even his own party will see that and could vote against him in parliament.”

“This is not a system of personalities, but will be a system of good governance and I trust that both parliament and the Turkish people will have the wisdom to vote for the benefit of their nation, who has suffered from years of bad governance and suppression by their own state.”

Many “Yes” voters MEMO spoke to indicated that their vote was not only a vote to empower their presidency, but also “a vote against terrorism”, turning their ire towards Daesh militants and leftist extremists from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), responsible for many bombings in Turkey and mass civilian casualties. They also made it clear that they were tired of ideological advocates of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who set up what many perceive to be an anti-conservative state that suppressed and repressed any religious expression from mostly Muslim Turks.

If Erdogan wins the 2019 vote as is expected, the first of a possible of two five-year terms will begin, and his rule as an executive president could last until 2029.

From 2019 onwards, all Turkish presidents will wield extensive powers, and the ensuing two years until the first presidential elections of the new Turkish political era will function as a transition from the old system, and into the new just over half of Turks voted for on Sunday. The opposition who lost the referendum will nevertheless be empowered with a greater sense of legitimacy for their cause over the next couple of years, as the victory for AKP was far from convincing.