Jan. 9 marked yet another historic day in Turkey’s political history, as parliament began debating a controversial constitutional amendment package that shifts the country’s governance system to an executive presidency.
Critics say this proposed system will abolish the principle of the separation of powers, weaken the role of parliament, and decorate the president with extensive powers on the functions of the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.
Sami Selçuk, the former president of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals, analyzed the draft amendments in two articles published in daily Cumhuriyet on Jan. 9 and 10. Selçuk referred to Article 16 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man approved by France’s National Assembly in August 1789, after the French
Revolution, which reads: “A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.”
He came to the conclusion that approval of the proposed amendments will change Turkey’s status from a “constitutional state” to just “a state with a constitution.” Underlining that the implementation of the presidential system requires a clear-cut functioning of the principle of the separation of powers, Selçuk urged that if these things are not guaranteed it can only lead to totalitarian rule.
Other important aspects of the voting process on the constitutional amendments are its methodology and the political and social conditions under which it is held. Addressing these aspects, let’s start from conditions outside parliament.No free environment
Turkey has been under state of emergency rule since July 20, 2016. At first, measures taken under the state of emergency targeted the perpetrators of the July 15 coup attempt and members of the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ).” However, recent developments show that dissidents and political opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have also been targeted.
As a result of the ongoing witch-hunt against government critics in the traditional and social media, scores of journalists, academics and activists have either been arrested, prosecuted or intimidated. Pressure on the mainstream media has been intensified through various means, while pro-government propaganda machines do not hesitate to continue unethical smear campaigns against all sorts of dissidents.
As freedom of expression is under serious restriction, the right to assembly and protest through peaceful demonstrations cannot be exercised. On Jan. 9, around 50 civil society organizations, including Turkey’s Bar Association, were denied the right to protest charter talks at parliament by the use of police force. It is highly likely that the government will not allow protest attempts in the coming days as well, as parliament continues to debate and vote on each article until late January.
This picture tells us that Turkey’s most important constitutional change is not being discussed in a free environment. Worse, the ongoing state of emergency will continue to not allow a free and equal environment for opposition groups that want to campaign against the move. Society polarized and traumatized ahead of key vote
The fact that continued deadly terror attacks that spread nation-wide fear and concern is yet another discouraging factor for a healthy social and political environment ahead of these key votes. Essentially, a highly polarized and traumatized society kept in a vicious terror cycle is heading toward one of its most important decisions.
Also important is the fact that the Turkish Lira is hitting new lows against the U.S. dollar and the euro, showing that this attempt to change the political system is not seen as a stabilizing move by the global economic system.
Inside parliament, there are four parties represented at the General Assembly, with the ruling AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supporting the constitutional changes. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are against the amendments.
However, the co-leaders of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been in prison since last fall, along with 10 other deputies. They cannot perform their duty of representing their electorate as they are unable to vote. The rest of the HDP also faces a similar risk, causing further pressure on the party, which garnered around 11 percent of the vote in the last election. With unprecedented pressure on the media, it has become nearly impossible for the HDP to make its voice heard in the public opinion.
CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu
is also under fierce attack in the pro-government media, which regularly describes him as a “provocateur” for calling on the public to stand against the constitutional changes. Will changes bring stability?
It is also interesting to witness how only a very small part of the General Assembly sessions on the charter amendments has been aired through the official Parliament TV station, despite calls from the main opposition party. This is despite the fact that polls show a good majority of the Turkish public has insufficient knowledge on what these amendments will bring about.
Last but not least, although the constitutional amendments are being voted on in a secret vote, the AKP is seemingly taking all measures to violate this principle by forcing ruling party lawmakers to disclose their vote.
The sole purpose is to avoid any defectors from the party and help it to secure at least 330 votes.
Given the picture of today’s Turkey promises anything other than bright days ahead, the government’s attempt to overhaul the governance system is far from delivering stability, peace and comfort.