A presidential referendum or early election in spring 2017?
Exactly three months after the bloody military coup attempt of July 15, the aftermath of which saw the winds of political reconciliation and understanding blowing, Turkey has returned to its high degree of polarization. As before, one of the main issues is President Tayyip Erdoğan’s bid to force a shift from the parliamentary system to an executive presidential system with fewer checks and balances.
Speaking in the Central Anatolian city of Konya on Oct. 14, Erdoğan said the problem was not himself, but rather his governing style. “I want to get the job done as quickly as possible,” he said, referring to his earlier comments that he hated being “delayed” as the head of the executive body by parliament or the judiciary.
“Let’s change the constitution. Let’s take it to the people,” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said on the same day in the Western city of İzmir.
The debate was heated up again earlier this week when Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli suggested that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) should bring its constitutional draft to parliament without delay and go to a referendum if it could secure the necessary number of votes. Any constitutional amendment can be approved if two-thirds of parliament votes for it, (367 votes out of the total 550 seats). In order for the amendment to be taken to a referendum, three-fifths (330 votes) are needed. The AK Parti has 317 seats in parliament, so it needs support from the other parties to make any changes or take them to a referendum.
Because of this, Erdoğan and the AK Parti got excited after Bahçeli, the head of a party with 40 seats in parliament, came up with the idea. PM Yıldırım welcomed the remark and said the government would bring a draft to parliament as soon as possible.
Bahçeli’s remarks have been slammed by the two other opposition parties. Social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that the MHP had made a secret deal with the AK Parti in an anti-democratic move. Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Deputy Chair İdris Baluken said the AK Parti and the MHP were both trying to drag Turkey to a dictatorship.
Upon the reactions, MHP spokesman Ercan Akçay said Bahçeli’s words had been misunderstood. He stressed that Bahçeli did not say the MHP would support the presidential system, and was in fact in favor of strengthening Turkey’s parliamentary system.
But the genie now seems to be out of the bottle.
Mustafa Şentop, the head of parliament’s Constitutional Commission and a senior AK Parti figure, said a referendum could be possible in the spring of 2017. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said that “if the MHP agreed” they could change Turkey’s administrative regime together in early 2017.
On the other hand, there are reports from the CHP backstage claiming that Kılıçdaroğlu has asked his deputies to get ready for an early election around April 2017.
There are also reports that the Supreme Election Boards (YSK) has been preparing for the printing of ballots, though there are no details on whether these reported ballots are for an election or a referendum.
According to whispers in Ankara - based on Yıldırım’s recent claim that there is not even one name in the AK Parti with links to the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of being behind the July 15 coup attempt - an early election could give Erdoğan and Yıldırım the opportunity to silently oust names with suspected links to Gülen, freeing them of any political headaches caused by prosecutions. In fact, that applies to all parties.
It is still not clear how these developments will unfold. But this may become clearer after the AK Parti’s consultative conference to be held in the Central Anatolian city of Afyon on Oct. 21-23.