Erdoğan extends hand to CHP for new constitution

Erdoğan extends hand to CHP for new constitution

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan made an unexpected offer to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) during a live interview on the ATV station on Nov. 18. “With the support of the main opposition, the changes [in the constitution] could pass through parliament in a month, with the representatives of the people, without having to directly ask the will of the people,” he said, referring to a referendum for a new constitution.

This is an important change of tactic by Erdoğan, and one with interesting timing. 

Erdoğan is reminding the CHP indirectly that if it does not agree, he could hold a referendum that he “believes the people would approve.” It is clear that Erdoğan believes that if he can change Turkey’s administration from the current parliamentary system to a presidential system - as he has long been advocating - he could surpasses the 49.5 percent that the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) received on Nov. 1, reaching the 52 percent he received when he was elected president in August 2014.

But there is a difference between forcing through a new constitution focusing on a presidential system, which would further divide people into “for and against Erdoğan,” and taking credit for forming the first Turkish constitution written in a time other than war, revolutions, counter-revolutions and coup d’etats, with parliament’s broader consensus. Combined, the AK Parti (with 317 seats in the 550-seat Turkish Parliament) and the CHP (with 25-plus percent of the votes giving it 134 seats) together represent more than 75 percent of voters.

In fact, all four parties in parliament formed a parliamentary committee to write a new constitution after the 2011 election, but the committee broke down after agreeing on 60 articles, mainly because the AK Parti insisted on adding the shift to a presidential system. Erdoğan said in the ATV interview that he would continue to put the system change on the political agenda because he believed a presidential system was needed in Turkey, despite concerns inside and outside Turkey about concentrating too much power in one pair of hands, thus weakening checks and balances.

“A majority of the G-20 countries are ruled by a presidential system,” Erdoğan said, adding that the implementations of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founder, were in line with this type of system.

Turkey’s current parliamentary system is actually full of loop-holes and already gives strong executive powers to the president (with little accountability), as well as the prime minister and the cabinet.

The CHP is in favor of strengthening the parliamentary system, granting parliament stronger checks and balances and a clearer separation of powers. In a recent interview, CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said his party’s priority was to extend rights and freedoms and to write a more democratic constitution. But there is still no consensus yet within the CHP on the issue, as the party is heading for a congress, probably in January, after failing to raise its vote share on Nov. 1.

Erdoğan’s timing in voicing his tactical change enters the equation at this stage. Erdoğan has extended his hand to the CHP before Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has even come up with his new cabinet list and before the CHP congress in order to make sure his offer cannot be ignored by either party.

The new CHP administration will decide on whether to accept or reject the offer. It will be calculating whether Erdoğan will be able to try his chances through a referendum on a text that he and the AK Parti favor, or whether the CHP will be able to contribute to the new constitution, thus bringing balance for a better democratic mechanism in a presidential or semi-presidential system.