Turkey on the threshold of its most radical turn

Turkey on the threshold of its most radical turn

The debates on the draft for constitutional amendments proposing a shift from Turkey’s parliamentarian system to an executive presidential one are scheduled to start on Jan. 9 in parliament.

The system change has been pushed by President Tayyip Erdoğan since even before he was elected as president in August 2014. Erdoğan has promoted the concentration of executive power in one hand (including abolishing the prime ministry) in order to ensure the “prompt implementation” of political decisions and to ensure there is no “slowdown” due to checks and balances, whether by the parliament of the judiciary.

 He has never hidden the fact that he believes in the political control of the political power elected through a popular vote over the non-elected holders of power, including the courts. That highlights one of the main areas of debate: the separation of powers.

The draft proposes that the president be authorized to abolish parliament at any time and take the country to another election, which is considered as a pressure by the executive (the president, if the constitution is approved) branch of the government on the legislative, the parliament, even from among ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) deputies.

The draft suggests that the president will be able to keep the title of party chairman.

According to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), that would make Turkey a “party state” under “one-man rule.” Addressing his party assembly on Jan. 8 in order ask them to marshal all their abilities to stop the approval of the draft in parliament, Kılıçdaroğlu said the biggest blow would be to court independence. “The leader of the ruling party will be the president if the amendments are approved,” he said. “[Erdoğan] will be able to appoint 12 out of 15 members of the Constitutional Court and the majority of the members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK),” which appoints all judges and prosecutors across the country.

The radical changes are not limited to the administrative and political system. With a decree in force of law under the state of emergency imposed by the government in the wake of the foiled military coup on July 15, 2016, all military decisions in the change of command, including the appointment of all officers have been transferred to the defense minister. The Chief of General Staff will be under the president, who will still be the commander in chief, but without any power left vested in the apparatus he is supposed to command.

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has a delicate position in this scene. If the draft is approved, he will lose his position as prime minister, since the office will be abolished, and probably his position as the chairman of the AK Parti as well, since it will be legally possible for the AK Parti to go to an extraordinary congress and elect Erdoğan as their chairman as well. 

And Yıldırım is in charge of securing at least 330 votes in the 550-seat parliament to be able to take the draft to a referendum; a 367 vote majority for outright approval is not in sight for the time being. The AK Parti’s seats (317 minus one, since the speaker cannot use vote) are not enough for that. So Yıldırım went to Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and obtained his support for the vote in the parliament and if approved, in the referendum as well.

Bahçeli’s support for Erdoğan’s presidency, which he had campaigned against before the 2015 elections escalated the intra-MHP tensions. In addition to resignations before and the open declaration of five MPs (out of the 39 they have) that they would vote against the proposal, one of Bahçeli’s deputy chairmen, Atila Kaya, resigned his post last week in protest at Bahçeli’s support for Erdoğan.

But a bigger problem awaiting Yıldırım, and thus Erdoğan, might arise from within the AK Parti in the quest to attain 330 votes. There is no on-the-record voices heard, yet the draft has caused some discomfort and discontent within the AK Parti because of too much executive power over the parliament and the courts. It is also an open secret that Kurdish-origin MPs of the AK Parti are not happy with the close cooperation with the MHP.

The CHP is likely to be the source of effective opposition in the debates since a number of MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which focuses on the Kurdish issue, are in jail, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. And the CHP’s success is likely to depend on their ability to convince more figures from the AK Parti and the MHP either to vote against, abstain or simply be absent when the day comes.

It is going to be a historical week for the parliament, since this is going to be a historical turn for Turkey, the most radical one after the shift from a sultanate to a republic in 1923 and the shift from a single-party state to a democracy in 1947.