Where will one-man rule lead Turkey?

Where will one-man rule lead Turkey?

Parliament will on Jan. 18 begin the second round of voting on an 18-article constitutional package, planning to accomplish the process before the end of this week and before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leaves for a three-country tour of Africa on Jan. 22. 

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli, who jointly drafted the constitutional amendments shifting Turkey from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system, have expressed their absolute belief in the package. Yıldırım said he was not expecting a “surprise” in the second round of the voting process, describing his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as “rock solid.”

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is trying to urge AKP-MHP lawmakers that these changes will only bring about a dictatorship and instability, as parliament will lose its role as the main check and balance mechanism. CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will meet Bahçeli on Jan. 18 for a last-minute meeting, warning that his support for the package will cause irreparable damage to Turkey’s unity and stability. But Bahçeli has already announced that he will not change his position, while harshly criticizing the CHP for not backing the package. 

That is the picture of Turkish politics just a day before the key vote at parliament. In this column I will not reiterate the content of the package, but will try to analyze how it would change the country’s regime. 

One of the most important points of the proposed executive presidential system is that it almost precludes the president from having to account for their actions. Under the proposed system, permission to prosecute the president can be given by a two-thirds majority at parliament. What’s more, even in the highly unlikely event that a parliamentary majority is found, the president can only be prosecuted by the
Constitutional Court, 12 of whose 15 members will have been appointed by the president himself. 

Practically speaking, the president will assume the powers of the executive, but will be unaccountable before the law. This recalls one of the distinguishing features of autocratic regimes: The ruler not being accountable for what they do. 

The fact that the president’s executive powers will also contain tools to bypass the legislature and to control judiciary, the proposed system will abolish the principle of the separation of powers and risks turning the country into one-man rule. 

This very picture reminds me of a remarkable piece by Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski titled “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy,” which summarizes the hallmarks of totalitarianism under six subtitles. 

The first is an official ideology to which general adherence is demanded, intended to achieve a “perfect final stage of mankind.” The second is a single mass party, hierarchically organized, closely interwoven with the state bureaucracy and typically led by one man. The third is monopolistic control of the armed forces. The fourth is a similar monopoly of the means of effective mass communication. The fifth is a system of strong police control. The sixth is a centralized and directed economy.

A good number of these hallmarks can be observed in today’s Turkey, while some of these features - the fifth and sixth particularly - also exist in many democratically developed countries where security remains a problem. 

The AKP, by its nature and its successive election victories since 2002, could be well described as a single mass party with no other parties seemingly able to challenge it. It has just one leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who will be able to officially return to his party’s leadership thanks to the proposed constitutional amendments. 

More importantly, the AKP has a very strong and acknowledged ideology. Accompanied by a strong conservative Islamist background, this ultra-nationalist ideology has gained a new impetus after the July 2016 coup attempt, accompanied by strong anti-terrorism rhetoric. The trauma that Turkey has been experiencing since the coup attempt and after every bloody terror attack could pave the way for the government to consolidate its powerful and influential place in Turkish society through its calls for unity and solidarity. 

This does not necessarily mean that these calls for unity and togetherness should not be endorsed, but efforts to demonize and discriminate against those who have different views on Turkey’s current issues only increase concerns about the state of democracy in the country. 

Moreover, under the ongoing state of emergency - where freedom of expression and the right to protest and freely assemble are restricted – it is getting harder to expect that this legislation will bring anything other than totalitarian rule.