What’s the story and why does it matter?
Turks will go to the polls on 16 April to vote on constitutional amendments that would transform the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system.
The package, which includes 18 amendments, is being put to the people because the proposed changes to the constitution did not get the backing of two-thirds of MPs in parliament. In this case the reforms were passed in the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 16 January with a simple majority, and then approved by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The referendum could bring about arguably the most significant political development since the Turkish republic was declared in 1923. The determination with which Erdoğan has pursued it has seen him dispatch ministers to Europe in search of expatriate voters, and attack the Dutch government as “Nazi remnants” when it cancelled campaign events.
Under the new system, Erdoğan will be able to stand in two more election cycles, which means if he wins the 2019 and 2024 polls he could potentially stay on as a powerful head of state until 2029. He could also return to the leadership of the Justice and Development party (AKP), which he co-founded, and which holds the overwhelming majority in parliament.
The post of president used to be largely ceremonial but had some influence over policymaking. Through sheer force of personality, and the loyalty he still commands among the AKP electorate and their lawmakers, Erdoğan has made it a much more powerful job. Should the referendum go his way, it will be more powerful still.
What exactly will people be voting on?
The 18 amendments primarily deal with the powers of the executive and legislative branches. They include:
- The abolition of the post of prime minister. The president will appoint the cabinet and will have a number of vice-presidents. Parliament will no longer oversee the ministers as their power to initiate a motion of no confidence will be removed.
- The president will no longer have to be neutral, but will be able to maintain an affiliation to his political party. Currently the president has to sever ties with his party once he is elected.
- The number of members of parliament will be increased from 550 to 600 and their minimum age lowered to 18.
- It will be possible for the president to be impeached by parliament. At the moment he could only be prosecuted by the legislature if he committed treason.
- The abolition of military courts.
- The president will be able to appoint four out of 13 judges to the highest judicial board in the country.
Isn’t Turkey in a state of emergency?
Yes, and the environment in which the referendum is taking place is extremely challenging, particularly for those who oppose the changes.
The state of emergency was introduced last summer after a failed coup attempt in which 248 people were killed and more than 1,400 injured. The coup is widely believed in Turkey to have been orchestrated by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive preacher based in the US with a global grassroots movement known as Cemaat or Hizmet. Gülen denies this.
A purge of the civil service, police, military, judiciary, academia and media organisations has led to the dismissal or arrest of tens of thousands of people accused of links to the Gülenists. Erdoğan’s opponents say the purges have gone far beyond the coup’s perpetrators, and have turned into a witch-hunt against any political opposition.
So far, 152 journalists are in jail in Turkey, according to opposition parties, and a wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition People’s Democratic party (HDP) has resulted in a dozen of their lawmakers being detained, including their two chiefs.
Turkey has also endured a slew of terror attacks by Islamic State, the latest of which was an assault on the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve that killed 39 people. Attacks by the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), a designated terror group fighting an insurgency in the south-east, have continued after the collapse of peace talks in June 2015.
Why are some people going to vote ‘yes’?
The majority that approved the constitutional changes in parliament consisted of the AKP in alliance with the nationalists.
Supporters of the changes argue that they will lead to a “strong Turkey” where the executive will be able to wield power to promote economic development and combat terrorism, pointing to the chaos of coalition governments in the 1990s whose bickering drove Turkey into economic recession and catastrophic inflation.
They also believe a powerful executive, which they compare to the system in France, the US or Mexico, will be better able to handle the threat of terrorism at uncertain times, particularly after the coup attempt, the surge in violence in Kurdish-majority areas and the ongoing campaign against Isis and the Gülen network. They see comfort in the stability of ongoing AKP rule.
Supporters also say the change is necessary to move on from an antiquated constitution drafted under military rule, which they say produced a “two-headed executive” with conflicting powers and authorities that could paralyse decision-making in government. They also say there are sufficient checks and balances in the proposed system, such as the ability to impeach the president for a broader set of crimes and to call early presidential elections, to avoid an excessive amount of power being concentrated in one person’s hands.
Muhammet Emin Akbaşoğlu, an AKP MP and member of the constitutional committee, said: “There will be more stability, Turkey won’t lose time any more, the uncertainties and things that can cause instability will be gone, and the state apparatus will shed its weight, the poorly functioning parts.”
Political intricacies aside, Erdoğan can also rely on his personal appeal to supporters who see him as a down to earth leader who is able to stand up to the west. They also see him as a force to empower the poor and downtrodden, and many respect his religious piety and Islamic values.
Why are others going to vote no?
The two main opposition parties, the staunchly secularist Republican People’s party (CHP) and the HDP, which includes primarily Kurdish lawmakers as well as a coalition of leftist and minority groups, voted against the bill.
Opponents believe the presidential system will usher in a one-man regime led by Erdoğan, who they say has grown increasingly authoritarian over the years. They point to the government’s broad crackdown on dissent, as well as the president’s apparent sensitivity to personal slights and insults as evidence of his intolerance of criticism.
They say the changes will empower the president to continue his purge of the bureaucracy, police, military, judiciary and academia, as well as the systematic arrests and harassment of a large cadre of the HDP’s political and grassroots organisation.
Bülent Tezcan, a CHP MP and member of the constitutional committee, said the proposed package means “the democratic regime in Turkey will be replaced with one man rule”. “It gives all the powers, including executive and judicial, [to the president], and all three branches of government will all be connected to one person,” he added.
Opponents also argue that the referendum is taking place under hostile conditions, with opponents effectively silenced by the detention of leading politicians, academics and journalists, including the charismatic HDP chief, Selahattin Demirtaş, and journalists at the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper.
Opponents also dispute the claim that there will be enough checks and balances in the proposed system. They argue it would not do enough to contain the president’s power, removing from parliament the ability to oversee the executive branch, giving him the power to appoint too many judges, and allowing Erdoğan to remain an AKP member in a move that would consolidate his hold on all aspects of political life.
Who’s going to win?
It’s a tight race, and nobody knows what will happen. Polls have varied widely, a sign of a divided electorate. The result may hinge on the 10% of voters who say they are still undecided.
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