The vote to approve amendments to the Turkish constitution means that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s executive authority will be formalised and consolidated. What happens next? Expect increased human security concerns within Turkey’s borders, a recalibration of Turkey’s relationship with the EU, and a strengthened narrative to knuckle down on Kurdish insurgency.
The referendum campaign was divisive. Polls were evenly split, and many analysts argued that this decision was one of the most important in Turkey’s history.
The proposals generated friction within Turkey’s borders, amplified diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Europe, and held wider repercussions for human security in Turkey – particularly for Erdogan’s opponents in the public sector and media.
Constitutional amendment is nothing new to Turkey. Since its initial approval in 1982, the Turkish Constitution has been amended 17 times, twice by means of a referendum, altering over 60% of its articles. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which spearheaded the ‘yes’ vote, endorsed constitutional reform as a positive and democratic change from a parliamentary system to a ‘Turkish-style’ presidential system, promising to reduce the likelihood of ineffective coalitions governing Turkey.
However, the scope of changes proposed by the 18-article amendment package has been widely criticised for its potential to erode the separation of powers, and to create an authoritarian regime on Europe’s doorstep.
In fact, the plan turns Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. Among the numerous changes:
- The role of prime minister will be scrapped. The new post of vice president, possibly two or three, will be created.
- The president becomes the head of the executive, as well as the head of state, and retains ties to a political party.
- He or she will be given sweeping new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree.
- The president alone will be able to announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament.
- Parliament will lose its right to scrutinise ministers or propose an enquiry. However, it will be able to begin impeachment proceedings or investigate the president with a majority vote by MPs. Putting the president on trial would require a two-thirds majority.
- The number of MPs will increase from 550 to 600.
- Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day every five years. The president will be limited to two terms.
A presidential system is all very well in a country with proper checks and balances like the United States, retort critics, where an independent judiciary has shown itself willing to stand up to Donald Trump and a rigorous free press calls him out on contentious policies.
But in Turkey, where judicial independence has plummeted and which now ranks 151 of 180 countries in the press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders, an all-powerful president would spell the death knell of democracy, they say.
Ahmet Kasim Han, a political scientist from Kadir Has University, said before the vote: “The real weakness is that in its hurry to pass the reform, the government hasn’t really explained the 2,000 laws that would change. So it doesn’t look bright, especially with this government’s track record.”
With the detail of the constitutional reform impenetrable to many, the referendum became focused around Mr Erdogan himself: a president who elicits utmost reverence from one side of the country and intense hatred from the other.
The result will now determine the political fate of this deeply troubled but hugely important country.