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Turkey Towards Erdoğan’s Authoritarian Presidentialism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The constitutional referendum in Turkey will be held on April 16, 2017. The proposed constitutional reform, promoted by the Erdoğan’s AKP, introduces presidentialism

In late January, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since 2002, has managed to get the Parliament’s approval on the constitutional reform. The new proposal introduces a presidential system in the country, concentrating power in the hands of the president. With the proposed changes, the next election will be held in 2019 and, if Erdoğan were to be re-elected, he would remain in office for another five years, until 2024. Relations in crisis Tensions with Germany rose further at the beginning of 2017. Out of three million Turks living in the European country, one and a half will vote at the referendum in mid-April and they are the ones who look with interest at the developments of the relations between the two countries. The agreement on migratory flows, in force between the EU and Turkey since last March, has been achieved thanks to the patronage of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since then, however, relations have degenerated. The debate that started in late February with the arrest in Turkey of Deniz Yücel, a Turkish correspondent journalist for the German newspaper Die Welt, had a huge press coverage, both locally and internationally. Germany accused the Turkish government of being anti-democratic and to be going down the path of authoritarianism, especially with the proposed constitutional reform. Erdoğan’s response did not take too long: the President said that the German manners are comparable to Nazi ones, prompting a more than annoyed reaction from Berlin. The climate in Turkey is tense after the attempted coup in July and due to several terrorist attacks, tourism has collapsed, the economy is in crisis. Turkish politics too suffers from this situation, and the upcoming referendum accentuates the divisions between parties. Following the failed coup, entire sectors of public administration, army and the press were “relieved” of hundreds of thousands of people due to government purges against those who were suspected of having taken part in it. The international media and those Turkish journalists who still have the freedom to express opinions at odds with the authority repeat their concern about Turkey’s authoritarian drift, which for some will increase if “Yes” were to win at the referendum. What Changes With the Constitutional Reform To explain how Turkey will change following the proposed constitutional reform, Michael Daventry, a British journalist who grew up in Turkey, posted on his blog an effective diagram of the changes from the presidential to the parliamentary system [Figure 1]. [Figure 1] The direct election of the President of the Republic was introduced in 2014, while the Parliament’s mandate has been of four years until now. With the new reform, the president and the Parliament are elected at the same time, facilitating the influence of the former over the latter, as we were told the journalist Kerim Balcı, a member of the Hizmet movement founded by Fethullah Gülen. Moreover, contrary to what happens today, the president-elect can also continue to run his own party, thus eliminating the neutrality of his charge. In this case, if “Yes” wins, Erdoğan may run again at the AKP primaries, scheduled for 2018. Under the current Constitution, the prime minister is appointed by the president-elect and approved by the Parliament; with the new reform, however, this office won’t exist anymore, and its duties are of the president himself. Moreover, the task of selecting the ministers, which is currently of the Parliament, becomes an exclusive presidential prerogative. Finally, the power to dissolve the Parliament and call for new elections is still in the hands of both the president and the Parliament, which, however, must obtain the favor of three-fifths of its members, an almost impossible goal, according to Balcı. Even the judges are chosen in a different way: the president will be able to appoint a certain number of judges and prosecutors, although constitutionally the judiciary power should be “independent and impartial” (amendment to Article 9 of the Constitution). The debate Between Parties The approval of Erdoğan’s reform didn’t happen without clashes between parties, sometimes even physical (in January, several Turkish newspapers published pictures of riots between members of the Parliament) and the debate is still ongoing. The proposal was passed with the support of the nationalist party MHP, which paid for this decision with a division within the party, as Türey Köse, a journalist of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, writes, among others. Some of its members, in fact, disagreeing with AKP, distanced themselves from the party leadership and on February 18th announced a campaign for “No”. The “No” front is quite compact. The CHP’s Republicans, the first opposition party, are concerned about the unity of Turkey. According to the leadership of the party, the referendum could further split the country, already divided between supporters of the current system and the others. The reasons for the split are not only internal politics and the economic crisis that is testing Turkey, but also foreign politics, especially regarding the attitude towards Syria and Iraq, greatly influenced by Moscow in the past year and a half, and the issue of security, of clashes with PKK terrorists and the numerous attacks that made many victims last year. The pro-Kurdish party HDP sided unanimously with the “No”, too. Strained by allegations of involvement with the organization of the attempted coup in July, it suffered serious purges, including that of the leader Selahattin Demirtaş, in prison on charges of terrorism. The opposition is further impeded by continued threats, more or less veiled, from government. Even President Erdoğan himself, for example, said that those who are in favor of “No” are Turkey’s enemies and are “certainly linked to the organizers of the failed coup.” Also the current prime minister, Benali Yıldırım, reiterated that “terrorist groups are campaigning for ‘No’,” stimulating even physical attacks against electoral booths. Which Benefits With the Presidential System In an interview with Daily Sabah (English version of the pro-government newspaper), the President of the Turkish Constitutional Commission, Mustafa Şentop, politician and member of the AKP, explained what the advantages of the presidential system, compared to the parliamentary one in force, are for Turkey. The reform’s proponents argue, in fact, that the introduction of the new system will lead to the consolidation of the separation of powers, contrary to what the “No” front claims. Şentop recalls that, unlike in the past, this proposal has been drafted by a government freely elected by the Turkish people, and that since 2003, i.e. from the AKP’s first term, the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan criticized the inadequacy of the parliamentary system for the country. The politician also said that in the next election, if “Yes” were to win, the Parliament will be voted directly, as well as the president, while the formation of the government, representing the executive branch, will be based on parliamentarian balance. For this reason, in his view, the stability of the Council of Ministers will depend on that of the Parliament, whose dissolution mechanism will be more difficult. The Parliament will keep the legislative power, but the president may propose legislation; the drafting of the budget, however, will go from the Parliament to the president, who nonetheless must submit his proposal to the parliamentary review. If the deputies were to be slow at approving the budget, the leader will still be able to apply an emergency plan while waiting for their decision. Finally, another big change, the military justice system, which in the history of Turkey has always been the pilot of constitutional changes, will be completely abolished, in line with the measures already put in place in recent years by the government. [This article was translated from the original in Italian]