Rushing Turkey headlong into a political abyss
The year 2017, it seems, will be the ultimate test for the resiliency of Turkey’s marred political system and the endurance of its diverse, yet sharply polarized, society.
Although his government has had to deal with a stream of terror attacks and a weakening economy, nothing appears to stop Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from enforcing a radical, historic systemic shift. It is one, he apparently hopes, that will grant him absolute power to rule the country for at least another decade.
Erdogan is only months away from a referendum that, critics fear, will sink Turkey into the dark well of autocracies in which stability is achieved at the cost of basic liberties and rights.
With the help of his right-hand man, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdogan engaged parliament to approve a package of constitutional amendments due, his aides said, in April.
The 18-point bill is in various ways political dynamite. It abolishes the notion of an impartial presidency, under which Turkey has been ruled, however problematically, since its 1923 founding. Erdogan would be given, more or less, a free ride to rule the country from his palace, where he would assemble the cabinet, hiring and firing ministers and top bureaucrats to his liking.
The system he will likely push through will scrap the post of the prime minister with executive power being transferred exclusively to the president. He will be empowered to declare a state of emergency, for up to six months at first, to be extended by a parliament that he aims to keep under his control. The legislative package would also hand him extended powers to issue decrees at will.
Erdogan would be entitled to abolish parliament and declare elections, should he deem it necessary. Other parts of the package are constructed to make sure to keep governmental checks and balances to the minimum: The number of top judges and key members of the judiciary the president would be entitled to pick would be increased so that control is established over any prospect of accountability.
A part that the opposition finds most worrisome is that the presidential and parliamentary elections would be on the same day. A most critical point, that of keeping the 10% threshold of the vote for parties to enter parliament, has not been brought up, due to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) smokescreen tactics.
This, of course, will be useful for Erdogan to maintain a majority in the legislature. He, of course, will be able to keep his party affiliation during his one-man rule tenure.
The changes, if approved, would be in effect from 2019 and would allow the president to serve two consecutive five-year terms. Fears of Turkey turning into an autocratic state are certainly legitimate, especially among members of an opposition party.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), the third largest group in parliament, has seen a dozen of its deputies, including its co-chairmen, jailed on terror charges in the past two months. Its lawmakers say their right to legislate has been violated.
Equally, the centrist-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), aims to do all it can to block Erdogan’s legislative package.
Both parties point to what they say is the absence of the rule of law in the country since the abortive coup last July.
“Mind you, dear friends, we debate this draft under the emergency rule,” said Deniz Baykal, a veteran CHP deputy, in a passionate plea to his fellow lawmakers. “The emergency rule was extended unconstitutionally. We are ruled by decrees. One hundred and sixty-three generals, 150 top judges, 6,296 officers and 147 journalists are in pre-trial detention. Government trustees have taken over 230 companies. More than 50,000 public servants are under legal inquiry. TV channels are brought to their knees.
“People have not been informed at all about this draft. For God’s sake, under such circumstances, how come you think of a constitutional amendment? Have we lost our minds?”
Baykal’s last question converges with perceptions abroad as well. Yet there is no sign of a diversion from the path Erdogan has chosen.
As he accelerates towards autocracy, Erdogan’s single remaining challenger is the rapidly weakening economy, which is showing signs of stagflation. He may end up winning in the end but he could find himself ruling a country of great instability.