Turkish parliament adopts bill giving president broad powers
Istanbul - While the world’s attention turned to the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Turkey’s parliament voted a change to the constitution that could affect the country for generations — with many fearing a descent into dictatorship.
The executive presidency envisioned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would constitute a radical political change for Turkey. The effect on the country’s democratic future would likely be dire. The proposed constitutional amendments would pave the way for Erdogan, who has been in power for more than 13 years, first as the country’s prime minister and since 2014 as president, to become the only executive authority.
Proponents of the bill argue that it will bring stability and prosperity but critics and rights groups have sharply criticised the amendments as a fundamental threat to the rule of law and human rights. “The proposed constitutional changes concentrate power in the hands of President Erdogan and further erode already weak checks and balances on the exercise of that power,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a release.
The changes to the constitution would abolish the office of prime minister and allow the president, to be elected directly every five years, to rule by decree. The amendments would also give the president power to appoint and dismiss ministers, dissolve and reconstitute parliament and formalise the president’s power over a judiciary that is effectively already under Erdogan’s control.
This new-style presidency would allow the Turkish president to be partisan and head of a political party, having direct control over who his party allows to stand for office. The proposed amendments would also seriously hamper parliamentary oversight of the executive.
“Our parliament has committed suicide,” exiled journalist and former editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet Can Dundar tweeted dryly after the Turkish parliament approved the last of 18 amendments in the early hours of January 21st.
The amendment received more than the necessary 330 votes, due to a deal between the AKP and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Prime Minister Binali Yildirim thanked MHP leader Devlet Bahceli for the “huge support”. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) fiercely protested the bill, arguing it would turn Erdogan into “the sultan” of Turkey.
“A decade ago Turkey seemed on a path towards greater respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law,” Williamson said in his release. “The plans for an executive presidency will take Turkey in the opposite direction and destroy whatever positive legacy of reform the AKP had left.”
The move comes at a time autocracy is on the rise in Turkey. The state of emergency imposed after a failed military coup last July allows the government to bypass parliament and rule by decree.
Following the July 15th coup attempt, authorities launched a fierce crackdown on alleged coup plotters and sympathisers of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher blamed for the coup, and opponents unconnected to him.
The government has effectively muzzled most of the independent and critical media. More than 160 media outlets have been shut down since July 2016 and more than 140 journalists and media workers languish in Turkish jails.
More than 120,000 civil servants have been sacked in massive purges and more than 42,000 people have been arrested pending trial on terrorism charges for alleged involvement or association with either the Gulen movement or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Among those jailed are 11 members of parliament from the main pro-Kurdish party, including the party’s co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. None of the jailed parliamentarians had the chance to debate or vote on the proposed constitutional changes.
The approved bill will be submitted to public vote, likely to take place in April. It will only require a simple majority of the vote to pass.
While the AKP and the MHP have started their “Vote Yes” campaign, the CHP, HDP and dissenters within the MHP have vowed to rally against it. However, as the state of emergency does not allow for demonstrations and public rallies without official permits, much of the opposition’s campaign will need to rely on social media, which is censored and policed by the government.
If the proposed changes are accepted in the April vote, they will go into effect after elections in 2019 but Erdogan will be able to officially rejoin the AKP immediately after the referendum.
Recent opinion polls indicate the country is divided over the bill. Analysts point to the sluggish economy, security crises at home and abroad and the ability of the opposition to unite among other factors that will influence the outcome of the April plebiscite. The atmosphere in Turkey is sure to remain tense as proponents and opponents of the bill try to garner support.