Turkish parliament adopts bill giving president broad powers

Sunday 29/01/2017
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (C) accompanied by some of his lawmakers cast their votes following Turkey’s parliament debate proposing amendments to the country’s constitution, in Ankara,
on January 20h. (AP)

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.