Turkish parliament votes to hand powers to president

Sunday 15/01/2017
Ruling Justice and Development Party and main opposition Republican People’s Party lawmakers scuffle at the parliament in Ankara during deliberations over the bill to change the constitution, on January 11th. (AFP)

Istanbul - Turkey’s parliament has begun voting its own powers away with chang­es to the constitution that would leave it reduced, analysts said, to rubber-stamping decrees issued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who could stay in power for more than another dec­ade.

Erdogan argues there should be an executive presidency, as in France or the United States, to combat security threats from the Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish sepa­ratists and followers of his former ally, Islamist cleric Fethullah Gu­len.

A failed coup blamed on Gulen on top of an unprecedented wave of attacks by ISIS and Kurdish militants led to the declaration of emergency rule in Turkey last July.

Constitutional amendments put before parliament would not guar­antee checks and balances to presi­dential power the US and French systems have. The president could issue decrees without consulting parliament and directly appoint the heads of the military and intel­ligence as well as fill many of the top judicial posts.

Erdogan would have more pow­ers than Syrian President Bashar Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin, analysts and oppo­sition leaders said.

“They want to benefit from emer­gency rule to change the constitu­tion. They want regime change. They want to change to a dictato­rial regime,” opposition leader Ke­mal Kilicdaroglu told supporters.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and De­velopment Party (AKP) is short of the 367 seats in the 550-seat parlia­ment for a two-thirds majority nec­essary to change the constitution but, with the help of a small far-right party, it should have the 330 votes that would put the constitu­tional changes to a referendum as early as April.

Given the formidable party ma­chine that has seen the AKP sweep every election and referendum since 2002, Erdogan should feel confident he can swing the public vote.

In the first years of Erdogan’s rule, Turkey had sustained eco­nomic growth and record levels of foreign investment thanks in large part to political stability following two decades of revolving-door ad­ministrations and high inflation.

However, Turkey’s backing of Is­lamist rebel factions in the Syrian civil war has led to blow-back with ISIS bombs killing hundreds in suicide attacks across the country since July 2015. The breakdown of a peace deal with Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) rebels has led to a similar wave of bombings and a renewed insurgency in the mainly Kurdish south-east.

Both violent campaigns and the failed July coup hurt Turkey’s im­portant tourism sector with book­ings down 40% in the first week of January compared to the same period last year, an industry survey stated, and scared away foreign in­vestors worried about stability.

Economic growth is sluggish and inflation is rising. High levels of ex­ternal debt and the Central Bank’s failure to raise interest rates suf­ficiently to defend the lira — pos­sibly under pressure from Erdogan — have undermined faith in the currency, which has lost more than 11% of its value since the start of 2017.

Far from bringing stability, Er­dogan’s increasing powers and in­tolerance for opposition — a café manager was arrested on Decem­ber 24th after saying he would not serve tea to the president — has coincided with the most extensive wave of violence in the republic’s 93-year history.

Government supporters blame the violence on an alliance of ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, the PKK and what Turkey calls the Fethullah Gulen Terror Or­ganisation (FETO).

“It is very clear that Daesh, the PKK and FETO are acting all togeth­er,” declared the Sabah newspaper on January 5th after a bomb attack in the western city of Izmir. Sabah is owned by a company headed by Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s Energy minister.

These three disparate organisa­tions are coordinated by the United States, Sabah said.

A December survey said 76% of people polled in Turkey believed a foreign power was behind the at­tacks. Of those, 80% said the Unit­ed States was the power involved.

The fall in the lira has similarly been blamed on an international conspiracy to undermine Turkey with Erdogan urging people to sell dollars to help prop up the local currency. The lira has continued to slide, fuelling the rush to buy more dollars and other hard currencies.

“A global conspiracy against Tur­key frees the Turkish government from any responsibility,” column­ist Mustafa Akyol wrote on the Al- Monitor web site. “Had the gov­ernment examined ISIS, the PKK and the Gulenists as independent actors, then there would be many questions to ask the government… but all such questions evaporate when all answers are found in a col­lective Western conspiracy against the glorious ‘New Turkey’.”

The Detained Journalists Soli­darity Platform says 147 journalists are currently in jail in Turkey, more than in any other country. Twelve members of parliament from the main Kurdish party are also impris­oned.

“The AKP elite confuses democ­racy with ‘majoritarianism’,” Turk­ish writer Elif Shafak said in a De­cember interview with EUobserver.

Erdogan’s ability to win elections and votes in parliament is likely to lead to a slide towards ever more authoritarian rule unhindered by the checks and balances of a robust parliament, a free press and free speech. As the space for legitimate opposition becomes ever narrow­er, some are more likely to turn to other means to overturn that rule, increasing instability.

The new constitution, senior opposition parliamentarian Deniz Baykal told parliament, “will de­stroy our century-old political tra­dition based on the understanding of the sovereignty of the nation and the supremacy of the parlia­ment; the national political culture will collapse and this proposal will substitute the sovereignty of the nation with the hegemony of one person.”