The current version of the Turkish Constitution was put in place by the Grand National Assembly in 1982 after the military had taken control of the government through a coup in 1980. Through plebiscites and legislation, it has been amended 18 times since its adoption. This might surprise some American readers since the US Constitution has been amended a total of 17 times since the first ten were made in the bill of rights 226 years ago in 1791.
On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum to vote on 18 amendments to the Constitution. According to the Supreme Election Council, of the 48,374,576 people who voted, 51% voted yes while 49% voted no. This narrow of a split coupled with the fact that there was an 87% voter turnout shows it was a highly contentious vote. To put this into context, the 2007 constitutional referendum that took place garnered 28,819,096 votes which is a 67% voter turnout. Also, the vote was decisive since 69% of the country voted yes while only 31% voted no.
The contentious nature of the latest referendum played out in the public discourse with the expected 24 hours of cable media coverage but even Turkish celebrities were dragged into what became a truly national political fight. No segment of Turkish society felt it could afford to sit out this vote. This leads one to ask, what made this referendum so important, and what exactly has changed?
In a report from the Center for American Progress, Alan Makovsky, highlights 4 major ways that the new constitution would fundamentally alter Turkey from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system.
“The president would absorb all current responsibilities and prerogatives of the prime minister, thus becoming head of government as well as head of state.”
Proposal 8, which amends article 104, greatly enhances the power of the executive. In the previous system, there was a separation of power in that one position was the head of state while the other was the head of government, but from now on the president will be both. The President will have the power to appoint members of the cabinet without any oversight from the legislature.
“The most significant new power the proposed amendments would accord the executive branch—that is, beyond those already inherent in either the presidency or the prime ministry—is the president’s right to issue a decree—kararname—with the force of law.”
In the same amendment, the president is given the power to issue presidential decrees. However, they become null and void should Parliament pass a law that conflicts with them. This means that the president can now make social, economic and political changes through his new legal powers. While parliament functions as a check to this power, this check is limited by the fact that the President will also likely control the majority party in parliament.
“Under the proposed system, the president can be a member or leader of a political party—a major break from Turkish tradition.”
Proposal 7, amending article 101, gives the president the ability to retain his party membership. In the current iteration of the Turkish Constitution, the president must resign from his party upon becoming the president. This amendment creates a situation in which the president can retain control of their party. The opposition is likely worried about this because it creates a scenario that neutralizes the parliamentary check to the president’s power. The president can issue his executive decrees and the parliament that is supposed to act as the check to this power could potentially be dominated by the president’s own party which he still controls.
“The amendments package would reinforce the president’s growing control of the judiciary, potentially to the point of total dominance.”
Proposal 14, amending article 159, gives a significant degree of control of the judiciary branch to the presidency. Previously, there were 22 members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. 4 were appointed by the president, while the rest were appointed by parliament. The number of 22 is now being reduced to 13. The president still retains his power to choose 4 of these 13, however, since he now also chooses his cabinet he chooses a total of 6 of the members of the council. This is because the Minister of Justice, as well as the Minister’s Deputy, are both in the council and those are presidentially appointed positions. In addition, the military courts will be abolished, therefore, the two positions on the constitutional court for those military judges will be abolished leaving the total number of judges to 15. 12 will be chosen by the president while 3 are chosen by parliament. In all, of the 28 of the most powerful members of the Judicial branch, 18 will be chosen directly by the president. The other 10 will be chosen indirectly by the president since it will be done by a parliament that is likely under his control.
These are significant changes with far reaching implications for Turkish society and the
future of Turkey. Since no society can be defined in monolithic terms, these changes inspire great fear in half of society that find the aims of the current administration to be antithetical to their lives.
Putting so much power in the presidency creates a zero-sum game in politics. The people who voted no were afraid of the amount of power concentrated in the hands of the current president and what that can mean for their way of life. This can work both ways. The pious portion of society would be terrified at the prospect of hardline secularists gaining control of society and stripping them of their religious rights.
The referendum was not only a referendum on some constitutional changes but a referendum on the future of Turkey. It was a referendum on which way of life will prevail in contemporary Turkey. Now that this referendum has passed, and this has become the new reality in Turkey, it is more important than ever for people to overcome the intense polarization in Turkish society. Since the presidential position is so empowered, whoever occupies it poses a real threat the other half of society. It is up to Turkish society to embrace one another. Turkish civil society and political leaders must work to overcome this polarization and realize that they are all citizens of the same country. They all have the same core interests of security and happiness. If Turkish civil society can build consensus, then the political institutions will follow suit.
Only one thing is for certain about the future of Turkish society if they fail in this, infighting.