The Turkish people will vote in a momentous constitutional referendum on April 16. If adopted, the proposals would drastically alter the country’s political system.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced the 18 proposed changes to the constitution, with the support of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they secured the minimum 330 parliamentary votes required to launch a public referendum.
Though constitutional referendums are not uncommon in Turkey’s political history, this particular one is extremely important in terms of the very nature of the country’s political regime. The proposed amendments would take Turkey away from its current parliamentary system. In its place, the country would have an executive presidency “a la Turka”.
What will ‘reform a la Turka’ look like?
Despite the arguments of the AKP government, the amendments will not strengthen democracy. Quite the opposite.
In the most basic terms, the referendum presents a choice between parliamentary democracy (as weak as it has been in Turkey) and legally institutionalising single-man rule.
The amendments will abolish the post of prime minister and make the president the official head of the executive. The president will then name one or more vice presidents who will inherit the same powers for 45 days in the event the president cannot carry out their duties.
The president will be able to remain leader of their political party and be given the power to choose cabinet ministers. The president will also be able to appoint these individuals from outside parliament without any vetting processes or being accountable to the public.
Parliament will still be regarded as the legislature, but only in theory. Deputies will continue to draft, discuss and vote on new laws, which will be forwarded to the president for final approval.
However, the president will be able to bypass parliament completely and introduce legislation by issuing decrees with the force of law. The president will also have the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections.
Constitutional law experts like Ergun Ozbudun have strongly criticised the proposed structure, saying:
What we have here is the weakening of legislation while the president, with full executive powers, forms a parliament under his influence.
The constitutional amendments will leave the president in charge of the state budget. As the sole authority to declare a state of emergency, the president will also have complete control over security policy and any decisions related to the deployment of military force. The right to declare war, however, will remain with parliament.
The president will have the power to appoint all senior civil servants, and to restructure ministries and public institutions at his discretion.
Most disturbingly, judicial independence will disappear as the amendments will allow the president to appoint half of the country’s most senior judges. The other half will be elected by parliament. This means that if the president and the majority party in the Grand National Assembly happen to be from one political party (as is currently the case), a single authority will appoint all the members of Turkey’s high judicial bodies.
Let not the government and its well-funded army of experts and media outlets fool anyone. The regime’s amendments have been drafted to personally benefit the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The aim is to consolidate all powers – executive, legislative and judicial – in one office.
An ironic death
If the Turkish public votes for the constitutional changes, the citizens will effectively terminate democracy in their country.
With surveys so far indicating a slight majority for the “yes” vote, Turkey may become one of the few countries in the history of democracy to democratically choose the death of democracy. It would be a vote to commit what John Keane calls “democide”, or democratic suicide.
The fundamental challenge for democracy is that everything is open to challenge and repeal when supported by enough numbers.
In fact, the inclusive nature of this political system necessarily exposes it to diverse views and competing ideas. There are few mechanisms to prevent ideals capable of ending democracy from entering its midst.
So actors who reject democracy are able to slip into the system. And when large enough numbers support these individuals and groups, they can mobilise to topple the very system that enabled their accession.
Simply stated, the difference between democracy and authoritarianism can be a matter of popular choice.
Democracy at the mercy of its own frailty
We must be awake to democracy’s fragility. Once constituted, it is not guaranteed to progress on a smooth, linear path.
The nature of democracy ensures it remains susceptible to ending its own life. If the public supports it, its existence can be brought to a decisive end as much as it may be allowed to flourish.
Turkey’s proposed presidential system will remain multi-party, still holding regular elections every five years. Yet the relatively powerless parliament, faced with a presidency that has the constitutional mandate to form government, influence the legislature, control state institutions, issue a state of emergency and dissolve parliament almost unimpeded, offers little protection to a democracy in the face of serious attack and popular repeal.
If the “yes” vote wins, the Turkish people will not have to wait long to see the end of their long-troubled democracy. The AKP is fervently pushing for the presidential system with one person in mind – Erdoğan.
Turkey’s decline into authoritarian rule under Erdoğan’s leadership certainly does not provide any hope that he would, given these extraordinary powers, abide by any democratic principles.
Taking advantage of his electoral popularity, the regime change is the AKP and Erdoğan’s attempt to institutionalise and legitimise the creeping in of one-man rule that has long been occurring under their reign.
If Turkish citizens grant unrestrained power to Erdoğan, they will have done so with full knowledge of the illiberal and repressive character of his rule. There will be no pleading innocent. Nevertheless, the average citizen will not have played as significant a role as the political elite in bringing about democracy’s demise in Turkey.
The elites, after all, are the mass mobilisers, the agenda setters and the visionaries of their societies. All too often, participation in modern representative democracy is reduced to the casting of a single ballot.
But, even with this in mind, it will be true to say that, by giving their consent, the Turkish people were complicit in committing democide.
With Turkey’s impending democide, we can perhaps begin to understand just how precarious a thing democracy is, and how easily it can be lost. The open plain of democracy means that there is nothing that cannot be reworked, contested or cancelled. Even democracy itself, when backed by sufficient numbers, can be made to walk the plank.
The author dedicates this article to the amazing faculty of academics who became family during his nearly year-long stay in Istanbul in 2016, and to every academic in Turkey who lives with the constant threat of jail, dismissal, beatings and public slander.