Let’s Call It A Democracy: The Upcoming Referendum in Turkey

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Turkish politics have been quite fluctuant in recent years. AK Party government which was seen as a democratic role model for Islamic countries has been rapidly moving away from democratic values. The instable nature of Turkish politics has been quite visible in recent years: political scandals, raging civil war, the large refugee inflow and the coup attempt last year only scratch the surface of what Turkey has to deal with. After all these events and under the state of emergency, citizens of Turkey are going to vote for a constitutional referendum which is going to give nearly all executive and legislative power to the office of the president.

The referendum is called “Presidential Referendum” and is focused on replacing the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential system by making numerous changes to the constitution. The Eighteen amendments include: the introduction of a presidential system with executive presidency which would replace the parliamentary system, closure of the office of Prime Minister, raising the number of MPs, lowering the age of candidacy to 18 from 25, and some crucial changes in the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. There are also changes in the authority of the parliament. With the proposed changes, it is going to be much more difficult for the parliament to monitor and investigate the government’s actions. Parliament will no longer be able to scrutinise ministers and propose an enquiry. If proposed changes pass, office of presidency will have a huge influence on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors; the President will be able to directly and indirectly appoint most of the members of the board.

The idea of a presidential system came into discussion after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first publicly elected president of Turkey in 2014. Before that, presidents were elected by the parliament and did not have any executive power. After 2014, Erdoğan began making changes in the office of the presidency with the support of the AKP government and started to act as the head of government in practice. Since Erdogan was selected president, he has been pushing the parliament to agree on a new constitution which would transform the parliamentary system into a presidential system. However, political parties failed to agree on a commonly agreed constitution and therefore, AKP decided to try its chances with a referendum.

The Amendments have been proposed by the ruling Justice and Government Party (AKP) and supported by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), together with the third biggest party in the parliament, People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose co-heads and 12 MPs are jailed together with dozens of Mayors, are standing against the constitutional change and presidential system. Supporters of the constitutional change argue that with the new system decision making will be faster and much more stable: the government will be much stronger and therefore much more successful in fighting against “internal and external” threats. #YES supporters also argue that the presidential system will bring “harmony” with a stronger democracy and better decision making – changes will lead to a stronger Turkey because there will no longer be a system of coalition governments.

Source: Yildiz Yazicioglu (VOA), Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, #NO supporters are afraid that the new constitution will create a dictatorship in Turkey and that the already weak democracy will be completely lost. After the failed coup attempt, and with the declaration of a state of emergency, AKP government boosted its attacks on every opposition movement in Turkey. From high ranking generals to academics, teachers and journalists, around 70,000 have been arrested since the failed coup attempt. ‘No’ voters are also in fear after some government officials started to accuse ‘no’ supporters for treason and helping terrorism by voting against the amendments.

So far, none of the government and AKP officials were able to provide satisfactory answers to democratic concerns of the opposition regarding the clearly anti-democratic elements of the proposed changes. If the proposed changes pass, there will be a “one-man regime” in Turkey and neither AKP nor Erdogan have been denying it. So, citizens of Turkey are going to vote whether they want to live under a totalitarian regime or not. The referendum points to fundamental problems with the notion of representative democracy. Can we call it a democracy if the most basic democratic values and concerns are non-existent in a country’s politics? Can we democratically vote in a referendum which is including anti-democratic elements and call it a democratic referendum?

Corruption scandals, failed elections and early election; dozens of suicide attacks and bombings in major cities; a failed ceasefire with PKK and raging civil war; a large refugee inflow; a coup attempt followed by a cleansing of Gülenists and opposition members from the political scene and government institutions, jailed intellectuals, academicians, journalists, sacked and jailed MPs and Mayors. These are all major examples of the fluctuant condition of Turkish politics in recent years. AKP government and Erdogan argue that the instability will end with the presidential system. However, the government has been in power alone since 2002 and the problems they want to solve through the presidential system are nothing but their own mistakes and failures. So, maybe something else needs to change for a stable democracy in Turkey.

Most of the polls suggest that both sides are really close to each other. Yet, ‘yes’ votes seem to be slightly ahead of ‘no’ votes with 55-52 percent. The referendum will be held on Sunday (16th of April) in Turkey, however, voting has ended last week in consulates in foreign countries. High tensions and polarisation have been increasing among the society while the clock is ticking for the referendum.

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