Turkey’s elective dictatorship

In the absence of countervailing influence of parliament and judiciary, the new constitutional framework would offer the Turkish electorate an undemocratic choice- the choice to choose their own dictator

For centuries, the modern day Turkey has acted as a dominant political force on the global geopolitical landscape. Even today it is instrumental in shaping the political forces of the world. It is an important NATO ally and is central to the fight against ISIS and terrorism. Moreover, Turkey is seen as a test case for the compatibility of democratic social and political institutions with a predominantly Muslims society. Hence, Turkey holds a distinguished place in the world.

On April 16, the Turkish electorate voted in favour of a constitutional referendum that would overhaul the entire political structure of Turkey. While the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed victory with a narrow majority of 51.3%, the dramatic effects of this narrow margin would be quite significant. The new constitutional framework would turn the country into an elective dictatorship with President wielding unfettered and unrestricted powers. It would change the Turkish system from Parliamentary to a Presidential form of government. There is nothing inherently wrong with an executive presidency. Many successful democracies in the world, including the United States, operates under Presidential form of government. However, the United States’ political structure is embedded with the system of Checks and Balances. This system divides the powers between the three branches of government, that is, Legislature, Executive and Judiciary in such a fashion that each branch is able to check the transgressions of other branches. This was evident in Judiciary’s suspension of Donald Trump’s travel ban and legislature’s rejection of the polarizing TrumpCare bill. Hence, the principle of executive presidency is not the problem in and of itself, but the unequal power dynamic under which it will operate in Turkey.

It is quite clear that the amendment has been drafted with keeping one person in mind- Recep Tayyip Erdoğan- the strongman President who has dominated Turkey’s political scene for over one and half decade. The proposed constitutional amendment represents the authoritarian impulses of Erdoğan and would turn him into a 21st Century style Sultan with minimal check by Parliament and Judiciary. The President under new model would become both the head of state and the head of government. He would be able to issue decrees that would have the force of law. Moreover, if the President’s party is able to secure parliamentary majority, parliament, in practice, would merely become a rubber stamp. Moreover, parliament’s decision-making capacity would be reduced as it would require an absolute majority of the entire parliamentary membership to pass the bill that has been sent back for reconsideration. This contrasts with existing model where only a simple majority of quorum is required to do the same. The independence of judiciary would also be crucially compromised. In the revised system, 18 of the 28 top-ranking judicial positions would be appointed by the President himself.  If the President’s party holds 3/5th majority in parliament, the entire judicial body would be oriented with the President. The current trends show that Erdoğan’s AKP would be able to safely secure, at least, absolute majority for foreseeable future.

This is problematic on three levels. First, President Erdoğan has consistently shown that he has no regard for civil and political liberties. Turkey has been under the State of Emergency since the failed military coup of July 2016. Thousands of activists, academics, members of judiciary and political opponents have been purged and subjected to draconian laws. Today, Turkey is the largest jail for journalists in the world. For him to exercise the vast presidential powers under the new system would mean the country would further become a dungeon for dissenting voices.

Second, it contradicts the fundamental principles upon which the Turkish Republic was constituted. The Founding Father of Turkey- Mustafa Kamal Ataturk- framed Turkish system along the lines of modernity. These principles included secular democratic norms which represented a sharp shift from the Ottoman political system in which the Sultan wielded unrestrained political and ecclesiastical legitimacy. The new constitutional framework is, thus, regressive in nature as it poises Turkey to return to the authoritarian rule.

Third, the implications of the new political power structure would transgress the boundaries of time. Since it doesn’t have any institutional mechanisms to check the powers of President, any charismatic leader with a populist appeal could succumb the office and become autocratic.

The new constitutional framework would thus create a skewed version of democracy. It would be a system that keeps democracy in its form but not in its substance. In the absence of countervailing influence of parliament and judiciary, it would offer the Turkish electorate an undemocratic choice- the choice to choose their own dictator.

Abrar Ahmed is an educationist with expertise in political and democratic affairs

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