With New Constitution, Erdogan Eyes For One-Man Rule

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim casts his vote during a parliamentary session that saw vote over constitutional reform bill.

The Turkish Republic is on the throes of a radical transformation, even regime change, as Parliament completed 2nd round of voting 18-article constitutional reform bill, which gives expanded powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a way that removes last vestiges of separation of powers.

While the world watch inauguration ceremony of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, Turkish Parliament paved way for a referendum to significantly expand powers of Mr. Erdogan, the president’s long-held political ambition.

The breathtaking speed of the first round vote was a clear-cut indication of a strong will on behalf of government and its ardent backer, opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to quickly push through the controversial package. The vote reflected the emergence of a new alignment in the Turkish political landscape, formation of an Islamist-nationalist front that harbor similar views on a number of political issues concerning the fate of the country.

While the first round of voting was a scene of brawls among men, the 2nd round was women’s turn. The fighting among differing factions in Parliament reflected the deep divide the voting created in the society, with critics blasting the government for transforming the country’s regime from a parliamentary democracy into a the rule of a strongman. Aylin Nazliaka, an independent lawmaker, handcuffed herself to the rostrum to protest the voting, prompting a scuffle that hospitalized several female lawmakers.

What constitutional bill brings to Turkey is at the core of ensuing debates amid ongoing emergency rule that rendered free discussion of the proposed changes in public sphere near impossible. While dozens of national TV channels live aired Mr. Erdogan’s address to village administrators in the presidential palace a few days ago, almost no TV station broadcasted the parliamentary session where lawmakers squabbling over momentous decisions that have the power of shattering roots of the republic’s established system. A CHP lawmaker set his own “studio” in Parliament to bypass the censorship. 

For supporters of the bill, the shift to executive presidency long sought by President Erdogan will provide a bulwark against return to fragile coalition governments of the past. But for the critics of the proposal, it will cement Erdogan’s power and turn Turkey into a dictatorship with scrapping checks and balances, regarded as central pillars of any democratic system. Main opposition CHP says the new scheme will create one-man dictatorship. 

If the government succeeds to pass the proposed bill in the second round, a referendum looms large this spring, in an expected date between the first week of April (2nd or 9th of April), according to Numan Kurtulmus, deputy prime minister. Many view referendum outcome a foregone conclusion for approval of presidential system given popularity of Mr. Erdogan and repressive conditions under state of emergency where free and alternative media are nonexistent.

The bulk of constitutional debate revolves around amassing almost all executive powers in the president’s hand, igniting an uproar among jurists and legal experts who wrestle with the question of check and balances that are expected to disappear with the new framework. In an article penned down for secular opposition Cumhuriyet daily a week ago, former Head of Supreme Court and respected legal expert Sami Selçuk said new constitutional bill lays ground for a dictatorship. He argues that the current government initiative takes the country even back from standards woven into notorious 1982 constitution drafted by a military-led council. 

Mr. Selçuk points out that executive presidential systems are based on clearly defined separation of powers. But this is not the case with what the government envisions for Turkey, as new bill erodes such notion and mechanism, leaving powers at the whims of one politician.

The risk of one-man rule has been stressed also by others. The new system “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 wit the hegemony of one person,” Hurriyet daily news quoted former CHP Chairman Deniz Baykal as saying ahead of the first round. 

Meral Danis Bestas, a member of pro-Kurdish secular opposition People’s Democracy Party (HDP), described the government-led constitutional bill as a “civilian coup” that will kill Turkey’s already fragile and crisis-ridden democracy. 

The most controversial aspect of the amendment is its vision for the role and position of presidency vis-á-vis other powers, most notably Parliament, as the bill is bound to eradicate the lines that separate executive branch, the legislature and the judiciary, or separation of powers in other words, therefore removing vestiges of checks and balances. That will grant unchecked powers to a single man. 

According to the bill, the post of prime minister will be removed. The president will be able to appoint vice presidents, which are supposed to be more than one, all ministers, top-level bureaucrats, head of intelligence, all university rectors, and members of top courts.

The president will assume most of the powers of Parliament and will be able to issue decrees relating to the executive matters on behalf of Parliament. What differs from the previous constitution article, Article No: 105 which regulates president’s powers, is the fact that president in the new system will act even without consulting Parliament, surpass powers of Parliament. While previous article also gives president powers to issue decrees, the proposed change says president will be able to do it on behalf of Parliament, means that he usurps Parliament’s powers, giving the power of issuing decrees to one man instead of legislative body.

One of the striking changes is that the president will be able to declare state of emergency for a period of 6 months, and call early or new elections whenever he deems necessary.  The bill also grants him tremendous veto power over Parliament regarding executive matters. The president will also be able to dissolve Parliament, which was last seen in Ottoman Turkey in 1876 constitution when Sultan Abdulhamid II moved to shut down Parliament, citing the war with Czar’s Russia. 

The balance of power between legislative body and executive branch represented by president dramatically changes in favor of the latter given that Parliament relinquishes most of powers to a stronger president. In current constitution, formation of a new cabinet, replacement of ministers or other key critical matters require confidence vote in Parliament. This will be history as Parliament loses its power of no confidence vote, which in the past removed governments during times of political crises. In late 1990s, several coalition governments collapsed after facing no confidence vote in Parliament. 

Lawmakers currently submit parliamentary questions to hold ministers accountable over policies and executive matters. With the proposed bill, deputies will no longer be able to pose written question to president, but will only be able to forward their motion toward ministers or vice presidents who are chosen by president. 

Though Parliament retains its legislative power in theory by enacting bills, its influence significantly wanes as the president has veto powers over bills proposed by Parliament. Another point of contention that blurs lines in separation of powers is that president will be able to assume title of party leader in Parliament during his presidency. This will erode any distinction between legislative and executive branches. This will also give president as leader of a political party in Parliament increased influence and control over judicial appointments. President appoints half of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) members, while Parliament selects the other half. With his presence in Parliament as political party leader, president will be in strongest position to wield influence over HSYK, the top judicial body that regulates judicial affairs, including appointment and removal of judges and prosecutors. 

President will also have determining power over Constitutional Court through his double source of power both as president, which appoints four members, and party leader in Parliament which chooses 11 other members.  

With that critics say judicial independence, the key hallmark of the rule of law, will be a dead letter. Constitutional Court, which in the past ruled several government-sponsored laws unconstitutional, will face difficulties to maintain its traditional role as a check on the executive power. Controlled and selected by the president, Constitutional Court will be unlikely to rule against his decrees, or new bills. 

The universal notion of separation of powers will replace with union, or unity, of powers in the Turkish case with new constitutional bill. The government proposal has no precedent in modern democratic systems and will establish a quite unique example by building a very strong presidency devoid of checks and balances system.

Mr. Erdogan himself acknowledged this publicly. He presented the unity between separate powers as essential to properly rule the nation and said the source of power of these three branches should come from one single place.

“Even though they seem separate branches on paper, both [sic] of them should be given to the same power. … Redefining relationship between legislative, executive and judicial branches through a democratic understanding is not a loss, but a big leap forward,” Mr. Erdogan said.

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