Turkish people have given sweeping powers to their President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as 51.4% people voted “yes” in the April 16 referendum that would replace the country’s parliamentary system with a powerful presidential system. Although 48.6% people voted “no”, the outcome of the referendum would allow Erdogan to stay in office till 2029.
The president had sought a change in the Constitution to replace its parliamentary system with executive presidency. And the majority of Turkish people allowed Erdogan to do so.
Now, the transcontinental country in Eurasia will experience some major changes. The office of the prime minister will be abolished and the president will appoint the Cabinet and vice presidents. The president will also be able to issue decrees to form and regulate ministries, and appoint and remove civil servants, without the parliamentary approval. No decrees will be allowed on issues, concerning human rights or basic freedom, or to override the existing laws. Furthermore, the president will be able to draft the budget, currently drawn up by the Parliament. If the president were accused or suspected of a crime, then the Parliament will be able to request an investigation with a simple majority. The Constitutional Court will have the authority to try the president, but 12 of its members will be appointed by the president and three by the Parliament. The Parliament will be able to serve a maximum of two 5-year terms. And if the Parliament decides on early elections during the president’s second term, the incumbent will be allowed to run again. Most importantly, the president will be able to declare a state of emergency without the Cabinet approval.
Undoubtedly, this referendum was bigger than Brexit, as it could completely change the character of the Turkish republic. Erdogan, who used to head the centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been in power since 2002 and was elected president in 2014. Now, he gets an opportunity to cement his position.
President Erdogan sought the constitutional changes in the name of greater national security and people allowed him to act decisively without political coalitions to assuage while dealing with the Kurdish insurgency. The outcome of the referendum will certainly help him “defeating the terrorists” in the coming days. (Perhaps) since the Ottoman Empire, Erdogan is the first ruler who will enjoy such uncurtailed authority. He will appoint judges (without parliamentary consultation), control budgets, issue binding orders, decide all senior appointments in the Army and civil services, and dissolve the Parliament.
History teaches us why a democracy needs checks and balances. However, an authoritarian ruler does not bother about checks and balances. And Erdogan is no exception. The constitutional changes mean that he will stand unchecked and unbalanced to carry out his agenda. Such a situation can never be for the better, because we all know that untrammelled executive power is an invitation to tyranny and excess. That is why the European Commission has requested Turkey to seek the “broadest possible national consensus” before carrying through any changes.
Interestingly, Erdogan was a completely different person in the past. As a prime minister, he expressed serious concern over the political situation in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011. At that time, he said: “Turkey is a model of democracy, a secular state, a social state with the rule of law upheld. We are not intentionally trying to export a regime – we couldn’t care less. But if they want our help, we’ll provide any assistance they need.” He did not hesitate to snap ties with Israel after the 2010 Maavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos killed several Turkish activists on a Gaza-bound peace flotilla. Majority of the people in Turkey used to consider Erdogan as a leader of the stature of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
However, he became a power monger only after being elected as president. Since becoming president in 2014, Erdogan has been trying hard to change the liberal character of Turkey. He has not only purged the opposition and suppressed press freedom, but also (deliberately) undermined democratic institutions.
Gone are the days when young Arabs treated Erdogan as their hero. Erdogan might have won the referendum, but he is a loser as his old West Asian friends have started considering him as an autocrat only.
Despite his victory in the referendum, a section of constitutional experts believes that the narrow margin of victory ensures that the Turkish establishment cannot create a second republic (no matter what it decides). The outcome clearly indicates that there are two powerful ideas at war and Turkey may have to go through a bitter social turmoil.
The result of the closely contested referendum in favour of executive presidential system vesting greater and near unlimited powers in the president has pushed the country from a democratic setup to an autocratic one. Erdogan should learn a lesson from Ataturk. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the beginning of WWI, the erstwhile general with a great vision came to power and ushered in democracy and secularism. In an attempt to make Turkey modern and prosperous, he advocated “Look West policy” and changed the script to Roman, apart from encouraging trade with the European countries. But, Erdogan has decided to take his country backwards. He is playing with fire.