Turkish constitutional court

A referendum for less democracy

From a formal point of view, Turkey is a democratic country. But in reality it is gradually moving away from its democratic principles and adopting an authoritarian rationale. The new referendum that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is calling for puts Turkey on this path.

A democracy can give rise to an authoritarian regime

Democracy is a political system in which power is held and controlled by the people. Democracy is usually representative. The majority of votes cast in elections gives power to representatives. Major decisions can be put to the people through a referendum. This was the case on 16 April 2017 in Turkey to validate the new constitution of 1982. The constitution is the founding text of the functioning of the State. This functioning, while it is in conformity with the constitution, can however lead to an authoritarian organisation by presenting the population with a fait accompli. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strategy, since he came to power, has put Turkey in this situation.

Turkish constitution
Turkish constitution

A constitution amended more than fifteen times

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Constitution has been amended and revised more than fifteen times. The most significant development of the Constitution is the 1982 version. It defines the organisation of the government, the principles and rules of governance of the state and its responsibilities towards its citizens. The Constitution also establishes the rights and duties of Turkish citizens towards the government. Constitutional developments have alternated over the years towards more democracy or away from it. The abolition of the two-thirds rule affecting the conditions for election and quorum in the parliament is an example (21 October 2007 amendment). The latest constitutional revision was made in 2017. It strengthens the powers of the President and thus transforms Turkey into a presidential regime.

Power in the hands of one man

The 16 April 2017 referendum for the constitutional revision aims to strengthen the powers of the president. This new version is tailor-made to satisfy the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Thus, it concentrates all powers.

Berat Albayrak, Erdogan's son-in-law and former finance minister
Berat Albayrak

Executive power: the position of Prime Minister in charge of enforcing the law disappears. The President takes over this responsibility exclusively. He can thus dismiss his ministers who are no longer accountable to parliament. The dismissal of his finance ministers over the last three years is evidence thereof. (Nureddin Nebati succeeded Lütfi Elvan, who remained in office just one year after the resignation of Berat Albayrak, son-in-law of the President)
Legislative power: while the number of parliamentarians in the Grand Assembly has increased (from 550 to 600) for more debate, the president bypasses parliament by deciding on laws by decree. However, the parliament has a say in the state budget. Parliament becomes a recording chamber with no real power.
The judiciary: The President appoints six of the thirteen members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (This council appoints or dismisses prosecutors and judges). The rest of the members are appointed by the representatives of the Grand Assembly, the majority of which is held by the presidential AKP party. While the constitution emphasises the impartiality of judges, their independence is widely questioned.

In addition to these three main powers, the choice of twelve of the fifteen members of the Constitutional Council belongs to the President. He also has control over the appointment of strategic functions such as the military high command, the head of intelligence and university rectors. The new Turkish regime resulting from the 2017 constitutional reform is shaped around the personality of its president. This system is open to all authoritarian excesses.

The referendum, a democratic tool…

According to President Erdogan, democracy is like a tramway. It is not an end but a means. This statement is in line with what he is doing. He is the first president to be elected by direct universal suffrage in Turkey in 2014, however the constitution he had amended gives him the maximum guarantees to keep power until 2029. The referendum for the amendment of the constitution is comparable to a blank check for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The construction of this “new post-Kemalist Turkey” utilises democracy by abusing its people. On the one hand, the people have the choice to decide by voting, but on the other hand, they must have the means to express themselves freely to think differently. The NO campaign in the 2017 referendum was subject to pressure and intimidation from the government. In the context of the purge, following the attempted coup d’état in July 2015, the will to express oneself requires a lot of courage.

What message and image does the situation in Turkey give to democracy? The spaces for democratic expression are shrinking in the country. Under the pretext that contradicting the word of the head of state is an act of subversion, Turkey is becoming an authoritarian regime. Is this system sustainable? What will be the legacy for the opposition if it wins the elections? The Turkish population is still master of its choices and will have to position itself towards a model of society that meets the expectations of the majority. The results of the general policy of President Erdogan, who is solely responsible for the country’s situation, will in any case be voted for or against by the population in 2023.

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