On Sunday, April 16, the people of Turkey will vote in a historic referendum on a new constitution that will grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers and enable him to run the country largely uncontested.
What is the referendum about?
The referendum is about a new constitution.
This draft constitution proposes 18 amendments that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary republic to a presidential republic. Additionally, by allotting significant powers to the office of the President while extremely weakening the Parliament and courts, the amendments would make the President an authoritarian, enabling the country to be run by one individual.
It would bring about the most sweeping changes to Turkey’s political structure since the Turkish republic was declared in 1923.
Main parties involved
Supporters of the “Yes” vote:
- AKP – The Justice & Development Party, the ruling party;
- MHP – The Nationalist Movement Party, fourth-largest party in Parliament.
Supporters of the “No” vote:
- CHP – The Republican People’s Party, the second-largest party in Parliament;
- HDP – The People’s Democratic Party, the third-largest party in Parliament.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a Republic Day ceremony in Ankara, flanked by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
Why is the referendum being held?
The draft constitution is being put to the people because the proposed changes did not get the backing of two-thirds of MPs in the Parliament.
Politicians in Tukey’s Parliament broke into a fight during a debate on the draft constitution.
The referendum will be held under a state of emergency that was declared following a failed military coup attempt in July 2016. The achievement of a presidential republic has been a long-stated goal of Recep Erdogan, who has held power for 13 years as leader of the AKP, two-term Prime Minister, and currently as President.
Background & arguments
This is Turkey’s seventh constitutional referendum since 1946, which was when it became a multi-party parliamentary republic. Until today, the current constitution (which went into force in 1982) has already been amended three times by popular vote and 15 times through legislative action.
However, the draft amendments that will go into the referendum on April 16 are inarguably the most consequential since 1946.
Supporters of the proposed amendments – led by President Erdogan – say the amendments will herald more stability for Turkey. 500 people have been killed in the last 18 months in Turkey and the country was struck by a failed coup last year.
Critics of the amendments argue that it will give Erdogan unwarranted power, stifle opposition, and make the judiciary and Parliament powerless. It would also further deteriorate Turkey’s abysmal record on free speech and press freedom. Currently, Turkey stands 151 out of 180 countries in the press freedom index (Reporters Without Borders).
When one reads what the draft constitution proposes, one can easily identify why it will undoubtedly entrench dictatorship and prove to be the death knell for Turkish democracy.
What does the draft constitution propose?
The proposed amendments would bring about three main changes:
- The executive – under the President – would become stronger;
- The legislature – under the Parliament – would lose most of its powers;
- The judiciary would be politicised and overly reliant on the executive.
These are a few of the changes in the 18-Article constitution:
- The president would become the head of the executive, the head of state, and retain ties to a political party.
- Meanwhile, the position of the prime minister would be scrapped.
- The president would be granted new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges, and enact certain laws by decree.
- The president alone would be able to announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament.
- Legislative elections would take place once every five years, instead of four. They would also take place on the same day as the presidential elections.
- The Turkish Parliament would lose its right to scrutinise ministers or propose an enquiry.
- The changes would implement a shake-up in the judiciary, making it subject to the whims of the president (more details here).
- The president would have a five-year term with a maximum of two terms. The changes would mean that Erdogan could stay in power for another two terms until 2029.
CHP MP Şenal Sarıhan reading a press release against the constitutional changes.
The proposed constitution would practically end the Turkish republic. It would turn Turkey’s parliamentary republic to a presidential republic. Additionally, as mentioned above, by allotting significant powers to the office of the President while extremely weakening the Parliament and courts, the amendments would make the President an authoritarian, essentially making him a dictator who could rule the country without any meaningful opposition.
All the changes can be read here. (The page is in Turkish; the reader can use Google Translate to translate the page to English.)
Campaigning on the referendum concluded at 18:00 local time (15:00 GMT) on Saturday, 15 April. The referendum began across Turkey in the early hours of 16 April (around 9:30 am IST).
Some 55 million people are eligible to vote across 167,000 polling stations. Results are expected late on Sunday evening.
Opinion polls suggest a tight race. In an overview of 28 surveys, 12 of them predict a victory for “Yes,” while eight suggest the “No” camp will win. The outcome of the vote depends on the approximately 10% of the population that is still undecided.
Both sides of the campaign have been accused of using divisive rhetoric. The most popular example of this was when President Erdogan accused all “No” voters of being terrorists.
There are also concerns over how fair the vote will really be. Intimidation against the “No” campaign runs rampant. Furthermore, with scores of journalists in jail, the media in Turkey has now come effectively under the government’s control.
There have been several allegations of state suppression against “No” campaigners (more details here).
The stakes are high
A victory for the Yes vote (which looks more and more likely to happen) would end the Turkish Republic and enable another full-fledged dictator in West Asia.
President Erdogan told supporters at one of his final rallies on Saturday in Istanbul’s Tuzla district: “The new constitution will bring stability and trust that is needed for our country to develop and grow. Turkey can leap into the future.” He could not be more wrong. The new constitution would throw Turkey into the hands of medievalism and authoritarianism, enabling religious fundamentalists to replace progressive thinkers, and sacrificing promising development and secularism for totalitarianism and cronyism.
Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister and since his election as President in 2014, Erdogan has displayed an affinity to authoritarianism; this referendum would seal his victory and make him Turkey’s dictator till at least 2029.
While supporters of the draft constitution say that the new amendments will ensure stability, critics rightly argue that it will lead to one-man rule, a dictatorship. And while Turkish democracy is by no means perfect, it has always been a hopeful beacon in a region of authoritarian regimes and failed states.