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Dissecting Turkey's referendum

Diego Cupolo Ankara
April 10, 2017

Murat Sevinc, a law professor at Ankara University, was fired for signing a peace petition. Though restricted from travelling abroad, he continues to speak out against President Erdogan’s proposed presidential system.

Türkei Istanbul Rede Erdogan
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

DW: A presidential system has been desired by many leaders in Turkey's past. Why is such a system appealing for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP)?

Read: Turkish parliament approves constitutional reform, expanded powers for Erdogan

Murat Sevinc: Turkey's right wing has been a supporter of a presidential system since the 1960s. But what they defended in the past was closer to the American system, which the system currently in question does not resemble. The right wing parties in Turkey have always received around 60 percent of the votes since the 1950s. Only once, in 1977, Bulent Ecevit, [who became leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) in 1985 - the ed.], managed to surpass 40 percent. That is why the conservatives know very well that they will win whenever a majority is needed.

Turkey remains under a state of emergency following last year's failed coup. How does the current political climate affect the voting process?

Yes/no campaigners in Istanbul

Making a constitutional change under state of emergency rule is against logic and democracy. This is not arguable. The Venice Commission [advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law - the ed.] has come to the same conclusion. Yet AKP officials won't remove the state of emergency because they have been ruling with decree laws, and this serves their purposes. The only thing that matters to them is a "Yes" vote. Under such conditions, the state of emergency is not the main problem. The main issue is that the proposed amendments to the constitution will initially tarnish the principle of the separation of powers, which will in turn adversely affect democracy. The state of emergency only adds salt and pepper.

Read: Turkey 'on the road to autocracy,' Venice Commission watchdog says

If the referendum is successful, the seats in parliament will increase from 550 to 600. What is the strategic significance of such a change?

There might be two agendas for increasing the number of MPs: reducing the powers of the parliament and/or making it more vulnerable to the presidential influence [More MPs are likely to dilute the power and credibility of the parliament; a higher number of MPs means more could be susceptible to Erdogan's influence - the ed.]. The AKP probably thinks it will be able to win more seats during the elections and guarantee their hold on power through impunity.

In your radio talk show appearances, you have said there are many contradictions in the proposed constitutional amendments. Can you expand on this?

Murat Sevinc zurückgetretener ehemaliger Jurastudent an der Ankara Universität
Murat Sevinc: "What is called participation does not mean putting people in front of a box once in a while and asking them questions they don't truly understand."Image: I. Yavuz

There are too many problems in the amendments. Some are intended. Some are just the result of negligence. The authority of the president over the use of armed forces and the power of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to declare war will contradict. The number of vice presidents that the president may appoint and the required qualifications of these candidates remain unclear. It is also unclear who will replace him, if he leaves office earlier than expected. In one article, it's stated that a president can be elected twice. But in another article, it suggests that if elections are called in his or her second term, earlier than normal, a president can be a candidate again. So if the circumstances are right, he or she could serve for 15 years.

Then there are the opposition parties. Devlet Bahceli, long-time chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has provided key support for the presidential system and helped make the referendum possible. What's in it for him?

He is probably doing this to prevent the loss of more nationalist votes. MHP lost many of its voters to the AKP since peace talks ended with Kurdish insurgents. He might be trying to prevent further damage to his party. Regardless, we are well aware that the purges have left many empty seats in public offices. These seats will be filled at some point. Probably, some congregations of MHP supporters are the leading candidates for these positions.

Thirteen members of the leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) are currently imprisoned. At the same time, some opposition supporters have been detained while campaigning for the "No" vote. How might such repression impact the vote?

AKP voters are not affected or impressed by the imprisonment of Kurdish politicians. That world is too far from them. They don't care. However, tens of thousands of people were detained or sacked because of suspected ties to Fetullah Gulen, the exiled cleric accused of plotting the failed coup. Many of these people were members of the religious community and voted for the AKP. These voters witnessed the victimization of their own people for the first time and this will undoubtedly have important consequences.

Read: Turkey's referendum runs deeper than 'Yes' or 'No'

More generally, we have seen the use of referendums rise dramatically in recent years. How effective is a referendum in projecting the will of the public?

Referendums can bring out democratic results only if you live in a democratic country. It is very important for people to participate in government and its management at all levels. But what is called participation does not mean putting people in front of a box once in a while and asking them questions that they don't truly understand. First, we need an informed public. The press should be free and avenues for informing the public should be protected. This is the only honest way to hold a referendum.

Read: Turkey's constitution guarantees press freedom - but that's not the whole story

Murat Sevinc, a constitutional law professor at Ankara University, was dismissed in February along with 330 colleagues for signing a peace petition. Though unemployed and restricted from travelling abroad, he remains one of Turkey's leading legal experts and continues to speak out against President Erdogan's proposed presidential system.