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Turkey hits a fork in the road

Deger Akal / po
November 12, 2015

Following elections, Turkey's Justice and Development Party plans to push through constitutional changes. Experts say the process could prove dangerous and endorse a constitution that expands freedoms.

Wahl in der Türkei AKP gewinnt deutlich
Image: Reuters/O. Orsal

The restoration of a single-party government after the multiparty campaign in the run-up to the November 1 elections has left Turkey on the cusp of a crucial period, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pledging to push constitutional changes to bolster the presidency.

In a speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said "let's leave aside concerns regarding a regime," but also gave the signals for a referendum on the executive branch. And, though Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that the constitutional changes will occur with societal consensus, other figures in the AKP have made statements expressing their belief that consensus is unnecessary.

Three hundred and thirty votes are required in parliament in order for a referendum on the constitutional changes. The AKP has 317 seats and must win the support of some combination of 13 deputies from the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

But is a systemic change solely based on a simple majority of votes suitable for a pluralistic democracy?

"A crude, superficial 'should we have a presidential or a parliamentary system' discussion will polarize society," said Medipol University law faculty member Levent Korkut, who believes that the 1982 constitution should be done away with in favor of a new constitution. "It will result in the formation of opposed camps, and whichever emerges as the most popular will win."

"I don't believe that a regime change will aid in the country's transition to a democracy," Korkut added. "Turkey is also showing the characteristics of a polarized society. To add this issue of the presidency on top of it all amid periods of crisis could make things even more difficult."

'Desire to break'

"A government that has enjoyed stability for 13 years is now invoking stability as the only reason for constitutional change," said Ece Goztepe, a professor at Bilkent University.

"This is a very interesting state of affairs," Goztepe said. "Those who say 'let's make a new constitution and get rid of the unchangeable second and third articles' actually desire to be the primary constituent power, and this coincides with a desire to break from some of the essential principles with which the republic was founded in 1923."

Goztepe said Turkey did not need a new constitution, but rather a legislative majority that will uphold the international agreements to which Turkey is a party and its existing constitution in accordance with liberal values.

A strong executive

AKP authority figures have defended the so-called "Turkish-style presidency" as the only means to reinforce democracy. Goztepe, however, pointed out that the European Council, of which Turkey is a member, does not have a single member state that upholds a presidential system.

"Continental Europe's historical development and the result of class wars led to a multiparty political structure, and this includes Turkey," Goztepe said. "When we look at countries that are suited for presidential systems, the United States comes to mind. Apart from the US, countries in Southeast Asia and South America that have tried to implement the presidential system are not democratic countries but one-man regimes."

Noting that the US system features a president who governs alongside the legislature within mechanisms to preserve checks and balances, Goztepe said fortifying Turkey's executive branch would consolidate lawmaking and executive powers.

"This means the end of democratic negotiations, protection of minorities, differing view points, and the principle of representation," Goztepe said.

According to the investigative journalist and legal expert Kemal Goktas, the goal of constitutional changes in Turkey would be an authoritarian presidential system directed toward an Islamic society that eschewed such concepts as secularism. Goktas said efforts to create such a system had put Turkey in the midst of a "dangerous process."

"The ruling party has no interest in democratization," Goktas said. "It has said that it won't return to the negotiation table to solve the Kurdish question. Media pressure is at an all-time high, and journalists are getting arrested for what they write. Whether or not the presidential system comes, after this point Turkey will be the stage of much larger social crises."

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