Turkey’s constitutional referendum: myths and facts

Turks will go to the polls this Sunday and a lot of the discussion surrounding the referendum has focused on the AK Party and President Erdogan. But is that what the referendum is really about?

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

People walk past by campaign tents for the constitutional referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 11, 2017.

Gonca Bayraktar Gonca Bayraktar is a professor at Gazi University in Ankara.

On April 16, millions of Turkish citizens will vote on a constitutional reform bill that, if adopted, will lower the age of candidacy for public office, strengthen checks and balances, and replace the country’s deeply-flawed parliamentarianism with a presidential system of government.

Although much has been said about the proposed amendments and what they mean for Turkey’s future, a quick look at the proposal itself would reveal that this is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, opponents of constitutional reform in Turkey focused their campaign on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself and repeatedly provided false information to the public about the bill. Instead of engaging questions about the Constitution, they resorted to overused cliches about Turkey and its president.

An enduring myth about Turkey’s constitutional referendum has been that the proposed amendments aimed to give the presidency more power over the Parliament, the judiciary and party politics. The upcoming vote, critics argue, was intended solely to ensure that President Erdogan remain in power until 2029. In truth, the constitutional reform bill gives unprecedented powers to the Parliament to investigate the actions of sitting presidents, who currently enjoy near-complete legal immunity unless charged with treason.

Parliamentarians, furthermore, will be able to call for early presidential elections for any reason. At the same time, the bill, if adopted, will abolish military courts as an additional step toward the judiciary’s democratization. The proposed amendments, if anything, expand the Parliament’s power over top judicial appointments. By reducing the number of members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors from 22 to 13, the bill gives the Parliament additional influence over the judiciary.

Another popular myth is that the Turkish presidency has been a ceremonial post with no executive powers. Quite the contrary, the 1982 Constitution imagined the President as part of a broader system intended to keep popular demands under control – which came to be known as the military guardianship regime. Although Turkish presidents have been non-partisan on paper, the phrase effectively meant being in the establishment’s corner. In 2007, the presidency’s role was challenged as direct presidential elections were introduced following a constitutional referendum.

In 2014, Mr. Erdoğan became Turkey’s first elected president – re-establishing popular control over the presidency for the first time since the 1960 coup d’état. It is important to recall, furthermore, that Turkish presidents originally maintained their ties to political parties upon election. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republic’s founder, and İsmet İnönü both served as chairmen of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) during their presidential tenure. Celal Bayar, Turkey’s third president, remained a member of the Democratic Party (DP) throughout his term.

Citing the ongoing state of emergency in Turkey, others argue that the referendum won’t be free and fair. As close followers of Turkish politics surely know, the state of emergency was declared in the wake of last summer’s coup attempt in order to address national security threats more effectively and expedite the legal proceedings and administrative measures to be taken regarding individuals with ties to the coup plotters. The state of emergency, however, had no effect whatsoever on the referendum campaign. Both sides have been able to advertise their views freely, organize campaign events and inform the voters to the best of their ability. A notable exception to this rule were the arbitrary restrictions imposed by several European governments on spokespeople for the ‘yes’ campaign, whereas the ‘no’ campaign was able to freely meet with close to three million Turkish voters abroad.

To ensure the referendum’s transparency, the Turkish government extended official invitations to international observers, who, alongside representatives of political parties and relevant NGOs, will monitor the proceedings. At the same time, it is important to recall that the state of emergency by itself does not cast doubt on the democratic credentials of electoral contests. In France, the upcoming presidential election will take place under the state of emergency because the French authorities are cracking down on terrorist organizations that targeted their citizens in recent years.

Ahead of Sunday’s referendum in Turkey, which multiple pollsters expect to pass, it is important to look beyond cliches and stereotypes, and to focus on the technical aspects of the constitutional reform bill instead. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the reform package will strengthen the separation of powers, introduce new checks and balances to the Turkish Constitution and further weaken the military guardianship regime by empowering civilian institutions.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.