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How a constitutional amendment could end Turkey’s republic

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Istanbul on Jan. 21. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool photo Presidential Press Service via AP)
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On Jan. 21, the Turkish parliament approved a constitutional amendment that would change the current system of government from parliamentary to presidential. The amendment received well more than the 330 votes in the parliament needed for approval, after a deal between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ultranationalist MHP.

Those changes will now go to a popular referendum, which will likely take place in early April. Coming in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt and in the midst of a massive crackdown on independent civil society, these proposed amendments would fundamentally change Turkey’s political system.

Handcuffs and hair-pulling: Turkey’s parliament debates, then approves new powers for the president

The proposed changes are so profound that, if passed, they will amount to a total regime change, not just a change in the system of government. Erdogan’s de facto one-man rule will be codified into what can only be described as a sultanistic regime, unprecedented in Turkey or anywhere else in the democratic world. Power would be severely concentrated in the hands of the presidency, with almost no checks and balances. Some Turks worry that the new constitution may even allow him to appoint his sons and sons-in-law as vice presidents and even successors.

The passage of the amendment would crown Erdogan’s long-standing efforts to consolidate power in a presidential system — and could strike a mortal blow to Turkey’s once-flourishing democracy.

The amendment to the constitution creates a super-powerful presidency, in sharp contrast to the current parliamentary system. The amendment would abolish the office of the prime minister, until now the most powerful political position in the Turkish system. The popularly elected president, who occupies a largely ceremonial post under the current constitution, would instead be the head of both the government and the state. The president would be able to serve three consecutive five-year terms and could continue to serve as the chairman of his political party.

Elections for the president and the parliament would be held on the same day to deliver a parliamentary majority to the president’s list, hand-picked by the president himself in his capacity as the chairman of the party.

The hypothetical new position of vice president would serve as the head of state in the event the president is abroad or incapacitated. This position would not be elected but rather appointed along with the cabinet by the president, with no oversight. The parliament has no role in these appointments: It cannot hold confirmation hearings or exercise any supervisory powers over the cabinet, such as interpellation — questioning a policy — or vote of confidence.

Although the parliament — with the approval of two-thirds majority — could refer the president to the Supreme Court for crimes he may commit during his tenure, it would not be able to impeach him or shorten his term. In contrast, the president could dissolve the parliament at his will and call for new elections.

The new amendment also gives the president legislative powers. Should it pass, the president could issue, on behalf of the parliament, presidential decrees with the same legislative power and authority as laws passed by parliament. The new amendment also gives the president enhanced veto powers. To override a presidential veto, an absolute majority in parliament would be needed, while under the current constitution only a simple majority is required.

Though presidential decrees would be subject to review by the Constitutional Court, the court may not be independent and impartial enough to exercise such review authority. According to the amendment, the Constitutional Court would have 15 members, most of them appointed directly or indirectly by the president. Furthermore, the president will also have a major role in the formation of the Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, technically an independent body that oversees appointment, promotion, disciplining and dismissal of judges and public prosecutors.

Last week, while introducing the amendment bill to the parliament, Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag claimed that there was really nothing new in the bill, as supporters were simply bringing back “Ataturk’s constitution.” But in many ways, the 1924 constitution that established Ataturk’s republic was a more democratic constitution than what has been proposed by the AKP. Unlike Erdogan’s proposed constitution, the 1924 constitution did not grant the president authority to dissolve the parliament or declare him to be commander in chief. Neither did it give the president strong veto powers since the parliament could override it with simple majority. Moreover, the parliament also retained the authority to exercise supervisory powers over the president’s cabinet through a confidence vote, which the Erdogan’s proposed constitution denies.

Some Turks have argued that Erdogan’s constitution is more reminiscent of the Syrian Constitution of 2012. Like Bashar al-Assad’s version, Erdogan’s constitution would also allow him to dissolve the parliament, appoint his vice presidents, assume legislative powers at the expense of the parliament and act as commander in chief. On paper, Erdogan’s powers could actually surpass those of Assad. For instance, the Turkish parliament, unlike its Syrian counterpart, will have no authority whatsoever to interrogate members of the president’s cabinet or withhold confidence from them.

In the coming referendum, will the Turkish people agree to grant Erdogan powers denied to Ataturk in 1924? The current environment of spiraling violence and economic and political uncertainty makes predicting the outcome difficult. But if they do, it will effectively put an end to the Turkish Republic.

Yüksel Sezgin is the director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.