ISTANBUL — After weeks of raucous parliamentary debate that included fisticuffs and chair-throwing, lawmakers in Turkey overwhelmingly passed several constitutional amendments early Saturday that, if approved by the public, would grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greatly enhanced powers.
The changes include amendments that would abolish the post of prime minister, curb governmental oversight by the parliament and give Erdogan the authority to unilaterally issue decrees — rules that the president’s opponents insist would formalize Turkey’s drift toward authoritarian rule.
The president’s allies have argued that the state had become unruly and that the long-overdue changes would free Erdogan from bureaucratic obstacles at a time when Turkey is facing unprecedented challenges.
A public referendum will be held on the package as early as the end of March. With some polls showing tepid support for the measures, the president and his supporters in the Islamist Justice and Development Party have tried to bolster their campaign by striking an alliance with a nationalist party that provided the votes needed in parliament to force a referendum.
The rancor in parliament included hair-pulling, the throwing of a potted plant and a lawmaker handcuffing herself to a microphone on a lectern before she was surrounded by angry opponents. As spectacle, it amounted to an embarrassing milestone that magnified deepening divisions over Turkey’s direction even beyond the contentious debate over what has come to be known as the “executive presidency.”
Ravza Kavakci Kan, a lawmaker from the Justice and Development Party, was photographed during one of the brawls, standing aside with her arms folded and wearing a look of disgust. “When you work for days and days, people tend to do things they may get embarrassed about,” she said Saturday.after parliament voted.
“There’s no excuse for it,” she added. “The Turkish people deserved better.”
Turkey’s divisions have sharpened with several recent crises and threats, including a failed coup in July that left more than 240 people dead and prompted a withering government crackdown on political opponents and critics alike. The country has also been shaken by an alarming string of deadly militant attacks by Kurdish as well as Sunni Islamist militants.
Turkey’s military intervention in Syria’s war has also exposed fissures, as the government has forged a closer alliance with Russia and pushed Syria’s anti-government rebels to accept a political solution that would end the fighting.
The president’s supporters have argued that the accumulated challenges — and the need to impose order — are precisely the reason that Erdogan needs a freer hand to govern.“There will only be strong leaderships now,” the prime minister, Binali Yildirim, told reporters when the reforms were submitted to parliament last month, according to Reuters. The changes to the presidency would dispense with the wrangling over governing coalitions and “end conflicts between branches” of government, he said.
Kavakci Kan, the lawmaker, said the amendments would make the president more accountable. “If the Turkish people are not happy with this change, they will not vote for it. If they are not happy with President Erdogan, they can vote him out.”
The weeks leading up to the referendum, though, seemed to promise much more acrimony, given the nature of the parliamentary debate. After the vote Saturday, Erdogan rallied his supporters, calling on them to focus on the campaign to approve the changes, “by working day and night,” in comments reported by the semiofficial Anadolu news agency.
His opponents argue that Erdogan, who served as prime minister for 11 years before assuming the presidency in 2014, has seized on Turkey’s recent turmoil to accumulate more power, including by eviscerating one of the country’s most prominent opposition parties, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. If the constitutional changes are approved by the public, they would go into effect in 2019, and Erdogan could serve two five-year terms.
“This parliament prepared a constitution that could lead Turkey to a Middle East dictatorship, not a contemporary democracy,” Deniz Baykal, a leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party, said in an interview with Yenicag, a Turkish daily newspaper, a few days before the vote.
“It will not bring stability,” he said. “It will not bring peace.”