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Turkey - 2017 Referendum

On Sunday 16 April 2017, Turks voted in a referendum on transforming Turkey from the current parliamentary system into an 'executive presidency'. National polls showed the "Yes" and "No" votes were nearly tied and as the referendum approached. The "Yes" votes stood at 51.3 percent after 98 percent of ballots had been opened for counting, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

International election monitors criticized the referendum, saying the campaign was conducted on an "unlevel playing field" and that the vote count was marred by late procedural changes. Observers from the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said in a joint statement on April 17 that the legal framework for the referendum "remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum."

Cezar Florin Preda, the head of a PACE monitoring delegation, said "late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard and were contested by the opposition," referring to a move by election officials to allow ballots that did not have an official stamp to be counted. The decision on April 16 by the Supreme Electoral Council to count unstamped ballot papers had created possibilities for widespread fraud in the ballot count. But the head of Turkeys electoral commission, Sadi Guven, rejected the claims of foul play and the criticism from international monitors.

The controversial decision to allow the use of ballots that did not have an official stamp was also criticized. The Supreme Election Board issued instructions late in the day, that significantly changed, the validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law, observed Cezar Florin Preda of the monitoring group at the Ankara press conference. Under Turkeys 2010 electoral law, all ballots require an official stamp as a measure aimed at preventing vote stuffing. The main opposition CHP alleges that as many as one-and-a-half million unstamped ballots could have been used, more than the winning margin in the referendum.

The 18 articles of the constitutional reform package created one of the most powerful elected presidencies in the world. Supporters argued it was essential to meet unprecedented threats facing the country. Detractors warned the measures will turn Turkey into an autocracy, and tranform the president into a Sultan. Recep Tayyip Erodgan, who came to power as prime minister in 2003, before assuming the presidency in 2014, could end up serving as president through 2029 of the "Yes vote prevailed.

Turkeys electoral map displaying the results of Sundays vote has some parallels in the Turkish context with its US equivalent after Trumps electoral college victory. The red and blue zones in this transcontinental nation straddling Europe and Asia are noteworthy. Turkeys western coastal regions, as well as its urban centres, voted firmly against Erdogan expanding his presidential powers. The Kurdish southeast also overwhelmingly voted No to the raft of 18 article amendments changing the countrys parliamentary system to a presidential one. The central Anatolian heartland predictably backed Erdogan, as they have since he came to power as prime minister in 2003. Until Mustafa Kemal Ataturks death, a de facto presidential system was in place. The president had also held the leadership of a political party. This principle was repealed (or abolished) after 1960 coup. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argued that a strong executive branch is necessary for making decisions more quickly and for taking the necessary steps for the countrys economic and democratic development. A presidential system will clear up the confusion over the jurisdiction for which the president and the prime minister are responsible in the parliamentary system. The AKP argues that the parliamentary system produces coalitions that have had negative implications for both justices in representation and stability in administration, which have been inversely correlated. The proposed presidential system was said to be more in line with Turkish political culture compared to the parliamentary system.

The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) argues that the draft destroys the separation of powers and increases the executive branchs powers extraordinarily. The draft is a step towards a systemic change rather than being a mere constitutional revision. If passed, the new changes lead the way to an authoritarian Turkey. There are no checks and balances in the proposed system. The presidents jurisdiction is extended without restrictions.

In the national news coverage of the referendum, the "Yes" vote supporters had significantly more airtime than their counterparts. A study of TRT Haber, the publicly-owned and financed national broadcaster, found that President Erdogan and the AKP had been given 4,113 minutes of coverage in the first three weeks of March 2017. During the same period, opposition advocates with Republican People's Party were on air for 216 minutes while the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) had just one minute of coverage.

The Turkish parliament's constitutional commission approved the draft of a controversial constitutional reform championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party AKP on 30 December 2016. The proposed reform would transform Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential system, shifting executive power from parliament and prime minister to the presidency. Under the current constitution, the president officially served a largely ceremonial role, but Erdogan had already used his popularity to expand his influence on Turkish politics.

In November 2013 the parliamentary commission set up to draft a new constitution for Turkey failed and was dissolved. Drafting a new constitution was among Erdogan's election pledges in 2011 and the commission, including the social democratic CHP, pro-Kurdish BHP and nationalist MHP opposition parties, had been working on a new law for two years. Despite numerous revisions, the current constitution dates from the 1980 coup, and still bears the stamp of military tutelage.

The 2016 constitutional amendment proposal that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) brought to the parliament with the support from only the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drew attention with its "one-chamber parliament" premise. In the new model, there would be no prime minister, and the president would have all the executive power within a unitary structure. The parliament would no longer have the authority to audit the cabinet and its ministers or have the cabinet issue decrees. "Subjects dealing with state activity" would be excluded from the scope of general meetings in parliament, meaning, ministers would not be members of parliament. The age of political candidacy would be reduced to 18. The number of seats in the parliament would rise to 600 from 550.

The parliament would not have any authority to call for a vote of confidence or set up inquiry commissions. The proposed amendment would give the president the power to make legislation as well as the power to veto. When the president sends a proposed bill back to parliament and a two-thirds majority votes to accept the legislation, the president would, once again, have the power to veto.

The president would have the power to issue decrees, which is a power that even the US president doesn't have. While the US president needs the confirmation of the senate for each cabinet member, the Turkish president would be able to appoint anyone he wishes. He would also have the power to appoint all senior civil servants, declare a state of emergency and call for renewal of elections.

According to the proposed member selection system for the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the president would appoint half of the members, while the parliament vl appoint the other half. The proposal called for the presidential and parliament elections to be held on the same day. The proposal called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on November 3, 2019. At that date local elections are also expected to be held.

This way, the president can enter the election as head of his party and lead them to victory. In that way, parliament members would always stay loyal to the president. There will be no monitoring the president, parliament members will be allied to the president and he will have complete judicial control.

Turkey said it may hold a referendum in the coming months on adopting a presidential system instead of the current parliamentary one as well as other amendments to the constitution. "If the parliament puts the issue on its agenda and makes a quick decision, the referendum will be brought to the people quickly, even before the spring," Bekir Bozdag told the Kanal 24 television station Oct 14, 2016. The announcement came a few days after Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim signaled that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is poised to push ahead with his plans to overhaul the constitution and strengthen his own power. "Turkey must give the de facto situation a legal status," said Yildirim. "We will at once take steps in this direction and will let either parliament or the people decide." Erdogan had long been campaigning for a presidential system based on the claim that the country cannot be run by two strongmen.

On December 30, 2016, the Commission on the Constitution in Turkeys Grand National Assembly (GNA, the parliament) approved several draft amendments to the countrys Constitution that would, among other measures, augment the powers of the president and change the government to a presidential system from the current prime minister-led system. Of an initial package of 21 amendments, the number was whittled down to 18 by the Commission. Discussions on a constitutional reform package began in January 2016. Proposed changes affecting the presidency and the election system include:

  • abolition of the prime ministry;
  • ability of an elected president to maintain ties with his/her own party;
  • election of the president by popular vote, from among persons who have attained 40 years of age, have completed higher education and have the right to be elected deputies and are born Turkish nationals, for up to two five-year terms, with the next general and presidential elections to be held on Nov. 3, 2019;
  • authority of the president to make decisions by decree on the establishment and closing of ministries and organizations and to appoint senior public officials ;
  • authority of the president to declare a state of emergency;
  • holding of parliamentary and presidential elections every five years, on the same day;
  • authority of Parliament to establish an investigative commission and launch impeachment proceedings against the president, with the signatures of 301 MPs needed to propose an investigation, 360 MPs (i.e., three-fifths) needed for the establishment of a commission, and a secret ballot of 401 MPs in favor needed for the proposed impeachment to be referred to the Supreme Court; and
  • an increase in the number of MPs from 550 to 600, given the growing population; and
  • a reduction in the minimum age for candidacy, in line with European practice, from 25 years of age to 18.

Other amendments would:

  • decrease the size of the National Security Council (Milli Gvenlik Kurulu, MGK);
  • remove the gendarmerie forces from the control of the MGK;
  • abolish the military high courts, in an effort to remove differing practices between the military and civil courts, thereby reducing the number of members on the Constitution Court to 15 because of the removal of the two members from the military courts;
  • authorize Parliament and the president to select members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (Hakimler ve Savcilar Yksek Kurulu, HSYK) in order, according to one news source, to remove members of the Glenist Terror Group (FET) from within the judiciary;
  • change the structure of the HSYK, reducing it from a 22-member to a 13-member body, seven elected by parliamentary vote and the remaining six selected by the president, and reducing the number of its chambers from three to two;
  • place the Turkish Armed Forces (Trk Silahli Kuvvetleri, TSK) under civilian oversight through the State Supervisory Council (Devlet Denetleme Kurulu), which is led by the presidency; and
  • authorize the president, who is also the commander-in-chief, to appoint the TSKs chief of general staff.

The HSYK, under article 159 of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey has been responsible for recruiting, appointing, transferring, authorising, promoting, disciplinary issues and removal of judges and prosecutors.

The proposed package of amendments, once presented to the GNA, will be discussed and voted upon article by article before put to a vote as a whole by the parliament, where a minimum of 330 votes will be needed for it to pass. Given that agreement had been reached on the proposal in committee between the ruling Justice and Development Party, which has 316 seats, and the Nationalist Movement Party, which has 39 seats, it is expected that the amendments will pass, perhaps before the end of January. Upon passage of the proposed measures, a referendum on them was expected to take place in the spring of 2017.

The entire parliament was expected to debate the bill in January 2017. Experts predicted that the parliament would approve the constitutional reform, which required at least 330 votes from the 550 members of parliament. The ultra-conservative MHP supported the reform along with the AKP. Together, both parties had 356 votes in the parliament. A referendum would be held by spring.

On 21 January 2017 Turkey's parliament approved the controversial constitutional reform package, which aimed to empower the office of the presidency. The parliamentary approval paved the way for a referendum on the measures. The 550-seat parliament approved the new 18-article constitution in a final vote with 339 in favor and 142 against, while five cast empty ballots and two of the votes were ruled invalid. The measure required at least 330 votes to be approved and be put forward to a referendum, which is planned for as early as April.

On 15 February 2017 Erdogan signed into law constitutional amendments aimed at giving him sweeping new powers under an executive presidency. The reforms were deeply divisive, with supporters saying they will strengthen democracy, while critics warn of dictatorship. Turks would decide in the referendum set for April 16. Doubts over its fairness were growing among opponents of the reforms, who claim a crackdown against them already has started. Opinion polls indicated the outcome remains too close to call. That gave the no campaign hope, but the expectation of further crackdowns on their activities deepened the country's political divide.

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Page last modified: 24-04-2017 16:04:34 ZULU