Amanda Sloat on Turkey's Constitutional Referendum, Erdogan, and Democratic Backsliding

April 14, 2017
Amanda Sloat
"The European Union will be watching anxiously, as they voice concern over democratic backsliding," says Ash Center Fellow Amanda Sloat.

As Turkey prepares to head to the polls to vote on a package of amendments to the Turkish constitution, we sat down with Dr. Amanda Sloat, a fellow with the Ash Center's Democracy in Hard Places Initiative and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs at the State Department to discuss the referendum and its impact on the future of democracy in Turkey. Q: Why is Turkey going to the polls to vote on a new constitution?

On Sunday, April 16, Turks will vote on a package of 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution. The current constitution was written by a military government following the 1980 coup. Constitutional reform has been on the Turkish agenda since the late 1990s, as many believed a civilian-drafted constitution could help the country recover from the coup’s stigma and remove more authoritarian components without military interference. In addition, numerous revisions have been made as part of the European Union (EU) accession process. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have built their electoral campaigns in recent years on promises of a new constitution.

Q: What are the major constitutional changes proposed?

In short, the proposed reforms would facilitate a shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance. They would eliminate the office of prime minister and enable the president to serve as head of the ruling party, thus consolidating three roles into one powerful position. The president would obtain significant new powers, including the right to issue decrees, propose the national budget, appoint cabinet ministers without a confidence vote from parliament, and appoint more than half the members of the country’s highest judicial bodies. The number of MPs would increase from 550 to 600, and the age of parliamentary candidates would be lowered from 25 to 18. Presidential and parliamentary elections would be held on the same day every five years. The president would be limited to two five-year terms, with the option of running for a third term if parliament called for early elections during his second term.

Q: If the country’s parliamentary system of government is abandoned, will there be any institutional checks on President Erdogan’s power?

The shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system is not inherently problematic. For example, European countries generally have parliamentary systems, while the United States opted for a presidential model. However, the governance arrangements need to be viewed as a whole. Critics have expressed concerns about insufficient checks and balances in the Turkish reforms. In particular, they cite excessive concentration of power in one office, limited parliamentary oversight, and a weakening of judicial independence. These changes are even more concerning amidst the crackdown in recent years on political opponents, journalists, and academics that has severely limited the space for dissent. In addition, Turkey may face difficulties implementing some changes, as the reforms do not create a new system but graft presidential provisions on an old constitution designed as parliamentary.

Supporters argue the reforms will streamline decision-making, eliminate the political instability caused by coalition governments, and address deepening economic and security challenges. They cite the power of the opposition to override the president’s decrees with its own legislation and to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections, as long as opposition parties win a majority in parliament. They also note the abolition of army courts, which would diminish the military’s political influence. In reality, however, there will be limited parliamentary or judicial oversight over the president.

Q: What is the expected outcome of the vote?

The outcome is too close to call, with polls notoriously unreliable – especially given the intimidation surrounding this campaign. While the voting will likely express the will of the public, the pre-referendum climate has not been free.

Q: Does the “no” campaign stand much of a chance?

The opposition -- comprised of disparate forces of Turkish nationalists, Kurds, and secularists -- has not been well organized. It lacks a coordinated message and has little visibility beyond social media.

Fear has been a driving factor in the campaign. The vote is taking place under a state of emergency, which was imposed after the coup attempt last July. Opposing voices have been repressed through arbitrary arrests and silenced media outlets. The main voices in the campaign are those sanctioned by the government, using slogans such as “For a strong Turkey, say yes.” Social media has demonized opponents as terrorists and outsiders, including ISIS, PKK, Gulenists, Europe, and the US.

Kurds have been hamstrung in their ability to campaign. Several MPs and the leader of the main Kurdish political party (People’s Democratic Party, HDP) are imprisoned on spurious charges of supporting terrorism. In Kurdish regions within Turkey, many party officials are in jail, state-appointed administrators run several cities, rallies are prohibited, and information is limited. As a result, some Kurdish voters may opt to stay home.

Some see the vote as a referendum on President Erdogan. He is genuinely popular, particularly as a result of his economic reforms, and hasn’t lost an election or referendum since taking power in 2002. He also has solid support from conservatives and a growing numbers of Islamists.

Q: What happens if Erdogan wins? Do things become worse if he loses?

While occupying the largely ceremonial role of president, Erdogan has already attained significant authority, diminished the power of the prime minister, and weakened the media and political opposition. Many observers believe a ‘yes’ vote would simply formalize his rule while eliminating remaining institutional constraints. Although most of the proposed reforms wouldn’t take effect until November 2019 following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan could seek to consolidate power more quickly. Some analysts suggest a ‘yes’ vote could give Erdogan more room to maneuver, as he would be less constrained by concerns about his nationalist flank. For example, he may be more inclined to finalize negotiations on the reunification of Cyprus and be less hostile to American cooperation with Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS.

If the ‘no’ vote prevails, there are concerns Turkey will enter a greater period of political instability as Erdogan determines how to ensure eventual success. As his critics would be emboldened in the face of electoral defeat, he could crack down even further on domestic opposition. The most likely scenario is snap parliamentary elections in the fall, with Erdogan hoping the AKP would win a sufficient majority to pass constitutional reforms. Many cite 2015 as a cautionary tale: the AKP failed to achieve a parliamentary majority in spring elections, but were successful in the fall re-run after a summer of increased fighting with the PKK.

Q: Will the referendum affect Turkey’s EU aspirations?

The European Union will be watching anxiously, as they voice concern over democratic backsliding yet need Turkish help in managing refugee flows from Syria. Last November the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the suspension of accession talks, while European Commission leaders warned the proposed reforms might hinder Turkey’s prospects given the need to adhere to democratic standards. Relations further soured when Erdogan seemingly picked a fight as a means of inflaming nationalist-minded voters, accusing the Netherlands and Germany of Nazism after they prevented his officials from holding pro-referendum rallies for Turkish expats.

While this demonization of Europe could end after a successful referendum, it could also signal the start of a permanent shift in Turkey’s perspective. Erdogan recently said parliament could restore capital punishment, a nod to his nationalist supporters in the wake of the coup attempt. However, such a move would end the country’s EU path. He also suggested Turkey might hold a referendum on whether to continue pursuing membership.



See also: Ash Features, 2017