In a nationwide referendum held on April 16, 2017, Turkish voters were asked to decide whether to grant expanded competences to the President of the Republic.
Turnout was a high 85% - about 49 million of 58 million eligible voters, including Turkish citizens living abroad, and the unofficial preliminary result indicates a close call: 51,4 per cent “Yes” (in favor) and 48,6 “No” (against).
The results demonstrate that the people of Turkey support the proposed amendments to the Constitution.
Some media analysts are of the opinion that the people’s choice reflects a preference for more compromise than fragmentation on major topics of nationwide interest, in particular on reshaping the institutional pillars of the state.
Following the "yes” vote, Turkey’s political configuration will soon be transformed. The foundations of government will shift in emphasis from a Parliamentary to an Executive Presidential system, while the National Assembly will continue to function on a modified basis.
Proponents argue that this reform will provide Turkey with more stability at a time of turmoil and in the context of complex issues facing the country, while opponents criticise it as a drive to an enhancement and concentration of power.
The constitutional amendments adopted by referendum indeed mark a fundamental change in how the country will be run.
The current Constitution was adopted after the 1980 coup, and critics say it restricts the popular will via paternalistic-tutelage mechanisms allegedly exerted by certain segments of the state apparatus.
The foiled coup attempt on July 15th last year revealed that the military establishment’s approach towards political representatives and civilian authorities required change.
That’s why the relationship between the military and civilian authorities will also be reorganized within the scope of the latest, crucial reforms. For example, the State Supervisory Board will be able to monitor and audit the Turkish Armed Forces. Military Courts will be abolished.
The set of constitutional amendments aims to reassert supervision by elected politicians over appointed officials.
The next general elections are to be held on November 3, 2019. Until that time, the incumbent president and deputies will hold office. The Council of Judges and Prosecutors will be elected and will assume office in the very near future, once the Constitutional amendments enter into force.
Now, we can look at what changes the referendum heralds and what their impact will be domestically and internationally.
What was it about?
The vote asked Turks to approve or reject 18 Constitutional amendments in order to move to a Presidential system of government. Among them:
§ The President, currently just the Head of State, becomes both the Head of State and head of the executive.
§ The post of Prime Minister is abolished, and a position of Vice-President is created.
§ The President is authorised to declare states of emergency and to appoint Vice-Presidents, ministers and high-ranking public officials.
§ The legislative prerogative of Parliament will be maintained, but to a certain extent diminished.
§ The President’s tenure will be limited to two terms of five-years each.
§ Parliamentary and Presidential elections are to be held every five years, simultaneously.
§ Parliament is entitled to investigate or impeach the President by a majority vote. It would need a two-thirds majority (400 votes) to refer the president for trial by the Supreme Court.
§ The number of Members of Parliament will be increased from 550 to 600.
§ The Board of Judges and Prosecutors will be comprised of the Minister of Justice, his/her undersecretary, seven members appointed by the Parliament, and four members appointed by the President.
§ The number of seats on the Constitutional Court will be reduced from 17 to 15, a majority of whom will be appointed by the President.
§ Both the President and Parliament will be able to request a re-election.
§ The President must get parliamentary approval for the budget.
§ The military judiciary will be confined to disciplinary issues.
Arguments in favour
- Supporters view the constitutional reform package as a guarantee of stability and security for Turkey.
- They argue that it is a crucial opportunity to modernise Turkey’s constitution.
- Proponents also say that it will improve decision-making and execution without the current duality involving the President and the Prime minister and the need to form difficult-to-manage coalitions.
- A key concern is insufficient checks and balances over the head of the executive’s (President’s) power and a secondary position for Parliament.
- Opponents argue that the amended Constitution will preclude votes of confidence or motions of censure as a means of exerting control over government in the National Assembly. Governments will thus operate for five years without being concerned about the risk of being brought down by Parliament.
Why a referendum?
There has long been debate about switching to a presidential system. In a 2007 Constitutional referendum, Turkey embraced a semi-presidential system, putting the election of the president to universal suffrage. Erdoğan thus became Turkey’s first directly-elected President in 2014.
But there was a desire to move to a fully presidential system and last summer’s foiled coup attempt might have boosted this tendency.
What would a yes vote mean for Turkey?
The bulk of changes will become effective in 2019. But as of now, the President may rejoin his political party under one of the approved amendments. The board of judges and prosecutors will also be renewed at once and military courts will be abolished soon.
As for expected developments in Turkey’s relations with the EU, while the EU needs Turkey in terms of its valuable assistance in checking irregular migration flows into Europe, the country’s prospects of joining the EU look compromised.
Turkey began talks with Brussels on full membership in 2005, but recent developments have soured the relationship. According to statements by political leaders and high level Turkish officials, various components of Turkey-EU links will be subject to a sweeping review after the referendum, including, and in particular, the migrant deal, readmission, visa liberalisation and customs union as most of these arrangements have proved to be unfair toward Turkey.
The “yes” vote does not mean an end to Turkey’s strained relations with the EU, considering de facto frozen accession negotiations and the EU’s short term priorities.
Therefore, an overall reassessment of the bilateral relations for a more balanced type of relationship with the EU appears looming.
*Akif Ayhan is the Turkish Ambassador to Việt Nam