Turkey’s constitutional reform: All you need to know

Supporters say the constitutional reform will bring stability, but critics believe it may ‘lead to a one-man rule’.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim poses with MPs as he votes during a debate on the proposed constitutional changes at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara
Binali Yildirim, the Turkish prime minister votes with MPs during a debate on the proposed constitutional changes [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Last December, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) unveiled a raft of constitutional amendments that aim to fundamentally change the way Turkey is governed.

The controversial draft constitution, dubbed the “Turkish-style presidency”, is seeking to replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential one paving the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has held power for the past 13 years, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, to become the sole executive authority in the country.

What’s in the proposed constitutional amendments:
  • The prime minister’s office and the cabinet will be abolished 
  • The president will become the head of the executive branch and will be allowed to issue decrees
  • The president will be allowed to retain ties to a political party
  • The presidential and parliamentary polls will take place simultaneously, every five years
  • The parliament will lose its right to interpellation
  • The president will have criminal liability 
  • The president will have broad authority over the high council of judges and prosecutors

The proposed constitution, which is currently being debated in parliament, foresees the creation of vice presidents and the abolition of the office of the prime minister.

If the amendments are accepted, first by parliament and then in a referendum, there would no longer be a formal cabinet answerable to parliament. The president will have the power to appoint and fire ministers. 

The president would be elected for a five-year term and be allowed to serve as the leader of a political party.

Parliamentary elections would be held every five years – not four as  now – and on the same day as presidential polls.

The Turkish government says the proposed constitutional amendments will bring the strong leadership needed to prevent a return of the fragile coalition governments of the past.

“There will only be strong leaderships now,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters last week.

“Parliament … is being strengthened, while the presidency, in charge of the executive branch, is being restructured to end conflicts between branches.”

But critics say the proposed changes are actually aimed at weakening the parliament while creating a political system without checks and balances, which may eventually bring Turkey under a one-man rule.

‘Weakening checks and balances’

The system of checks and balances guarantees that each of the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial) can limit the powers of the others and make sure no one branch becomes too powerful.

“According to the proposal, presidential and parliamentary elections are going to be simultaneous and the president is allowed to act as the leader of a political party,”  Bertil Emrah Oder, a constitutional law professor from Istanbul’s Koc University, told Al Jazeera.

“In the Turkish political party system this means that the presidential candidate will be able to decide who is going to run on his or her party’s ticket in the parliamentary elections,” she said. “This will result in the president controlling the parliament and its agenda … leading to the deterioration [of the system of checks].”

Similarly, Levent Korkut, a law professor for Istanbul’s Medipol University, said that the proposed constitutional amendments are designed in a way that could “weaken” the system.

“Of course it is impossible to say that the proposal is getting rid of the system of checks and balances completely,” he said. “But it is also impossible to say that [the system of checks] is as strong in the draft proposal as it would be in a classic parliamentary system or an American-style executive presidency, since it allows the president to also act as the leader of a political party”

“For example in the US, we see that the leader and the presidential candidate of a party are two different individuals and they can follow different agendas,” he said.”This allows them to check on and object to each others actions.”

“The proposed system does not allow this, practically resulting in the president taking control of both the executive and the legislative branches.” 

Erdogan became Turkey's first president to be elected by popular vote in 2014  [EPA]
Erdogan became Turkey’s first president to be elected by popular vote in 2014  [EPA]

But Mehmet Ucum, the principal judicial consultant to President Erdogan, told Al Jazeera that the experts’ concerns about the system of checks are “completely unfounded”.

“In our proposal, the system of checks and balances is stronger than it is the current parliamentary system,” he said.

“In the current system, if the executive branch, the government, has the majority in the parliament, it can pass any law without facing any resistance … the separation between the executive and legislative branches is stronger in the proposed system.”

Any attempt to form an institutional control over the people's will is against democracy.

by Mehmet Ucum, judicial consultant to the president

Ucum acknowledged that under the proposed system, if the president’s party takes the majority in the parliament, which is a likely outcome since the presidential and parliamentary polls will take place on the same day, the executive and legislative branches would come closer together.

Yet, he said, such a scenario would still be the reflection of “the people’s will”.

“Can such a scenario be politically abused? Certainly. But if that turns out to be the case, the problem could be solved by going back to the people, calling for a new election. Any attempt to form an institutional control over the people’s will is against democracy.”

Experts also pointed out that the proposed amendments abolish the parliament’s right to interpellation and any other kind of practical audit power it has over the executive branch.

Interpellation is the formal right of a parliament to submit questions to the government asking it to explain an act or policy, thus allowing the parliament to supervise the government’s activities. In a parliamentary system this procedure may lead  to a confidence vote or a change of government.

Politicians from the ruling AKP party and the main opposition CHP scuffle during a debate on the proposed constitutional changes [Reuters]
Politicians from the ruling AKP party and the main opposition CHP scuffle during a debate on the proposed constitutional changes [Reuters]

“By abolishing the right to interpellation, the constitutional draft is making it practically impossible for the parliament to take any constructive action about the actions of the president,” Korkut, who is the founder of the  Association of Civil Society Development Centre, told Al Jazeera.

Ucum, on the other hand, said that the right to interpellation is not necessary and would not be suitable in a system where the executive authority is directly elected by the people.

“In the system we are proposing, the executive authority, the president, is elected directly by the people,” he said.  “So, it would not be acceptable for the parliament to file an interpellation motion about the actions and decisions of someone who takes his authority directly from the people.”

“Also, in the proposed draft, the president has criminal liability and the parliament still has the right to start an impeachment inquiry about him and his deputies if necessary,” he added.

Under the proposed draft, impeachment proceedings against the president can be started by the signatures of 301 deputies in the proposed 600-seat parliament. Following this, the parliament is able to set up a commission of inquiry by secret ballot of 360 deputies.

If the inquiry commission decides to send the president to the Supreme Court to face trial, the president could only be tried after another secret ballot of 400 deputies.

“This system makes it practically impossible for the parliament to impeach and unseat the president,” Korkut said. “To be able to take action against the president and his ministers, the parliament needs a two thirds majority, and this is practically impossible if the majority in the parliament and the president are from the same party.”

‘Executive control over the judiciary’

Oder, who is the dean of Koc University’s Law Faculty, pointed out that the draft constitution may have a damaging affect on the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.

“The draft constitution assigns broad authority to the president over the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors,” she said. “This council is responsible for the autonomy of the judiciary … and in a system where a politically partial president is influential over the appointment of the members of the council, alongside the parliament and the minister of justice, it is possible to predict that the council will end up having an ideological and political composition.”

Ucum, President Erdogan’s key judicial adviser, on the other hand, told Al Jazeera that he is confident the constitutional amendments will make the Turkish judiciary “completely independent”.

“Our proposal is making the judiciary more powerful,” he said. “We are the ones who are proposing to add an impartiality clause about the judiciary in to the constitution.”

“Under our proposal, elected officials will be responsible for appointing the members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors instead of un-elected officials.” 

Ucum said that while categorically supporting the concept of the separation of powers, he believed that every single branch of the government should be subject to the people’s will. 

“That’s why we believe the members of the judiciary should also be appointed by elected individuals,” he said. ” If the members of judiciary are appointed by the military, we would end up in a military fascism and if those members are appointed by bureaucrats, we would end up in a bureaucratic oligarchy.”

Next step: Referendum

The Turkish parliament started to vote on the proposed constitutional amendments earlier this month. 

The government’s draft constitution has so far received support from the parliament’s smallest opposition party, the MHP, but not from the main opposition party CHP or the pro-Kurdish HDP.

The draft needs to get at least 330 votes in the parliament to be put to a referendum. The AKP and MHP have enough votes between them to pass the draft without seeking the help of other parties in the parliament.

Once the draft is approved by parliament, the amendments will be put to a public referendum, possibly in March or April. “With these amendments we are strengthening the ordinary citizen’s relationship with the state,” said Ucum.

“These amendments are just the beginning of a long reform process. After passing these amendments we will pass political and technical adjustment laws. “There is going to be a concentration of power in the executive branch, but every other branch of the government is going to become stronger within itself.”

Source: Al Jazeera