Erdogan’s lifetime test

The forthcoming constitutional referendum will undoubtedly be another political litmus test for Turkey’s prime minister.

The forthcoming constitutional referendum could well prove to be a self inflicted stumbling block for the legislative ambitions of Turkish prime minister Recip Erdogan [Getty Images] 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to face the most difficult test of his political career. On 12 September 2010 Turkey will go to the polls, to vote for or against the constitutional amendment Erdogan’s party proposed and passed in parliament this previous spring.

The date of referendum, selected by the High Council of Election, is no accident. It was 30 years ago on 12 September 1980, the Turkish military staged a coup d’état, closing down parliament, shutting down all political parties, exiling thousands of state employees, jailing political leaders and activists from both ends of the political spectrum. To secure its long-term affect on Turkish politics, the military penned a constitution, which essentially crafted the contemporary political structure in Turkey.

The broader objective of the 1983 constitution was, first, to institutionalize the military’s influence on politics, by creating the National Security Council, and, second, to create a protective shield around high state institutions to insulate them against the turbulence of political life.  For example, the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors was founded as a shield around the judiciary, responsible in making critical decisions regarding the judges and state prosecutors, administering their employment, appointments, promotions and expulsions from the position.

Central to the effectiveness of the protective shield was the Office of Presidency. The new constitution granted extensive discretionary powers to the president, especially in making appointments to crucial high state institutions.

Two illiberal aspects of this arrangement were that, first, despite having such extensive powers the President could not be held responsible for his decisions and, second, the decisions taken by the protective state councils were made final, not subject to any judicial review.

There was limited scope for democratic politics having an impact on the state structure, only through the office of Presidency, as the parliament would elect the President every seven years. However, once the president was elected, he has to leave all of his affiliations with any political party.

Since 1983, the year the constitution went into effect after a referendum, more than a third of the constitution has been amended, Erdogan himself having contributed greatly to this. However, even the totality of all amendments has not made a dent on the illiberal aspect of Turkish democracy. Its hardly surprising that Freedom House has categorized Turkey as a partly free country for 27 consecutive years.

The new amendment to be voted on 12 September suggests critical changes in the constitution. The amendment, for example, introduces a positive discrimination principle in favor of women, children, the disabled, the elderly,and widows to mention but a few. It gives state employees right to collective bargaining, institutes an office of ombudsman, and makes the closure of political parties more difficult.

What is more important is the fact that the amendment seeks to break the protective shield around high state institutions and decrease the role of the president in the appointments. The amendment subjects the decisions of High Council of Military and of High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to judicial review and makes it possible to bring the speaker of the parliament, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces and other high commanders before the constitutional court.

Finally, and most controversially, the amendment restructures the judiciary. First, it increases the size of the Constitutional Court and of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. Second, the amendment changes the appointment procedures to these two institutions, especially in appointments to the latter, considerably reducing the jurisdiction of the president. In the new arrangement, the president will appoint only 4 of 22 members of the High Council from law professors and lawyers. The rest of the members are to be appointed by the Court of Cessation, the Council of State, the Turkish Academy of Justice and the judges and state prosecutors.

With these changes the amendment advances the liberal transformation of the Turkish state. As such the amendment constitutes possibly the most reformist act Erdogan has ever taken and has already turned into Turkey’s own struggle to come to terms with the 1980 military coup.

The problem is that although Erdogan still enjoys strong popular support in Turkey, the outcome of this referendum is unpredictable even now, two days before the referendum. The opposition is boasted by the emergence of a new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The masses are lost in the sheer size of changes the amendment introduces and, quite frankly, Erdogan has not been able to clarify what the referendum will bring about. 

If Erdogan fails to pass this test, the referendum might turn out to be a watershed in Erdogan’s political career, which has so far been extremely blessed. Imagine that he was put into jail in March 1999 and lost his political right to run for any political office. Four years later, in March 2003, Erdogan was the prime minister of Turkey. Eleven years later, he was still the prime minister and in that office was awarded by the King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia of the King Faisal International Award for his “outstanding service to Islam.”

Since the very beginning the occupants of high state institutions, have not refrained from expressing their discontent with him. He has been subject to implicit and explicit threats and insults. Such victimization by the state worked favourably for him as the masses supported him in a manner no previous popular politician has ever enjoyed.

Hence at stake is Erdogan’s political invincibility, which might be harmed seriously. More importantly, at stake is the future direction of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy orientation. Erdogan’s most critical asset in this test will be his efficvictimisationfavourablyient party apparatus and grass-root religious communities, who seem to stand strongly behind him in this endeavour.

Birol Baskan is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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