A new constitution for Erdogan’s ‘New Turkey’

Supporters are silhouetted against a screen showing President Tayyip Erdogan. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

By Alev Yaman*

In November 2002, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey with a promise of change. Dominated by a militarist, secularist elite, Turkey had spent much of its recent past mired in economic instability and domestic strife, with its restive Kurdish population and Muslim conservatives bearing the brunt of the establishment’s oppressive ire.

Boosted by stunning economic growth in Turkey in its early years, and a series of milestones in the European Union accession process, the AKP was lauded as a reformist party that had found a way to unlock many of Turkey’s most intractable problems. Its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was able to appeal to voters beyond the party’s natural Islamist base, poaching millions of votes from Turkey’s fractured centre-right with a promise of democratisation and economic growth.

In many ways, the AKP’s ascendancy heralded the end of Turkish political hegemony in the hands of the secularist military, whose stranglehold on the country stretched back to the single-party period of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The military’s influence on Turkish politics was systematically dismantled, first through constitutional changes backed by public referendum, then by waves of arrests orchestrated by the AKP’s erstwhile allies in the Gulenist ranks of the police and judiciary.

The AKP’s flagship promise was one of a ‘New Turkey’. Democratisation and reform became bywords of the AKP’s early time in power. Yet rather than ushering in a new era of political pluralism, the AKP’s dominance merely resulted in a changing of the guard at the helm of Turkey’s repressive political apparatus. One by one, the AKP has commandeered the major organs of the Turkish establishment – from the judiciary to the civil service, police, media and academia – using these estates in an unending quest for political hegemony.

Until recently, this quest had been largely restricted by the limits of Turkey’s existing constitutional framework. Yet in the aftermath of July 2016’s bloody coup attempt – thwarted in large part by the resistance of loyalists within the Turkish army against an allegedly Gulenist-led putsch – the AKP’s efforts have taken on an entirely new character.

Seeking to build on the extraordinary powers granted him by Turkey’s ongoing state of emergency – during which tens of thousands of public officials have been sacked, leading members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) imprisoned, over 100 media outlets shut down, over 150 journalists imprisoned, and scores of companies seized – Erdogan has pushed for an executive presidency that tears apart the country’s separation of powers, concentrates authority in his hands above anyone else and dispenses with the office of prime minister.

Last week, deputies from Erdogan’s own party and the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) came together to push a constitutional amendment through parliament that will give Erdogan the presidential system he desires; provided it passes a public referendum that will be held in the coming months.

Under the terms of what is being pitched to the public as a ‘Turkish-style’ presidency, the president will no longer be restricted from officially heading a political party and will be able to single-handedly determine their party’s candidate list ahead of parliamentary elections. With presidential elections occurring at the same time as parliamentary ones, the legislature will be brought firmly under the control of an all-powerful executive.

The proposals will also deprive the legislature of the means to directly question the president about government policy, with questions instead only allowed to go as far as cabinet ministers. Finally, the president will have a greatly increased role in directly appointing leading members of the judiciary, further eroding judicial independence in a country that suffers from a highly politicised justice system.

Few in Turkey are able to properly question the ramifications of such a seismic shift in constitutional makeup. Members of parliament from Erdogan’s own party – who stand to lose the most influence by ceding power to the executive – have dutifully lined up behind the proposals in a bid to prove their loyalty. An increasingly hamstrung oppositional press are unable to effectively question the changes, with many imprisoned or facing the prospect of arrest.

Instead, an air of instability and existential crisis holds sway in Turkey, with newspaper headlines and political talk shows dominated by talk of foreign conspiracies and domestic collaborators out to thwart Turkish interests and destroy national unity. An alphabet soup of enemies within – from the PKK to TAK, FETO and ISIS – preoccupy fearful Turks who have seen a precipitous and bloody rise in terrorism over the past 18 months accompanied by a harsh economic slump.

The promise of a new constitution is being packaged as a promise of stability: a super-powered presidency to combat Turkey’s massing sea of troubles. Yet what is being delivered is a continuation of the monopolisation of power, and the dismantling of checks and balances, that has come to characterise Erdogan’s New Turkey; much to the dismay of Western allies and domestic opponents alike.

We are forever talking of Turkey being at a crossroads: between Europe and Asia, East and West. In a couple of months, when they go to vote on a new constitution, the people of Turkey will be in a position to determine their fate: will it be a continuation of the republic in its current guise or a transition to Erdogan’s one-man state? In an era of rising authoritarianism, insularity and demagoguery in the Western world, it remains to be seen whether this troubled country on the periphery of Europe can pass its own democratic test.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Komnews.

* Alev Yaman is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in London. She has worked as a researcher and consultant for a number of organisations specialising in freedom of expression, including Article 19, English PEN and PEN International. Her articles have appeared in the Dissident Blog, Al Jazeera, the Fair Observer and Bianet.