Published by Reuters 4 March 2016
Changes to Turkey’s constitution envisaged by the ruling AK Party could hand President Tayyip Erdogan new powers to draft legislation directly and pick ministers, senior officials said, moves opponents fear could entrench authoritarian rule.
A cross-party commission charged with drafting a new constitution collapsed last month after the main opposition pulled out over attempts by the AKP, founded by Erdogan more than a decade ago, to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system.
Erdogan won Turkey’s first popular presidential election in August 2014 and has made no secret of his ambition to imbue the largely ceremonial post with more powers. Previous heads of state had been elected by parliament.
The debate over the constitution has profound implications for Turkey, a NATO member state of 79 million people with aspirations to join the European Union. The outcome could change the way Turkey is ruled and redefine issues ranging from Turkish citizenship to the protection of religious freedoms.
Erdogan’s supporters say an executive presidency is vital if Turkey is to have the powerful leadership it needs to take a bigger role on the world stage. They reject suggestions it is about the personal ambition of one man.
His opponents say it will consolidate too much power in the hands of a leader, whose grip over the media, the judiciary and police has tightened in recent years. They fear Erdogan’s roots in conservative Islamist politics will take Turkey ever further from Western standards on free speech.
Erdogan has urged parliament to take the issue to a referendum, saying he believes Turks will accept a new charter and stronger powers for the head of state. Amid opposition dissent, the AKP is readying its own draft proposals.
“If it emerges that the constitutional commission cannot work, the AKP will begin work on a constitution including the presidential system and will rapidly complete it,” said Mustafa Sen, a chief adviser to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
“A decision (on the AKP draft) could be reached before the summer … We are not writing a 10-volume novel. It must not be a text of more than 60-70 articles,” he told Reuters.
Several other senior AKP officials said the party’s proposals, which would need the support of 14 opposition members of parliament to be put to a national vote, were already under discussion.
The plans would allow the president to dissolve parliament, officials familiar with the discussions said. Such a move would also end the president’s term and trigger parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure checks and balances, they added.
Two senior AKP officials involved in the deliberations said the president would be able to issue decrees to enact legislation without consulting parliament.
“The president in our proposal would be more powerful than under the U.S. system,” one of the officials said, declining to be identified because the plans have not yet been finalised.
The head of state would also appoint the cabinet as well as senior figures including ambassadors and some members of the judiciary.
“SECRETARIES, NOT MINISTERS”
The AKP has broad cross-party support for overhauling the constitution, which dates back to an era of military coups and has been repeatedly revised. But there are wide divergences over what a new charter should look like.
Opposition parties want it to focus primarily on protecting minority rights and democratic freedoms.
“The current system is already pretty much like a semi-presidential system … Even if there are shortcomings, a 200-year-old parliamentary system must not be sacrificed to the ambitions of one person,” said Omer Suha Aldan, a deputy from the main opposition CHP.
“The president would designate and unseat (cabinet members). They wouldn’t be ministers, they’d be secretaries,” he said.
Erdogan, who was prime minister for more than a decade, hoped after his election as head of state for swift constitutional reform to bolster his powers. But those plans have been impeded in part because of opposition fears of creeping authoritarianism.
More than 1,800 court cases have been filed against people accused of insulting Erdogan since he became president, from students and a former Miss Turkey to journalists and academics, fuelling those fears.
The looming trial of two prominent editors on terrorism charges, after their opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet published video of what it said were intelligence officials trucking arms to Syria, has also raised international concern.
Erdogan himself has insisted the plans are not about personal ambition but about replacing a system he says is out of date and unsustainable, with both the prime minister and president popularly elected.
“A powerful prime minister and a president elected directly by the people could pave the way for a crisis. The presidential system aims to fix that anomaly,” the presidency source said.
There was no crisis already only because Erdogan and Davutoglu share the same political vision, which may not be the case for future presidents and prime ministers, he said.
Several AKP officials said they believed the party could quickly agree a draft proposal to put to parliament and they were confident of winning enough support for a referendum in the autumn, or early next year.
Some Turkish newspapers have speculated that a fresh parliamentary election could be called to allow the AKP to try to boost its parliamentary majority in order to ease the proposal’s passage. Another election could be destabilizing for Turkey after four votes in the past two years, a cycle which polarized the electorate and slowed progress on reforms.
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler in Istanbul and Nick Tattersall in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Janet McBride)