Turkey's Constitutional Referendum
On Sunday, April 16, Turkey passed the infamous Constitutional Referendum. Some celebrated joyfully while others furiously took to the streets in protest. Berk Şenoglu’19, a native of Istanbul, says, “After I saw the referendum, I started crying. Not only because of the results, but also the increased ignorance of the society.”
The Referendum, proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), includes eighteen Constitutional amendments that fundamentally change the functions of the Turkish government from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. Last night, AKP, notoriously referred to as the backward and Islamist party, declared victory with 98.26% of the votes in. With 85.32% voter turnout, almost 50 million Turks partook in the Referendum election; the victory was close, with a margin of 51.41% to 48.59%.
The passed amendments extend the President’s power, making him both the head of state and head of government. Parliamentary terms will be increased from four to five years, and presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day. Most importantly, the office of the Prime Minister will be abolished and replaced with the office(s) of the Vice President(s). The President can appoint one or more Vice Presidents as he/she sees fit, with no parliamentary approval. In case the Presidential office comes to be vacant, a new election will be held within 45 days. If the parliamentary terms have less than a year left, the re-election would include all parliamentary seats. However, if the parliamentary terms have over a year left, the new president would serve until the end of that parliamentary term—without that term counting towards the two-term limit. Finally, the number of parliamentary seats will increase from 550 to 600.
The President will also have the power to appoint cabinet members who only answer to the President and not the Parliament. In other words, only the President can employ and dismiss cabinet members as he/she sees fit. The President, able to maintain a political party’s leadership position and the Presidency, will essentially have power over both the executive and the legislative agenda during his/her five-year-term. Moreover, because the parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on the same day and the President can simultaneously serve as the leader of a political party, the president can choose and pick who from his/her party should run for the parliamentary elections. In other words, in addition to legislative power, executive powers formerly in the hands of cabinet members—who previously answered to the Parliament—will be transferred to the President.
The judiciary branch, however, remains fairly untouched compared to the legislative branch. Judges will be required to act on the condition of impartiality, and the President may be subject to judicial review.
The only auditing power left to the Parliament is the power to impeach the president. However, in order to carry out the impeachment, the Parliament would initially need to collect the signatures of 301 out of 600 members and immediately set up a Commission of inquiry by secret ballot of at least 360 members. If the President has to face trial, at least 400 deputies’ approval is needed. Since the President will select most parliamentary members, this particular amendment makes it extremely arduous, if not impossible to hold the President accountable for his/her actions. This is because the President will not be obliged to terminate party membership; therefore, his/her party will most likely make the vast majority of parliamentary seats.
Critics believe the Referendum is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s way to cling on to power. Prior to taking the President’s office in 2014, Erdoğan served as the country’s Prime Minister for eleven years, and some argue he may be in power until at least 2029. “Fraud, corruption, lies, and hatred has been spreading since 2012. Now, he [Erdoğan] is going to be in charge until 2029 as a dictator,” says Şenoglu’19.
The passed Referendum utterly weakens the system of checks and balances, centralizing all the power to a singular person. Lack of a proper accountability clause may allow the President to perpetually abuse the unrivaled power entrusted to him/her. After the failed coup, the Referendum has intensified the uncertain and gloomy future of Turkish democracy. “Tell the truth, my body is at Skidmore, but my mind is always elsewhere. The corrupted government has killed our inner child, and this is how they have had the power,” concluded Şenoglu’19.