The electoral schedule in Turkey has been announced, the parties who are running are confirmed, and the election harmonization bill has been signed. Meanwhile, opposition parties are manoeuvring. There have been meetings and discussions about Presidential candidates and possible alliances ahead of the joint Presidential and Parliamentary race.
It seems that as we enter the beautiful spring month of May, the election process is starting to heat up. But there are no darling spring buds blooming in this election. If you are a believer in democracy and a good dose of liberalism to boot, the situation is not looking rosy.
I have read some interesting and well thought out pieces over the past week or so, which have been somewhat optimistic about the chances of the opposition. Not necessarily because they have any real chance of winning, but because the race will be a tight; the AKP and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have to fight it out, both at the parliamentary and presidential polls. The optimists think it possible that the AKP may not end up dominating parliament, thus necessitating ’s the President (in all likelihood Erdogan), to be more conciliatory towards the opposition. A small victory for Turkish democracy.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but such optimism is nonsense. The upcoming election is a contest for an elected autocracy, plain and simple.
Turkey’s new presidential system, voted in after a tight referendum last year, is not designed to have a robust opposition. It is also not designed to have a dynamic relationship between President and Parliament. In fact, the opposite. One of the reasons why Erdogan and the AKP sought to move away from the parliamentary system was to untie the President’s hands of having a strong parliament which was seen as an impediment to effective government and passing legislation easily.
The new Presidential system is one where parliament’s role is to rubber stamp the policies of the President. Under the amended constitution, the President can basically ignore much of what comes out of parliament and possibly rule by Presidential decrees instead (the scope of this power is under defined). The President may also use, or at least threaten to use, the Samson option - dismiss parliament and call for new simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of the other powers the President now has. He can declare a state of emergency. He can appoint his cabinet at will and without any parliamentary oversight. The President can appoint almost half the high court without any approval needed from parliament. Meanwhile, the impeachment process is so convoluted and arduous that it only really exists on paper. For a full breakdown of the power of the President under the new constitution and a critique of the new system, read the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s report and opinion of the constitutional changes. It is a terrifying document which accurately describes the democratic deficiencies of the new system. Basically, it is an elected autocracy. It doesn’t matter how well the opposition performs in parliament. (Also, see my post about some of the opposition’s chances of passing the 10 per cent threshold here).
It also doesn’t matter who wins the presidency. The new constitution has eroded democratic norms.
Just for the sake of argument, let us say that President Erdogan loses the race. The votes have been counted, there are no cases of electoral fraud or violence, and a committed democrat becomes Turkey’s new President. Let us even imagine that he or she decides that these new additional presidential powers will not be used. There still lies the problem that the constitution still grants such power to a future presidential office holder who might not be a committed democrat. In other words, there is currently no constitutional guarantee for present or future democratic practices.
Again, for the sake of argument, let us follow the scenario that Erdogan loses the election to a committed democrat. On entering office, the new president decides to revert back to the status quo ante and overturn the changes that were voted for in last year’s referendum. This is also problematic. Ignoring the results of the referendum may not be considered legal. Some might also argue that it would also be undemocratic to ignore the will of 50 per cent of the population who voted in favour of it. Doing so might even plunge the country into a constitutional crisis with widespread confusion about correct institutional procedures, practices, and protocols. Decreeing constitutional changes void would set a dangerous democratically questionable precedent (no pun intended).
Another alternative might be for this new committed democratic president to decree new democratic safe guards into the constitution. But you can’t instil democracy by decree as it can just as easily be uninstalled by decree. The only real option would be to seek constitutional amendments through parliament. This would mean that Turkey would have significantly altered its constitution three times in 10 years and potentially be a source of internal and external doubt about the country’s stability. But for this happen we are envisioning a scenario where Erdogan loses, a committed democrat enters office with a parliamentary majority strong enough to change the constitution and committed to democratic reform. It’s just not going to happen and that is why last year’s referendum was a catastrophe for Turkish democracy.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter who wins the forthcoming elections. The democratic constitutional safeguards are all but extinct and the power of parliament is a façade for one-man presidential rule. No-one should have such overwhelming power in a democracy. Not Erdogan, not Abdullah Gul (next time), not Aksener, Kilicdaroglu, or Demirtas. Not even the bloody Dalai Lama. Nobody.
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