April 22, 2017

Historical Referendum in Turkey


Oleksiy Volovych

April 16, 2017 in Turkey, on the initiative of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by its spiritual leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and with partial support from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (IPA), a nationwide referendum was held to amend the country's Constitution regarding Turkey's transition from the parliamentary republic to the presidential one.

According to the Constitution of 1982, Turkey was a parliamentary republic, where the real power was in the hands of the head of the government, while the President of the country performed mainly representative functions. The latest amendments to the Main Law of Turkey were made after the referendum held on 12 September, 2010. They were aimed at bringing Turkey's Constitution in line with the standards of the European Union. The referendum marked the beginning of the demilitarization of the 1982's Constitution and changed the foundations of the Turkish statehood laid down in the 1920s by the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In particular, the influence of the army on the political and social life of the country was limited. These amendments also put an end to the situation where it was possible to cancel the democratic choice of the citizens with the help of the Constitutional Court or Army.

For the first time proposals on the transition to the presidential form of government were formulated and introduced to the Parliament in 2011 by the AKP. However, then the initiative was not supported by other political forces. On 10 August 2015, the first presidential elections were held in Turkey, when the head of state was elected not by the same unicameral parliament (the Grand National Assembly of 550 Deputies), but by direct people's vote. Having received about 52 % of the vote, R. Erdogan, who previously for the second term had served as Prime Minister, won the elections. The electoral legislation and the AKP's rules did not allow him to run for the third term.

Having been elected President, R. Erdogan could perform only representative and protocol functions, which, naturally, did not suit him. Therefore, he proposed to hold another referendum on amending the country's Constitution, determining the transition to a presidential form of government with a corresponding expansion of presidential powers. The process was activated after the failed military coup attempt on 16 July, 2016. In December 2016, a package of constitutional amendments was submitted to the Parliament, and already in January 2017, 339 of 488 parliamentarians voted for a package of bills providing for the introduction of 18 amendments to the text of the country's Main Law. If the draft constitutional amendments had been supported by 367 deputies, then the amendments could have been adopted by the Parliament without a referendum.


Results of the Referendum

The referendum was held on 16 April 2017, in accordance with the law adopted in May 1987. The turnout at 145,000 voting stations was 85.3 % of the 58.3 million registered voters. According to preliminary results, after processing 100 % of the ballot papers and taking into account the votes abroad, 51.4 % of voters supported the reform (25,150,000) and 48,6 % voted against it — 23,900,000. The difference between the votes “for” and “against” on the morning of April 17 was about 1.3 million, which is equal to the statistical error. Of the 58.3 million registered, 49.7 million arrived at voting stations. That is, about 8.6 million people did not participate in the referendum. A significant part of this category of voters live abroad — about 5–6 million. In different countries of the world, the Turkish diasporas voted differently. With the exception of the United States (78 % against), Canada (72 % against), Switzerland (62 % against), Great Britain (80 % against), in all other countries the victory went to R. Erdogan's supporters. True, the turnout in those countries did not always reach half the registered voters. The final results of the referendum will be announced 12 days after consideration of the appeals.

Results of the voting on the referendum in Turkey

Results of the voting on the referendum in Turkey
highlighted areas in which the majority voted “for” the amendments to the Turkish constitution, red — “against”

As a result of the referendum, R. Erdogan and his party won a difficult and unconvincing victory. Almost half of the country's population is against strengthening the powers of the President. Most residents of the largest cities of Turkey — Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Antalya, Diyarbakir and Mersin are against amendments to the Turkish Constitution. Areas with the Kurdish population also voted against the changes.

Thus, the AKP has finally become the party of the Turkish provinces. To a large extent, this has been caused by the serious economic crisis that has engulfed Turkey at the moment. Besides, the wave of repressions that swept the country after the unsuccessful military coup attempt also influenced the mood of pro-European voters. According to some reports, about 50 thousand people were arrested during the repressions, 100 to 120 thousand Turkish citizens were fired from their work. Mainly police officers, the military, school teachers and university professors, civil servants, lawyers and journalists. Hundreds of media and public organizations ceased their activities.

Despite the objections of the representatives of the opposition Republican People's Party and other political forces, referring to mass violations and falsifications, the CEC recognized the voting results as valid. According to the head of the CEC Sadi Gjuven, the opposition's claims mainly concerned the use of non-stamped ballots. However, the CEC did not consider this a violation, as the government allegedly allowed to give such ballots to the voters.

Turkey's President R. Erdogan has said that his country has made a “historic decision” and implemented “the most important reform in its history”. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has also pointed out that the referendum was not lost by anybody, the winner being Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that the policy of integration into the European Union will remain Turkey's strategic priority, although, according to him, the EU artificially delays this process.


The Essence of the Constitutional Changes

It should be borne in mind that the constitutional amendments come into force from 2019, when the new President is elected. With the adoption of the amendments, the powers of the President of Turkey will expand significantly. He will head the country's executive branch, and the post of Prime Minister will be abolished. All decisions on the creation, disbandment, authority, responsibilities and structure of Ministries will be determined in accordance with the President's decrees. The head of state will be able to issue decrees having the force of a law, which will enter into force without having been approved by the Parliament; he alone will appoint two-thirds of the federal judges, as well as 12 of the 15 judges of the Constitutional Court. In addition, he will have the right to appoint one or more Vice-Presidents and will be the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Until now, he was acting as Commander-in-Chief under the authority of the Parliament. In accordance with the constitutional changes, the head of state will be able to draw up the country's budget and declare a state of emergency.

The demand for impossibility of simultaneous staying in the post of the President and the leader of a political party is removed. From now on, the President can openly defend the interests of his party. According to the amendments, the Parliament loses direct control over the activities of the government. Mandatory reports of Ministers in the Parliament are abolished, and deputies will be able to address the government only through written requests. A new process will make impeachment almost impossible, making the president less accountable. While the signature of a simple majority will be required to start proceedings, a three-fifths majority will be needed to create an Inquiry Commission. If the Inquiry Commission decides to send the President to the Supreme Court, it will require the backing of a two-thirds majority.

Amendments to the Constitution provide for a decrease in the age for candidates to parliament from 25 to 18 and increase in their number from 550 to 600. Persons related to the Armed Forces will be deprived of the right to be elected to representative bodies of power. The term of office of the Parliament is changed from 4 to 5 years. And after the introduction of constitutional changes, the Parliament will remain unicameral, which is not entirely characteristic of the presidential system of government. Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on the same day. The term of office of the President remains the same — 5 years. To nominate a candidate for the post of head of state, 100,000 voters' signatures and the support of one of the political parties that has overcome the 5 % barrier in the parliamentary elections will be needed.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections should be held on 3 November, 2019. If R. Erdogan wins these elections, such constitutional amendments will allow him to remain at the helm of power until 2029. At this, he will have the opportunity to obtain a third mandate, provided that the Parliament decides on early elections during his second presidential term.

Currently, Western media are debating which model of the presidency is closer to the model chosen in Turkey — American or French? And the participants in these discussions come to the conclusion that there has never been such a model in the world. The presidential model put forward at the referendum in Turkey is a purely Turkish political know-how in the formation of state power.


The Opposition's Protests

Immediately after the referendum, thousands of citizens gathered in the streets and squares of large Turkish cities to protest against the falsification of the results. According to the opposition, in the referendum there were manipulations that increased by 3–4 % the number of votes for constitutional changes. R. Erdogan's opponents are not happy with the expansion of presidential powers which will undermine the already weak Turkish democracy and secular traditions and establish a religious authoritarian regime in Turkey.

The opposition Republican People's Party has announced that it intends to appeal up to 60 % of the ballots. According to the leader of the parliamentary faction of the Party, Bulent Tezjan, the Turkish opposition intends to appeal the results of the referendum in the Constitutional Court of Turkey and, if necessary, in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Two-thirds of the votes are also going to be appealed against by the pro-Kurdish opposition Democratic Party of Peoples. However, it is unlikely that Turkish courts will satisfy the opposition's claims, considering that last summer R. Erdogan strengthened control over the courts in the country and many judges were dismissed after the coup attempt. On 20 April 2017, Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag warned that his country did not recognize the decisions of the ECHR on the Turkish referendum.


The World's Reaction to the Referendum

The report of the OSCE and the Council of Europe's international observers, published on 17 April 2017, points out that the referendum on strengthening the power of the president in Turkey was held in the absence of equal conditions for campaigning by supporters and opponents of amending the Constitution. The head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Michael Link doubted that fair conditions had been created for holding the referendum. The Venice Commission believes that the proposed constitutional amendments will introduce a presidential regime in Turkey, which lacks the necessary deterrents and counterbalances. “In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards, and the legal framework was not enough for a really democratic process”, said Cezar Florin Preda, head of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly delegation.

The head of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Elmar Brok, said that in the current conditions, Ankara has no chance to join the European Union, since after the referendum in Turkey the actual distribution of branches of power will disappear and it will drift away from democratic criteria. Elmar Brok believes that “The fact that Erdogan used all state power against the media, threw opposition politicians and journalists into jails, falsified the results of the referendum, contradicts his words about the broad support of the population. This referendum does not give him the right to reformat the country”. He also stressed that negotiations on Turkey's accession to the EU can be stopped if Ankara decides to resume the death penalty. R. Erdogan has rejected the criticism of international observers. “Know your place,” he said in response to reports of violations.

The referendum in Turkey aroused much interest among German politicians. And this is not an accident, since the Turks are the largest ethnic minority in Germany, numbering about 3 million people. At this, approximately 1.7 million of them are citizens of Turkey and up to 1.3 million are citizens of Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Zigmar Gabriel have pointed out that the results of the referendum in Turkey show a deep split in the Turkish society. They have emphasized the great responsibility that lies personally on President R. Erdogan and called on him to conduct a dialogue with all political and public forces in the country after the referendum. Candidate for Chancellor Martin Schultz pointed out that the tight referendum result shows that R. Erdogan does not represent the whole of Turkey, so, in his words, “efforts in support of democracy and human rights should continue”.


Consequences of the Turkish Referendum for Ukraine

Given the fact that good-neighborly relations with Turkey for our country are very important, the results of the fateful referendum may have certain consequences for the Ukrainian-Turkish ties. I think, first of all, we must proceed from the fact that the referendum held is an internal affair of Turkey, and Ukraine can only respect the will of the Turkish people. Turkey is a strategic partner for us and our country needs its support especially today, during the repulse of Russia's aggression. The President of Turkey has repeatedly demonstrated friendly attitude to our country, so I would like to hope that strengthening his status of the leader in the Turkish society will mean stable, predictable and mutually beneficial relations with our neighbor for the long term.

On 18 April 2017, Ukrainian President P. Poroshenko in a telephone conversation congratulated R. Erdogan on the results of the referendum, thanking for Turkey's support for the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The leaders of both countries discussed the importance of holding the Sixth Meeting of the High-Level Strategic Council between Ukraine and Turkey in Kyiv. The sides also touched upon the pressing issues of the regional and international agenda, in particular, the development of events in Syria.

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Turkish President R. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have struggled to achieve their long-term goal of forming a fundamentally new system of power in the country, largely based on President R. Erdogan's high personal rating. At the referendum, the Turkish opposition suffered a crushing defeat. The only chance for it to come to power is the presidential election of 2019. However, given that two years before the election, the Turkish politicum does not have a political leader equal to R. Erdogan, the chances of the opposition to return to power are insignificant. On the other hand, if in the next two years R. Erdogan fails to get the sympathy of even a small part of the electorate who voted against amending the Constitution, his chances to win the 2019 elections will also be too weak. Undoubtedly, over the next two years R. Erdogan will be under very tight pressure from opposition, which will use every fault or unsuccessful step of the current President to increase its rating.

Until now, R. Erdogan's credibility was mainly based on the high level of economic growth in the country. Suffice it to say that in the first decade of the 21st century, its GDP increased threefold. However, today, at the end of the second decade, Turkey's economic development is rather complicated: there is a noticeable decline in the construction business and the tourism sector of the economy. Inflation has increased, agricultural markets have decreased, foreign investments have significantly decreased. If R. Erdogan, who, thanks to the referendum received a carte blanche for any economic and political changes, does not succeed in creating a new economic miracle, his chances of winning the presidential election in 2019 will be very illusory. So, R. Erdogan's almost absolute power simultaneously means his absolute personal responsibility for everything that will happen in the country. And this is in the situation when a half of the population of Turkey opposes the expansion of presidential powers.