Turkey's last elections?
In May 1919 an old ship set sail in Istanbul and dropped anchor a few days later in Samsun on the Black Sea. Embarking was none other than the Ottoman officer Mustafa Kemal, who had rebelled against the palace in Istanbul. After the Ottomans surrendered, he gave up all hope in them and set out to reform Anatolia. He launched a battle for liberation, with the vision of creating a new land out of the collapsing empire. On 23 April 1920 he therefore set up a parliament in Ankara.
After ushering in the modern republic, the parliament continued its work even when the Greek army marched to within one hundred kilometres of Ankara. The parliament then went on to withstand three military coups in the course of 94 years. During the attempted coup six months ago, it was bombed but did not succumb. That very same stalwart parliament is now about to deal itself a death blow. For a politician, no less, who claims that it was he who prevented a military coup.
Gifts to the people?
Erdogan and his AKP, which have governed Turkey unchallenged for fourteen years, have suddenly come to the conclusion that the system is deadlocked. The only way out, they say, is to introduce a presidential system of government. They had previously tested the waters and then, with the psychological upper hand gained after the attempted coup of 15 July, they decided to act. Apparently they thought it was time to seize the moment and make the unlimited powers granted during the state of emergency the normal state of affairs.
In their day, Mustafa Kemal and his comrades managed to set up a parliament in a country under occupation – thus in what was by no means a "normal state of affairs". They wrested sovereignty from the Istanbul palace and handed it over to the people. With the package of proposals currently being negotiated in parliament for an amendment to the constitution, sovereignty will instead be taken away from the people and handed over to the palace in Ankara. The presidential system that Erdogan's AKP is pushing for has nothing to do with eponymous models like that in the USA. There are good reasons why the regime itself is calling the package a "Turkish-style presidential system".
Signature of power
The presidential system in the United States, as well as the semi-presidential system in France, are based on a separation of powers, the rule of law and a system of checks and balances. But what is being discussed in Turkey vests total power in the hands of a single person. And the mere fact that the person to be known as "President" is to be elected directly by a majority of at least 51 percent of the people still does not make the system democratic. If the package is ratified by parliament and gets more than fifty percent of the popular vote in the referendum, Recep Tayyip Erdogan will acquire sole control over the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government. Erdogan, who once declared at election rallies that the "national will" is sacred, wants to be empowered based on half the popular vote to simply sweep aside one hundred percent of the will of the people.
Let us have a look at just what a "President a la Turca" is permitted to do: he can appoint the people he chooses to almost all of the senior positions in the judiciary, he can select the ministers and set up and dissolve ministries, he can be head of his political party, he determines his party's list of MPs and he can veto laws adopted by parliament. What more could one ask for? Oh yes, he can also dissolve parliament at will. Why does he then need a parliament at all? In the new system, the president can impose any law with a single signature – naturally his own.
Parliament no longer has any function
Can the parliament monitor the deputies and ministers appointed by the president? Of course not, because they answer solely to the palace. But we are all only human and we sometimes make mistakes, even the president. Can the parliament then check him? Of course it can, because after all we do have an "advanced democracy" in Turkey. In this democracy, four hundred of the six hundred MPs might decide against doing what the president wants. There's only one small problem, though: the majority of the MPs owe their seats to the palace.
But let's just assume that four hundred MPs do summon the will to defy the president. What happens then? Well, then he can merely dissolve parliament with the sweep of a pen – and that would be the end of it.In the new autocratic system, pardon, the "Turkish-style presidential system", in which everyone is subject to control except for the head of state himself, parliament has no function anymore. As the palace can veto parliamentary resolutions and the president can enact laws merely by putting his own signature to them, parliamentary elections reflecting the will of the people will also become superfluous.
And what do the people have to say about all this? Even if this amendment passes parliament, where Erdogan's party has the majority, it will still be put before the Turkish citizens in a referendum. A recent survey by "Anar", a pro-government market research company run by Erdogan's former deputy Besir Atalay, showed what the people think about this issue: 36 percent of citizens indicated they had "not heard anything" about the system under consideration, while 28 percent professed having "very little knowledge" and 78 percent "only a little". This means that almost four out of five Turkish citizens have no idea of the implications of the system they are supposed to decide on in the referendum. Only one in five voters realises that all power in the country is to be vested in a single person.
Journalism behind bars
How can this be? Why don't people know anything about this problematic constitutional amendment? Aren't the journalists doing their work? The fact is that, since the coup, dozens of newspapers, websites and television and radio stations have been shut down and 170 journalists put behind bars. Pro-government media of course represent the reform sought by the AKP as a positive quantum leap. The only relevant newspaper that could have reported neutrally on what the presidential system will actually mean for the country was "Hurriyet". What a coincidence then that, a few days before the parliamentary debate on the constitution, the highest functionaries of the Dogan Group, to which "Hurriyet" belongs, were arrested.
There is of course a state-run television station, Meclis TV, which broadcasts all parliamentary sessions around the clock. The populace could have found out what was going on just by watching it. But curiously enough, when the speakers for the opposition took the floor during the session in which the system of government was to be changed, Meclis TV interrupted the broadcast. Citizens saw only MPs from the ruling party praising the new presidential system. Luckily, an MP from the CHP (Republican People's Party) had brought a camera and televised what he filmed via his smartphone. But only those active in social media saw the result.
And why aren't those who know what's going on speaking up? Protesters did gather before parliament during the session in question, among them MPs from the CHP Party. In temperatures of minus five degrees in Ankara, however, it was easy for the police to break up the protest with icy streams shot from water cannons and tear gas. And the Kurdish party, HDP, is no longer anywhere to be found, because its co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas and ten of the party MPs have been jailed. This conveniently renders them incapable of participating in the vote on the new constitution and they have hardly even been allowed to see their lawyers.
Much has changed since the parliament was founded back in 1920 in Ankara. What hasn't changed is the motto hanging over the rostrum: "Sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the people." This saying by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has survived until today – as has the Turkish democracy, although it has suffered plenty of nicks and scratches. We will see whether 2017 will be the year when the citizens of Turkey, caught up in spiralling violence, will participate in an election for the last time.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2017
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor