Why Turkey’s referendum is important

Published: March 24, 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures amid confetti during a rally in Istanbul on March 11, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries of the world. Besides physical beauty of its architectural heritage and breath-taking landscapes, Turkey also captures the imagination because it is a crossroad of Asia and Europe, and consequently a lovely mix between tradition and modernisation. But what makes Turkey truly fascinating for me is that since the 1920s, it has been a secular as well as a moderate Muslim majority country. Whenever someone wants to prove that a Muslim country can be secular and moderate, they use Turkey as their example. 

Turkey was cited by Reza Aslan as an example to counter the criticism that in Muslim countries women are treated as second class citizens. Of course the reality is quite complex as Turkey is more gender balanced only if compared to other Muslim countries.

Turkey’s secularism is a complex story as it largely represents an elite consensus, historically safeguarded by the Turkish military. Turkey is secular in constitution but the majority of the society is not secularised. This dichotomy obviously makes democracy a complicated regime choice as there is always a danger that a populist wave can subvert secularism.

In the past, the danger of this subversion was averted by the Turkish military which often intervened in order to protect the secular foundations of the country. In general, military intervention is not a good thing, and as a firm believer of democracy, I also oppose it. However, in the complicated context of Turkey, where secularism and liberalism are essential but at the same time vulnerable to populism, the military historically has played an important progressive role.

However, since 2002, the military has seen its power gradually diminish. One of the important reasons was the European Union (EU) conditions, which required that in order to be a member of the union, a country should demonstrate democratic control of the military. This condition allowed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) the essential leverage to start reducing military’s power. Over a period of time, the military has constantly seen its powers being diminished. In the past 15 years, the role of the National Security Council has greatly reduced (a direct condition of the EU), several army officials have been put on trial for their activities in the 1980s and 1990s, the constitution has been amended to abolish immunity to plotters of the 1980 coup d’état, and resignation of four high ranking generals at the same time in 2011.

The latest blow to the Turkish military has come due to the failed coup attempt allegedly from a Gulenist section. The failed coup has allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to go for a wide scale purge of all the important institutions including media, police, judiciary and military. The failed coup and its aftermaths have made the military completely impotent and therefore in the future, it will not be able to effectively continue its historical role of protecting secularism.

The diminishing of the military power on its own might have been a good thing but as already mentioned it is taking place in the context of the rise in the Erdogan-led religious populist wave which is shaking Turkey’s secular foundation. Over the years, there have been several moves by Erdogan-led AKP, which have ended up increasing the role of religion in society. Turkey, the poster child country for the argument that a Muslim country can be secular, is now in a transition to becoming a conservative religious society.

Erdogan now also wants to adopt a presidential system and for that purpose, there will be a referendum in Turkey on April 16, 2017.

Right now, this upcoming referendum is making international news. Although in principle it should be Turkey’s internal matter, but due to the large Turkish diasporas in Europe, strategic importance of the country and the controversial nature of the Turkish leader’s character, it has ended up being an international issue. Furthermore, Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have soured in recent weeks as these countries have expressed displeasure over referendum related political activities on their soil.

So why would Erdogan opt for a transition from parliamentary to presidential system? What possible advantages could he get from this? Should the world fear such a change?

Here I think it would be appropriate to create a technical distinction between presidential and parliamentary systems. A presidential system is characterised by the following:

- Legislative and executive authorities are separate, whereby the president being the head of the executive branch

- The president is elected through a popular election

- The elected president determines the government cabinet

- The terms of the president and the legislative assembly are fixed and not dependent on each other

- Although law making is primarily vested in the legislature, the president has some constitutionally granted law-making authority

In contrast, in the parliamentary system, legislative and executive are housed within the same parliament and the prime minister as an executive authority is accountable to it. Although there is a lot of debate in political science about which system is better, there is a general consensus that the parliamentary system is more efficient in creating legislation and it ensures constant accountability of the executive. In comparison, in the presidential system, the executive is directly elected by the popular vote and enjoys powers independent of the parliament, which removes a layer of accountability.

It is due to these powers and relatively less accountability that Erdogan is pushing for the presidential system. In countries like the US, where there are lots of checks and balances in place, the separation of executive from the parliament does not create problems, but Turkey is a different case. The post-coup purge has demolished independent powerful institutions which could have checked undue presidential powers. Therefore, a transition to the presidential system should be viewed with concern.

Moreover, in case of Turkey, the proposed presidential system would actually give Erdogan sweeping powers including formation of government, appointment of judges, imposing a state of emergency, dismissal of parliament, and enacting laws by decree. In addition, the parliament would also lose its right to scrutinise ministers or propose an enquiry. It can impeach the president but would require a two-third majority to put him to trial.

Due to a rise in right-wing populism in Turkey, the transition to the presidential system, with Erdogan as an omnipotent executive, would not bode well for the country’s liberal and secular makeup. A look at Erdogan’s controversial and polarising statements can give a very clear idea of that. Yes, one could argue that outright expungement of secularism from the constitution would not take place in the short run, however, in the longer run, there is likely to be a move towards an increasingly religiously conservative interpretation of the constitution and even gradual scrapping of secularism.

If that happens, it will be catastrophic.

raza.habib

Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Keyboard Soldier

    Erdogan is the Zia-ul-Haq of Turkey, but without the uniform.

    Pakistan’s own PM is now trying to emulate his success, and wants to become an Amir of Pakistan within the next 10 years.

    There is a reason why Pakistan’s government is so pro-Turkey.Recommend

  • claesbas

    About Reza Aslan (not the best person to use as expert): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9RmAo6XVAARecommend

  • HUD HUD

    all knows that it is on the way of self destruction. fRecommend

  • Rahul Patil

    Erdogan is destroying the soul of turkeyRecommend