Tomorrow is one of the most important votes in Turkish history — a vote on the referendum on the Constitution of Turkey to transform it from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. I was woefully ignorant about it until today. Here are some of my thoughts about it.
I’d be lying if I said that this huge vote was on my mind as I flew here for my long weekend holiday. In actuality, I’d completely forgotten about it until an excitable merchant at a kebap stand started engaging with me about it over my order at lunch. So now, it’s the eve of the vote, and I’m now sitting here in Istanbul at a rooftop terrace bar overlooking the Hagia Sophia, and reading anything I can get my hands on, while engaging random locals on their thoughts.
Western media nearly unanimously portray this referendum as a power grab by Erdo?an. It’s an amazing thing when everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Haaretz to Fox News to the Washington Post to the Guardian are adamantly in the “No” camp. The only English articles I can find adamantly on the Yes camp in a major media source are these op-ed from Erdogan appointees.
This sounds like an open-and-shut case.
Still, I did some more reading about this, and the picture is a bit more complicated than it first appears. There are many orthogonal issues here, from the representativeness of a constitution that was formed after a military coup, to the authoritarian tendencies of Erdo?an, to alleged suppression of speech by the “Yes” camp, to the debate of a parliamentary vs presidential political system, to, of course, the merits of the articles of this referendum itself.
First, on the merits of the articles in the referendum itself — I think it’s actually very reasonable. If you were to hand the full text of the referendum to someone without mentioning that it was from Turkey, it sounds unremarkable; perhaps the most remarkable part is the similarity it bears to many other constitutions of presidential systems, especially that of the US. Like the American system, the articles under the referendum would get allow the president to remain in a political party (which he currently cannot), would give the president official executive powers, would let the president select members of the judiciary, would let the legislative branch override vetoes and any executive actions, and would give official impeachment powers (termed “investigation” here) to the legislature. From the viewpoint of a staunch parliamentarian, this does seem like an extreme shift away from the parliament at the center of the State, but in the global view, this is definitely not as atypical as many news outlets make it out to be — the executive does get more power, but the power it will retain is similar to that most presidential systems, and with similar legislative and judicial checks. There are differences, however, which should give pause, even given this zero-context framework. Most concerning to me, unlike the US, Turkey does not seem to have as strong a concept as in the US of enumerated powers, where the State may only exercise powers strictly enumerated by the Constitution. To affirm that concept, the US also has the tenth amendment, explicitly limiting the power of the central government. However, Turkey is not a federal system, and hence cannot have the equivalent of the tenth amendment. This may lead to easier centralization of powers by the central government, though notably not necessarily by the executive.
Still, if we were voting purely on merits though, and if this were the basis for the constitution of a new country, this sounds like a yes to me.
Now, on to factors beyond the articles being voted on.
The first is that the current constitution is one that was ratified in a referendum during the military government in 1982. Several referendums have reduced the influence of the military on government, especially in the massive referendum of 2010, which brought many parts of the Constitution in line with EU standards in a step to move toward EU membership. However, as a result of the history of this Constitution, it would seem that many in Turkey (and certainly, as a proportion, more than in most EU countries, and tremendously more than in the US) see this document as an evolutional journey toward democracy rather than an unchangeable fundamental foundation of the country. Talking with people here, both those who say they are voting “yes,” and those who declared are voting “no” have had the mindset of the constitution as malleable — the “yes” camp with the attitude that we’re moving to a more streamlined and modern presidential democracy, and the “no” camp saying that these aren’t the right changes. Very few people I talked to thought that the Constitution was working fine and shouldn’t be touched.
The most important factor though is obviously Erdogan himself, who has dramatically centralized powers around himself in the last decade, but especially after the attempted coup. He has used those powers (under the ever-extending state of emergency) to crack down on political enemies, curtail the free press, whittle away at the rule of law, and promote an unrelenting nationalism. It is through that lens that this referendum must be viewed, and the updated image is definitely darkened a few stops. With the legislature controlled by Erdogan’s party (though he officially is not a member), he can do significant damage and consolidate power even more before the next election occurs, by which time he could have made it all but an impossibility for various branches of the government to realistically provide checks on the others due to new rules, interpretations, and loopholes. Of course, the president and legislature will be voted on directly, so the electorate can theoretically simply vote out the current government.
Finally, there’s the issue of media suppression — the “yes” camp has brought all the powers of government to bear, up to and including using highly questionable decisions of who can use state media to promote their messages, and which free speech and foreign campaign laws it should enforce. Those on the “no” camp have been arrested, though in the current climate of law-and-order, it can be hard to tease apart what part of the arrest was related to the referendum directly, and what part was for other political trespasses. (Both are inexcusable of course.)
So, taking it all together, I think the real question is — can an improved constitution succeed despite the initial executive under that new constitution who shows every sign of abusing it and contorting it to guarantee his own power, and also that of his party’s?
I think I’m conflicted after reading about vote, and talking to people about it.
I’d like to hold on to optimism and believe that a reasonable constitution combined with an engaged electorate will result in reasonable governance and self-correcting behavior. But seeing the rise of frightening populist nationalism around the world, I’m no longer sure that that is a tenable belief.
This vote unfortunately seems to be lose-lose for Turkey. A “yes” vote means Erdogan would gain significantly more power, and can easily consolidate even more power in the next 2 years before the next election. A “no” vote means the current system, which many think are broken, will continue, with a stronger case for Erdogan to rule by emergency rules and decrees.
I await tomorrow.