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Turkey's future: Will Erdogan be president until 2034?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has largely ignored the ceremonial nature of the presidency - and now wants to extend its powers
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured at a rally in Istanbul in August 2016 (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon find himself with a raft of sweeping powers that would make the White House or Kremlin envious, as his party pushes for a far-reaching law with limited checks and balances.

The constitutional amendment bill – as it is known – envisages a shift to an executive presidency style of governance. It is now being debated in parliament, with a final vote expected in two weeks.

But there are strong concerns that this change, if introduced in its current form, will leave Erdogan with even more say than presidents in fully fledged dictatorships such as Syria and Egypt.

READ: Turkish politics has never been about democracy

Turkey’s current constitution was drafted in 1982 by a post-coup administration. It is deemed to be highly statist, introducing measures such as the punitive 10 percent national threshold of the vote for a political party to be able to enter parliament.

Some observers say that the current constitution has been amended so much that it hardly resembles the 1982 original text. There is also widespread public and cross-party support for a new constitution, based on more civilian-centred principles.

President Erdogan could enjoy more power at home than his Russian counterpart (AFP)
Yet the proposed changes lack any measure of widespread support, with many worried that the process will end in one-man rule.

“This is not a move to change the system, this is an attempt at regime change to introduce one-man rule,” has been the stark and repeated warning issued by the country’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the CHP.

Certainly it would leave Erdogan, were he to be elected, with more official powers than the presidents of the United States and Russia. With the first election cycle to go into effect in 2019, Erdogan could remain the country's leader well beyond the next decade.

'This is not a move to change the system, this is an attempt at regime change to introduce one-man rule'

- Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the CHP

Any president would be allowed three five-year terms: Erdogan's current period in office will not count as one of those, meaning he could be in power until 2034 if he wins three successive polls.

Erdogan, now 62, has ruled the country since 2003 when he took up the role of prime minister. It was the most powerful political role in Turkey - until 2014 when Erdogan was elected president.

He has largely ignored the ceremonial nature of the presidency since taking office and insisted on playing an active role in the country’s affairs, saying that direct election grants him that right, even that he is duty bound.

But detractors say that years ago Erdogan drew up plans to stay in power for as long as he can - and is determined to ensure that it comes to fruition.

AKP: We need these changes for Turkey's future

Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) defend this shift to an executive presidency form of governance, saying it is the only way to smooth the path of Turkey’s progress. They also say it will prevent political crises in the future.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, in a speech to parliament on Monday, insisted that this shift would rid Turkey of political crises such as those it had faced in the past. As evidence, he pointed to Turkey’s inability to elected a president in the late 1970s, which he said partially led to the 1980 coup.

And he also hit back at critics who say there are almost no checks and balances in the proposed system.

Binali Yildirim, Turkish prime minister

'Every five years the president has to go to the polls and answer to the public. What better way to hold someone responsible than that?'

“Every five years the president has to go to the polls and answer to the public. What better way to hold someone responsible than that,” said Yildirim.

He also had a jibe at the Republican People’s Party (CHP), implying they were against the shift for personal reasons. “Don’t you worry," he told lawmakers. "Work hard and emulate us and maybe you will also have a CHP president someday."

The government says the current two-headed executive of prime minister and president, which arose after the president was elected by direct public vote for the first time in 2014, creates unnecessary complications and increases bureaucratic hurdles.

Yildirim also said Turkey’s domestic and international enemies that seek to continue to impose their tutelage on the country made use of various existing power structures to further their aims.

He said a strong presidency would solve those problems too and help Turkey attain its goals when it marks its centennial in 2023, one of which is to be the among the world’s top 10 economies.

Opposition: They want to reverse history

But the opposition says the government’s claims that an executive presidency will bring stability of all types - whether it be economic, political and security-related - is blatantly false, given that the AKP has been in power uninterrupted for the past 14 years yet still failed to achieve any of those things.

Bulent Tezcan, an MP from the CHP, Turkey’s first political party created by Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, told parliament: “They want to reverse history by snatching power back from the people and handing it back to the palace. This is clearly an attempt at regime change.”

The CHP is calling this attempted shift of system a civilian coup. “We will resist this attempted putsch today in the same way that we resisted the bombs dropped on parliament on the night of 15 July,” said Mahmut Tanal, a CHP MP. “We are the representatives of the people. This is a fight between those who believe in democracy and those do not.”

However, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which became kingmaker after it decided to change position and back the AKP’s attempt to introduce an executive presidency system, insists that it is just trying to legitimise a system that is already being implemented de facto.

READ: Myths and truth of Turkey's three-fronted war on terror

“It is impossible to accept the term regime change. If what is being implied is that the system of governance is changing then fine,” said Erkan Akcay, an MP from the MHP. “The first four articles of the constitution are untouched, so no one can use the term regime change.”

Those “first four articles of the constitution” basically state that Turkey is a social democratic secular republic founded on the principles of Ataturk and with Turkish as its official language.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has said it will boycott the vote because it cannot condone such a move. It is also expressing solidarity with its imprisoned MPs who are being deprived of their right to participate and vote in this crucial debate.

Turkey's foundation plays into debate

But the fears of many go beyond present-day political bickering and reflect the foundations on which modern Turkey is built.

On Monday MP Deniz Baykal, the former leader of the CHP, took the podium in parliament and made an emotional speech calling on MPs to reject the bill.

Baykal said he wasn’t making this call on the basis of “daily politics” but because he felt the need to protect Turkey and its future.

Ahmet Tasgetiren, a columnist at the pro-government Star newspaper, also penned a column saying the AKP itself would never back such a system if it thought the CHP stood a chance of winning. 

READ: The birth of a new Turkish republic

Meanwhile Omer Dincer, a former education minister from the ranks of the AKP, asked why there is no separation of powers in this proposal and said that checks and balances needed to be strengthened and the path to one-man rule shut in order to protect democracy.

And Sami Selcuk, the former head of Turkey’s appeals court, called on jurists to point out the inherent legal flaws in the current proposal instead of keeping quiet.

Selcuk states that a presidential system can only succeed with a clear separation of powers. He writes that this current version of trying to introduce a presidential system without any separation of powers is laughable and dangerous.

Also fresh in AKP minds is the general election results of June 2015. For the first time the party failed to secure a big enough majority to form a government on its own. Many observers at the time put it down to the ruling party’s campaign pledge to introduce an executive presidency.

Public could decide later this year

In the coming two weeks, parliament will hold four rounds of voting on the bill; two rounds on the entire bill and two on each of the 18 articles in the bill. The first vote on the entire bill was held in the early hours of Tuesday morning and passed with 338 yes votes out of 480 cast.

The bill needs to get 330 votes in the final round to go to a referendum. The government has said it will put the bill to a referendum even if it gets an absolute majority.

If successful in parliament, a referendum is expected in spring or early summer. Critics have also voiced concern over holding a referendum when a state of emergency is in effect.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did not have the same powers as those now proposed, argue critics (AFP)
The government last week pushed through parliament a second three-month extension to the post-coup state of emergency, extending it until 19 April.

Concern has also been voiced that the public is not being informed enough about what this change of governance system entails. Detractors say that with pro-government forces controlling around 90 percent of media directly or indirectly, there is little chance the public will have enough information to make an informed decision.

State broadcaster TRT’s selective coverage of the parliamentary sessions also meant that several lawmakers wanted a fuller public record. Upshot: one CHP MP brought and installed his own professional broadcast equipment on Monday for the entire debate.

As Kilicdaroglu reminded MPs and the country on Tuesday, Turkey did not even grant such extensive powers to Ataturk, who won the war of independence and secured the future of modern Turkey.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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