Markets applaud Turkey's constitutional amendment

Published 18.04.2017 01:23

Turkey concluded a three election, 10-month marathon election cycle Sunday, ending with the ratification of a constitutional amendment in a referendum. The referendum was a simple "yes" or "no" vote to the question of the proposed constitutional amendment. In all, 18 different articles were included in the amendment, the 18th such amendment since its adoption in 1982. The Turkish people approved the constitutional changes by a margin of 51.40 percent for the changes while 48.6 percent of voters voted against the proposed changes.

Following the military coup of 1980, the military junta leaders came up with a constitution that made the presidency very powerful and left backdoors in the constitution so that they could easily control the government whenever they pleased. They later asked the country to ratify these changes in a 1982 "referendum," which had no binding authority and whose approval or rejection had no effect on its implementation. The "referendum" was approved by a 91.4 percent to an 8.6 percent margin. The military leaders who controlled the government through their constitution exercised at least two "soft-coups" replacing the democratically elected governments with their chosen leaders in later years.

It was this constitution that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) intended to replace altogether following their autumn victory. A "military constitution" was ill-suited to be the supreme law of the land in a civil society, they argued. The opposition parties disagreed and as such the AK Party joined forces with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in campaigning for the said changes.

While "free speech" laws in Turkey make it difficult to criticize the 1982 constitution or any law for that matter, I may be able to get away with saying the constitution was less than perfect. It made the president of the Republic literally above the law, protecting him or her from any indictment with the exception of treason and even then, the Supreme Court would try and punish the president if it wished. In other words, the democratically elected Parliament had no say in deciding the fate of the president. This is in stark contrast to other presidential systems, such as in the United States where the House of Representatives indicts or impeaches a president and the Senate convicts and thereby removes the president from office.

The constitutional changes approved in the referendum, contrary to media reports, actually weaken the presidency. The president can now be indicted for any crime and be tried and convicted. The previous constitution, for example, allowed a president who committed murder to literally evade indictment. This would have been the perfect constitution for President Frank Underwood (from the TV series "House of Cards"), although he would probably oppose the newly ratified amendments.

The newly ratified changes also allow any member of parliament to propose new legislation. Nearly every single law passed in Turkey following the 1980 coup was either "passed" by military decree or through the government in charge. In other words, opposition lawmakers were unable to effect legislation.

Another important change allows the elected president to appoint four members of a judicial oversight committee, which is currently run by the judges themselves. Of the remaining 11 members, seven are appointed by Parliament, with the two remaining seats going to the attorney general and assistant attorney general. The current esoteric process allows current judges to appoint other judges making it undemocratic and arcane.

The outcome of the referendum was applauded by financial markets with the Turkish lira rallying late Monday, making it the best performing currency globally. Financial markets have been largely directionless in the month leading up to this referendum as the industry has been holding its breath, lest another constitutional crisis erupt. Should the referendum have been rejected, it would have been the first loss for the AK Party in its near 14 year-run. While the AK Party's governing mandate will ultimately come to an end, as all governments before it have, leaving a legacy of a proper constitution with democratic checks and balances is an achievement they will be able to cite.

To be clear, this constitution is still "less than perfect" and has a long way to go before it allows for strong democratic institutions to take hold, but this referendum approved by a similar margin as the Brexit vote and over 5 percentage points greater than what Donald Trump received, is a good start to a lasting democracy.

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