A 26-article bill that paves the way for number of amendments including allowing forming electoral alliances came into effect after it passed Parliament in recent weeks. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy, professor Mustafa Şentop, who is the head of Parliament's Constitutional Committee, was one of the masterminds behind last year's constitutional change and alliance bill. Thus, we spoke with Şentop about the dynamics behind Turkey's system change and the road map afterward.
Şentop believes that Turkey ended international tutelage that started with the 1961 constitution by accepting systemic change in last year's April 16 referendum. According to him the election promises of some opposition parties about Turkey's return to a parliamentary system are unrealistic while underlining that these promises are also contrary to the flow of history.
Regarding the Parliament's reform agenda, Şentop said after the alliance bill the Parliament's priority will be a new bylaw and adjustment laws while underlining that reform process to fully adjust Turkey into the new system will continue even after the November 2019 elections.
Daily Sabah: First of all, could you explain why the Turkish political system needs interparty alliances and why such an amendment was necessary?
Mustafa Şentop: In order to explain this, we have to discuss the history of Turkish politics. I believe the April 16 2017 referendum was one of the three most important changes to Turkey's governmental system. First would be the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, second would be the constitutional system that was initiated with the 1961 constitution following the May 27, 1960 military coup. With the 1961 constitution, Turkey had accepted the international tutelage; however, April 16 referendum freed Turkey from this tutelage.
Let me elaborate on this. Following World War II, victors of the war, especially the U.S., desired to spread democracy, free elections and multi-party systems. This was only a front of course. Such freedom had certain risks to the newly shaped international system. If there were free elections, any prominent movement from a country could be elected to government and they would direct their countries' international policies. This was a threat to the international system.
Therefore, these victors wanted affiliate governments in countries; yet, this is problematic. They wanted both free elections and their "boys" to win; as you know, the CIA referred to the perpetrators of Sept. 12, 1980 coup as "our boys." In this respect, constitutions were used for manipulative purposes for the first time. Frameworks of politics, economy and social and cultural life were included to constitutions. This ensured all elected governments to not violate the boundaries set by the international system. This is a practice that emerged after World War II. The said system was brought to Turkey with the May 27 coup.
I believe the May 27, 1960 coup was more than just a coup; it placed Turkey among those who lost World War II, therefore along with Germany, Italy and Japan. These countries' constitutions were drafted by the victors; proclamation of the 1961 constitution in Turkey meant becoming a part of this system. As issues became apparent, more interventions like March 12 1971 memorandum, Sept. 12, 1980 and Feb. 28, 1997 coups took place until 2000s.
Yet, as the political sphere led by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) seized the initiative, this system became obsolete. While the tutelage system was abolished in practice, there was still a need to prevent any further attempts with legislation. This was achieved with the April 16 referendum.
DS: So, what about the alliances between political parties?
MŞ: The new system forces political parties to form alliances, as a simple majority is needed to elect a candidate president. In this respect, political parties of all magnitude will attempt to form alliances to secure the elections. As the parliamentary elections are to be held on the very same day, alliances will also shape these elections. I believe this is a must.
True, the president is the head of the executive; however, the president also needs to have a significant support from the parliament to enact necessary legislation. What we are doing now is legalizing alliances. In the previous system, it was forbidden to form alliances; a political party couldn't support another political party and they couldn't appoint joint candidates. We lifted these prohibitions, then implemented a law that allows political parties to form alliances. The remaining details of alliances are to be determined by interparty protocols they prepare. In short, by implementing these changes, we have rendered political alliances legitimate and transparent.
Turkey faced an invasion attempt on July 15 2016 which proved these changes were necessary. This incident was the last suicide attack of the system that was conceived with the May 27 coup. Even though this system was deconstructed by AK Party, some hoped that it would still function and attempted a coup through FETÖ. In this respect, FETÖ is only a pawn; it is actually the international system's intervention attempt in Turkey.
Parties that had diverging political approaches have supported this change in the political system after July 15 as there was an attack toward the state and its people. This change in the political system was actually the consolidation of people's will. We achieved this together with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). There was obviously a need to establish the legal basis of this new system. In turn, this required a potent legislative and executive. To realize all of this, we had agreed to work together with the MHP. In this respect, the political alliance is the legal reflection of this cooperation.
DS: Certain opposition parties promise to return to the parliamentary system if they win the 2019 elections. Do you believe it is possible to revert to this change in the case AK Party and its alliance loses the elections?
MŞ: I don't believe this is possible. I can't even imagine the People's Alliance consisting of the AK Party and MHP losing the elections. It's highly improbable. I say this as this change wasn't spontaneous; it has been discussed for a very long time, both by us and others.
In late 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk tasked both Ahmet Ağaoğlu and Ziya Gökalp with drafting constitution. At that time, Ziya Gökalp was a Diyarbakır deputy. We have his handwritten work which proposes a presidential system modeled after the U.S. presidential system. His reason was that Turkey was a continuation of the Ottoman political history and administration; he claimed presidential system was the rational choice after the abolition of the sultanate. This proposition wasn't thoroughly discussed at his time as it wasn't clearly understood; most of Gökalp's peers believed this system would replace the sultan with a president while it wasn't the case.
Then, the presidential system was once again discussed in the 1950s and 1960s. This was also in the party program of the National Order Party, the movement which President Erdoğan comes from. This issue was thoroughly discussed in 1970s. Moreover, a week after AK Party was elected to government in 2002, President Erdoğan had said that the presidential system would fit Turkey better. Considering this whole process, reverting to the parliamentary system is a baseless discourse.
I believe they are mistaken about certain facts of Turkey; as the referendum was accepted by a fairly narrow margin, they assume that there is a majority that wants to revert to the previous system. However, this isn't the case; they are interpreting the referendum in a wrong way. We have researched similar referendums all over the world; those which propose substantial reforms regarding the political system have all passed with narrow margins.
Moreover, those who oppose such changes aren't necessarily against the system; they might have certain concerns or they might have been misguided. I believe if there was a poll about the presidential system today, it would have a higher approval rate than the referendum.
A similar discussion occurred after the mid-2000s. As you know, the Republican People's Party (CHP) opposed the reform that proposed the president being elected by popular vote in 2007. They continued to talk about reverting to the old system in which the president was elected by the parliament even after the proposal was ratified. However, after President Erdoğan was elected by popular vote, they dropped the whole discussion. I believe it will be the same for the presidential system.
DS: Some claim that the new system polarizes Turkey politically. How would you respond to these claims?
MŞ: I don't believe this is the case. Those who voted for and against the new system are cohabitating as they have always done. So, where is this alleged polarization? Our citizens don't believe the new system polarizes the society. All of them tell their opinions and discuss them; yet, the everyday life continues to go on. These allegations are made by the opposition but they fail to elaborate on polarization. They claim the People's Alliance led by AK Party-MHP is one of the poles; if that's the case, where is the other pole? It doesn't exist.
They also assert that the AK Party-MHP alliance is for the elections. However, MHP stood together with AK Party after the July 15 coup attempt, at the demonstration on Aug. 7, at the April 16 referendum. This alliance at least has a background story, a precedence. What about the other? What will CHP and others will agree on? Just naming an alliance as "principled alliance" doesn't make it so. This alliance could only be reactionary as they lack precedence. They also lack the substance in opposition; they have nothing new to propose and deem being against AK Party is an excuse for their political existence. In this sense, we can't talk about polarization as it lacks an opposing pole.
DS: The existing 10 percent electoral threshold became irrelevant for alliances and seemingly rendered relatively smaller parties more important. In your opinion, do you believe smaller parties will become irrelevant or have more important roles in politics in time?
MŞ: It's not possible to know for sure; it depends on the conjuncture and their performances. At times, smaller parties might secure seats in the parliament, becoming more visible and allowing them to voice their unique discourses. On the other hand, lacking an original discourse, a smaller party might not gain anything from just being a part of an alliance. Yet, all of this can't be explained solely through alliances. Parties may have to revise themselves. The process will reveal all.
In terms of the electoral threshold, many figures of AK Party including myself have talked about the removal of the electoral threshold; however, this doesn't mean that it would be realized right after the referendum. We're currently working for adjustment laws and this process is expected to go on for years. As MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli stated, work has to be done to settle this new system until 2024. In this respect, some of the adjustments will be realized prior to Nov. 3, 2019, while others are to be implemented after.
DS: Regarding the road map, which adjustment laws are to be implemented until Nov. 3, 2019?
MŞ: There are certain changes required by the new system to be exacted. For instance, prime ministry and council of ministers don't exist in the new system. In connection with this, as ministers are no longer responsible against the Parliament, interpolation is irrelevant.
In this respect, there are certain necessary reforms to electoral law and the structure of the administration. Prime ministry's abolition means that we have to rearrange most of the administrative processes. We aim to ratify the necessary and essential adjustment laws regarding administration that are absolutely required by the new system until Nov. 3, 2019. Then, we will continue to realize other adjustment laws regarding how the system functions.
DS: To be specific, how many articles do you aim to ratify until November 2019?
MŞ: It's hard to be specific in this subject. There are certain by-laws that we have to implement some of which are about the legislative. In the previous system, most of the legislation was put into motion by the government. However, in the new system, the legislative and the executive are completely separated. Therefore, a new by-law that allows the Parliament to function by itself is needed. In addition to this, we have to revise and rearrange how the government, ministries and affiliated departments function.
Certain reforms are also needed in electoral and political party laws. Relations between the central and local administrations are also a part of this. Considering all of these, it's not possible to provide a specific number of articles.
DS: Are you currently working on these changes?
MŞ: Yes, we are working on it. As I have expressed, it is a complicated matter; all things have to be discussed thoroughly. For instance, the 10 percent electoral threshold. We have to discuss the electoral system as a whole rather than just a component of it; however, this is not the case. Many only discuss this very particular component of a larger system.
On the other hand, new approaches to subjects emerge as we continue to work on these adjustment laws. We have to discuss and evaluate these new approaches. We will evaluate our preparations together with the MHP. As I have said, the adjustment process will go beyond 2019 elections.
DS: Will the necessary reforms be implemented until the Nov. 3, 2019 elections?
MŞ: We are sure that they will be implemented until the election. The new system will function unhindered. We will conclude the necessary reforms and set up the infrastructure until November 2019.
DS: What will happen after 2019 in terms of reforms? What further reforms are needed for the settlement of the system?
MŞ: We believe we need to add certain articles while removing others. As President Erdoğan has been expressing for some time, Turkey's regulations have to be revised and adjusted according to the new system. For instance, President Erdoğan talks about an "obese bureaucracy;" the bureaucratic regulations are truly excessive and should be addressed. We have to render it clearer and more practical. In this respect, we will continue to work on it after 2019.
DS: Turkey continues to seek the creation of a new constitution for years. While the April 16 referendum had no means to replace a constitution, it provided a solution for urgent issues. Do you think Turkey will continue to seek the creation of a new constitution after 2019?
MŞ: As we have always advocated, the real issue about Turkey's constitution is its perception and functionality. Instead of implementing a rational system that is compatible with the values and history of the country, those who wanted to further the tutelage system created an untouchable text.
The constitution was the only source of legitimacy that allowed them to be powerful. However, constitutions should not be ideological texts; they have to be the foundation for all laws in a country. Nevertheless, those supporting the tutelage system bent the constitution and interpreted in a way that benefited them. We had to thwart this kind of understanding. Today, we have achieved it; constitution is a normalized subject in Turkey now. In this respect, we may deem the period of AK Party governments since 2002 as an extensive normalization process.
After the implementation of the new system of governance, the urgency of a new constitution in Turkey has subsided. We would have wanted to create a new constitution that is clearer and more compatible with contemporary politics which would replace the 1982 constitution written by the putschists. Nevertheless, as I have said, it is no longer urgent.