Setting the record straight on Turkey's journey to democracy: A brief history

Published 03.04.2017 23:26 Modified 03.04.2017 23:27
A man casting his vote for the Turkish referendum, at the Turkish Consulate in Geneva, Switzerland, March 28.
A man casting his vote for the Turkish referendum, at the Turkish Consulate in Geneva, Switzerland, March 28.

The April referendum means ending an established tradition of coups in Turkey. That's why it is the most significant democratization initiative

Government systems are essentially like computer operating systems. If the computer itself is a state apparatus obliged to provide services to its citizens then the rules and procedures by which it operates are a matter of democracy and system.

The duties, obligations and limitations of the state apparatus are defined by constitutions. Every constitution should contain universal criteria like separation of powers, establishment of rights and freedoms, and elements of a social state. They also have their unique political and sociological characteristics. Constitutions are basically contracts between the state, and the individual and society. It's inevitable and natural that the characteristics and history of a society are reflected in its constitutions.

For this reason, though the above mentioned universal criteria are required, a single model cannot be imposed on societies across the world. Constitutions have their own evolution just as humans do. Fortunately, when we look at the world in general we see that constitutionalism usually tends to move forward, not backward with regard to democracy.

As changing conditions require certain amendments to constitutions, a type of change in parallel with the needs society imposes itself. Or, during a transition from an antidemocratic regime to a more democratic one (like in South Africa), the first thing to do is to guarantee that change through a constitution. Of course, when a military coup takes place in a country, the first thing to get affected is its constitution.


Turkey's journey to democracy is unique in its own way. Indeed, its current constitution is, in a sense, the epitome of this journey. When striving to avoid total surrender through a war of independence after World War I, the nation made the Constitution of 1921 in a pluralistic manner. Afterward, after the proclamation of the Republic, the Second Assembly amended this constitution with a more leader-oriented approach.

The selected structure resembled a parliamentary system. We say "resembled," because there was no separation of powers as we know it. It was a government by the Assembly with the Republican People's Party (CHF, later renamed CHP), which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his fellow fighters, as the only party, and with all the powers vested in the Assembly. Due to the historical context of the time, however, it wasn't deemed strange and it was perceived more as a transition period.


Turkey made several failed attempts to move over to a multi-party regime before 1945, the time when fascism was defeated. Since the Nazis lost the war and Turkey aligned with the West, it decided to transition to multi-party democracy in 1946. The global conjuncture didn't permit a one-party regime anymore. The first multi-party elections held in 1946 helped the Democratic Party (DP), which was established by former CHP members, to come to the fore. Though several small parties appeared on the scene, it was the CHP's archrival the DP, which was founded and led by former Prime Minister Celal Bayar, that would leave its mark on multi-party politics.

But the 1946 elections were overshadowed by the CHP's move to change the electoral law in an antidemocratic manner. Since all provincial governors also acted as heads of the provincial CHP organization, ballot boxes were taken to offices of governors. Open ballot and the secret vote counting methods were practiced with transparent ballot boxes. Hence, as a consequence of these irregularities, the DP could win 62 seats out of the 465 in the assembly.

Before the next election in 1950, the CHP changed the electoral law once more, introducing the so-called majority party rule in which the party that won the majority of votes cast in an electoral district secured all the seats in that district. Overconfident in its strength and enjoying state support, the CHP aimed to win every seat. However, the new electoral system worked in favor of the DP, as an overwhelming majority of the electorate voted for it. While the DP won 408 of the 487 seats in the assembly, the CHP won 69 seats [the Nation Party (Millet Partisi) won one seat and independents got nine seats).

Thus began the period when Turkey's government system would come closest to a parliamentary system. The 1950s and early 1960s under the DP rule saw the strong governance of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Celal Bayar served as a largely symbolic president.


However, the status quo and its elements led by the CHP staged a military coup on May 27, 1960. The coup led to the greatest trauma in the history of Turkish democracy. Prime Minister Menderes and his two ministers were hanged, along with nine others who were either executed or murdered. Thus Turkey lost an opportunity to proceed on its own course and improve its democracy, withdrawing into its shell at a time when Europe was making major strides.

From then on, every elected politician would feel the threat of a noose hanging over his head, with tutelage becoming entrenched.

Every time the ballot box was placed before the people, they used to vote for the party or the leader that they hoped would democratize the system. After the adoption of the post-1961 coup Constitution, people gave the Justice Party (AP), which was regarded as the successor to the DP, the mandate with a record vote share. But the subsequent AP government was brought down by the 1971 military intervention.

The 1961 Constitution created a number of institutions intended to exert pressure on elected officials so that they could intervene in the elected government when necessary, by using state power. An ideological judiciary had become the mainstay of that system. As these tutelage institutions were established by the constitution, Turkey moved away from a parliamentary system and set out to build a chaotic version of it.

Yet the greatest damage was inflicted in the wake of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup. The 1982 Constitution, which is still in force, divided the executive in two. Putschist generals transformed the presidency from a symbolic office to one that steers execution and rendered it "unaccountable," free from judicial oversight, at the same time. A government partner now, the president would enjoy lifelong immunity from prosecution.

It was reckoned that putting tanks on the streets every 10 years and pushing democracy into an interim regime period would not be considered practical and respectable under the evolving world conditions. So, a permanent tutelage mechanism was inserted into the system. Indeed, junta leader Kenan Evren became the first president under the new system in line with the intentions of its designers. The president is to be elected by Parliament. But it would be always possible to exert pressure on Parliament and get the preferred candidate elected to office.


On Feb. 28, 1997, the unwanted Refah-Yol coalition government [made up of the Welfare Party (RP) and the True Path Party (DYP)] was toppled through mobilizing the tutelage institutions. That's why this coup has passed down in Turkish history as a "postmodern coup." Pressure from generals, the business world, universities and the monopoly media, in collaboration with the then-President Süleyman Demirel, combined to trick the religious Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan into resigning from his post.

A pro-coup general even said that "the Feb. 28 process would last for a thousand years." In fact, he made that statement relying not only on armed forces but also on this government system and the constitutionally defined tutelage institutions.

But things took a different turn. Nearly six years later, the people gave the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), a successor to the RP, a mandate to form the government. The date was Nov. 3, 2002.

Following that development, the status quo has tried, with all its organs, to overthrow the AK Party government. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was imprisoned for reciting a poem and a political ban intended to bar him from politics was imposed. However, these attempts failed.

A defender of the status quo served as president until 2007. That president had used the broad powers granted to him by the 1982 Constitution to undermine the elected government by vetoing almost every bill passed by Parliament and rejecting appointments. But his term in office was coming to an end. The first round of voting in Parliament would take place on April 27, 2007. The AK Party had a large enough majority to elect its own candidate, if not in the first two rounds (because 367 votes were needed), in the third round.

Pro-tutelage forces embedded in higher judicial bodies launched a campaign citing a requirement to have a quorum of 367 deputies in Parliament for the opening of the session. But the constitution contained no special quorum rule for the meeting of Parliament.

When the AK Party paid no heed to that claim and held the first round of voting on April 27, the military stepped in and issued the April 27 memorandum. In other words, it played the trump card of coup against the government. The CHP played a key role again during that tense period and supported the memorandum.


If the AK Party had retreated in the face of that threat, as expected at the time, we would have experienced yet another postmodern coup. But it did not happen this way. The AK Party refused to step back and called a snap election. The people protected and rewarded it with 47 percent of the vote. In the resulting parliamentary arithmetic, the AK Party elected its candidate, with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) attending the general assembly, as the 11th president.

The buck did not stop there. It prepared and put to a referendum constitutional amendments with the intention of making presidential elections cease to be a source of crisis and rescuing them from pro-tutelage forces.

Accordingly, presidents would be elected directly by the people. In a referendum held in October 2007, nearly 70 percent of the participants approved the amendments. The 367 quorum rule had showed that even Parliament was unable to exercise its will. During the first round, deputies had been confined to their rooms and small parties faced pressure. The way to overcome this was to allow the people to elect the president with the 50 percent plus 1 vote.

Therefore, the April 16 referendum means completing a job that was left unfinished in 2007. Basically, it is the most important democratization initiative in Turkey. Also it represents the normalization of the system for reassembling the fragmented executive branch.

For the continuance of this government system, which was born out of a checkered history of democracy and military tutelage, is not possible anymore. As things stand, the executive branch has two heads, both of whom are elected by popular vote. The first is the prime minister emerging from within Parliament after general elections. And the other is the president, who is elected directly by the people now, who enjoys broad executive powers and is also immune from prosecution as opposed to the prime minister.

Turkey combines a presidential system with the executive branch in the office of Presidency, establishing separation of powers by taking it out of Parliament. If the amendments are approved, two separate ballot boxes will be placed before the people; one for the legislative and the other for the executive branch. People will elect the legislature, the law-making body, in one ballot box and the executive, the president, in the other. The president would have criminal liability for all his/her acts.

As is seen, that change is not an abrupt surprise, but a natural result of Turkey's journey. The people would decide the outcome and that outcome would be respected in any case.

Therefore, fascistic attitudes against the "Yes" vote in the referendum that are observed in some European countries and the open support for "No" means interference in Turkey's democracy and domestic affairs. Such interference cannot be regarded as normal by Turkey, especially when remembering how the country was left alone in the face of the July 15 coup attempt and terrorist groups, and how putschists aroused sympathy in Europe.

The democratization of Turkey would contribute not only to the country itself but also to Europe and the world. As a democratic, stable and secular Muslim nation, Turkey is of indisputable importance within the Western alliance. Ignoring that importance and succumbing to periodic decadence would hurt the world, not Turkey.

I know that there is considerable public feeling in the West with the ability to acknowledge this. My only wish is that this common sense becomes effective and that relations normalize. But Turkey will continue to write its valuable story in any event.

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