The post-referendum era in Turkey

YUSUF YERKEL
Published
The post-referendum era in Turkey

Turkey's path toward a robust and stable democratic political system has not been an easy journey but the country managed to renew its damaged governing system last Sunday

Turkey's recent referendum vote marked one of the most critical junctures in the history of Turkey. The proposed administrative reform might contain 18 articles but it is a deep-rooted one. With around a 51.5 percent "yes" vote, the people of Turkey paved the way for a chance to replace the current parliamentary system with a presidency. The debate revolving around changing the system of government is not new. Although perceived to be raised only by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thanks to a far-fetched global campaign of anti-Erdoğanism, it actually goes back to the 1960s. First raised in 1969 by former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, as well as by Alparslan Türkeş in his famous book "Nine Light," and former Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel and former President Turgut Özal, respectively, a presidential system of government has been put forward to mitigate systemic challenges and smooth governance.

Due to the constitutional change put in place in 1982 by the military after the coup two years earlier, the political system granted executive power both to the president and prime minister. Since then, both political bodies enjoyed a sort of power in the political system, but with severe repercussions. Most of the political crises throughout modern Turkey's brief history have been a product of a two-headed political system. Given the inherent systemic inconsistencies and power conflicts, not even people from the same ideological basis holding the post of these two executive branches were able to reconcile their differences. In 1991, during the Gulf war, the conflict between then president Özal and Prime Minister Akbulut over Mosul and Kirkuk, even though appointed by Özal himself from the same party he once led, is just one of the many examples in Turkey's political history.

Not long ago in 2001, the disagreement between then the Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit and President Ahmet Sezer in the National Security Council (MGK) triggered a deep financial crisis, also known as "Black Wednesday" (Kara Çarşamba), with severe repercussions for the economy, costing around $50 billion. Also, the crisis between former President Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Çiller in 1994, despite both having the same party line, is well known. It led Demirel to openly criticize Çiller, saying he would "throw her out of a window if she were not a women." Of course, such a statement came at a price. The Turkish lira lost 100 percent of its value against the dollar. What is critical to bear in mind is that the deadlocks were not mainly due to the nature of the personalities but because of the deficient and fragile structure of the system itself.

THE END OF WEAK GOVERNING SYSTEM

Although Turkey has enjoyed political stability over the last 14 years thanks to the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) consolidation over the country's constituency, the previous system has been the core component of unstable and uncertain political times. Since the establishment of the Republic, Turkey has witnessed more than 65 governments, mostly coalition governments, in 95 years. This amounts to one and half years of governance on average. In such a short term of governance, it is undeniably difficult to preserve stability and deliver political, economic and social services to people. There might be some objections pointing to successful examples of coalition governments around the world, such as Germany. Unfortunately, we have to admit that not a single coalition has worked and lasted in Turkey. The first coalition government, for example, formed in 1961, only lasted seven months, while the latest one formed in 1999 only survived for around two years. A Turkish experience, in this sense, does not shine as a good example. It is also worth noting that most of the coups happened due to the political crises created by coalition governments.

People mostly point out that the AK Party only achieved given its dominance over the last decade. However, this argument, mostly articulated by the main opposition party and some pundits in the West, fails to capture the very fact that it is the AK Party's political success that has prevented crisis and instability. One has to admit that, and think about how Turkey would have looked without it, given the history of political crisis. Turkey's inherent systemic shortcomings and political risks over the last few years have been mitigated so far as a result of the AK Party's electoral success.

Looking from this angle, the referendum, for the first time, was able to deliver much-sought and needed political stability for Turkey, not through the consolidation of a political party but instead through the system itself. As far as constitutions are concerned, it should create a political system with the aim of providing harmony and a foreseeable future, not the opposite. It is what Turkey has desperately lacked. Every election was a source of uncertainty not only for politicians but businessmen and ordinary people alike. President Erdoğan clearly reiterated why constitutional change was of the utmost importance for the future. "This constitutional change is no ordinary change. It is different and very meaningful. A historic decision where people voted for their future," he said in a press conference at Huber Villa in Istanbul.

BREXIT RESULTS SIMILAR TO THE SUNDAY VOTE

On top of that, for the first time, Turkey has gone through this process with the will of the people and the Grand National Assembly. Given the history of constitutional change, which has been imposed by means of military institution, usually in the aftermath of coups, Turkey's civilian politics won out. In his speech, President Erdoğan not surprisingly stated "for the first time in the history of the Republic, we have changed our governmental system through civilian politics." "In the past", he continued, "Our constitutions and system of government were determined under extraordinary conditions, such as the War of Independence and its aftermath, and coup periods." The close margin of the yes-no vote in the referendum (51.4 percent "yes" and 48.6 percent "no") does not change the fact it represent the will of the people. When 51.9 percent voted leave in the Brexit referendum, it was described as the "will of the people" and not as 'a "slim majority."

Against this backdrop, this civilian constitutional change, even though not entirely shedding every trait of the coup-drafted constitution of 1982, must be hailed in particular for being drafted through the institution of Parliament. Making Parliament the source of change holds significance for the consolidation of a democratic culture in Turkey. It should not be forgotten that the most recent coup attempt took place only last year in July with the aim of undermining the foundation of the country's democratic institutions. Rather than being randomly chosen, the bombing of Parliament, the Prime Ministry and the Presidency bears symbolic meaning. It is exactly because of this that Turkish people sacrificed their lives to uphold these democratic institutions that represent the core values of a liberal democracy.

Overall, Turkey's path toward a robust and stable democratic political system has not been an easy journey. The latest constitutional change is yet another further step to minimize risk in the system. However, what stands out is that it is civilian momentum that is strengthening the democratic culture. A change that comes within the democratic realm that has suffered for so long. To what extent this change will heal the political wounds in Turkey will be seen. However, one thing is for sure, it is meaningful and has qualities to that end.

* Advisor to Turkish Prime Minister

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