By The Economist
April 12th 2017
TURKS go to the polls this Sunday, April 16th, to choose between the parliamentary system they have lived under for nearly a century and a new constitution that would concentrate all executive power in the hands of their president. A “yes” vote would overhaul the state in its present form, abolishing the post of prime minister, sidelining parliament, and formalising a system in which the president answers no one except voters. A “no” would mark a major setback for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, though far from a fatal one. Yet there is much more riding on the outcome than one man’s political fortunes. What is at stake?
Turkey’s judiciary would be among those to suffer the most. In the 2000s Mr Erdogan’s government allowed the Gulen community, a secretive Islamic movement, to pack the justice system with its sympathisers. All hell broke loose when the two allies turned on each other. Prosecutors and police officials close to the Gulenists implicated Mr Erdogan and his allies in a cascading corruption scandal in 2013; thousands of them were purged in response. When army officers close to the movement were accused of spearheading a violent coup in the summer of 2016, the purge intensified.
Over the past nine months, the government has sacked a quarter of all judges and prosecutors over suspected Gulen links. More than 2,500 of them are currently behind bars, leaving the judiciary depleted and terrified of rubbing Mr Erdogan the wrong way. The new constitution would make the justice system even more beholden to Mr Erdogan and his party. At the moment, the president appoints four of the 22 members of the country’s most influential judicial body, the high council of judges and prosecutors. The rest are elected by their peers. The new constitution would decrease the number of members and allow Mr Erdogan and his allies in parliament to appoint all of them. None of the appointments would be subject to hearings.
The new constitution would also place the legislative branch at the disposal of the executive. A key change would allow the president to retain links with his party, handing Mr Erdogan the power to keep his Justice and Development (AK) party in check by choosing parliamentary candidates. Parliament’s powers of scrutiny would also change. According to current rules, MPs can address oral questions to the prime minister and cabinet members. The proposed amendments would allow only for written questions, and only to ministers and vice presidents, instead of the president. In areas where parliament has not passed any laws the president would have the right to issue decrees.
A new provision would widen the scope for Mr Erdogan’s impeachment by parliament, though it would set the bar for removing him from office exceptionally high. Proposing an investigation would require a simple majority in pariament, but opening one would require 60% of MPs to agree. The final decision would rest with the constitutional court, composed almost entirely of the president’s appointees. Parliamentary and presidential elections would be held simultaneously every five years. In theory, each institution could keep the other in check by keeping a finger on the eject button: the president and the parliament would be able to cut short each other’s mandates, as well as their own, by calling early elections.
Mr Erdogan has been in power for 14 years, longer than any Turkish leader since the founder of the republic, Kemal Ataturk. The constitution would allow him to serve a maximum of two five year terms, beginning with presidential elections in 2019. There is a catch: if parliament were to call early elections during his second term, Mr Erdogan would be eligible to run for a third. In theory, this would allow him to remain in power until as late as 2034. As large an impact as Sunday's vote might have on his future, it will have an even bigger one on his country’s.