Turkey goes to polls in referendum on expanding president Erdogan’s powers
In January, Turkish MPs approved a constitutional reform package seeking to place significant executive powers in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hands, changing the current parliamentary system as a consequence.
The referendum proposes an 18-article amendment to the Turkish Constitution, long sought by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its founder, Erdogan.
If the amendments are approved, the Office of the Prime Minister will be abolished and changes to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors will transfer more power to president's office.
President Erdogan will then become the sole executive head of state – with authority to issue decrees, declare emergency rule, appoint ministers and state officials as well as dissolve parliament among other things.
As a result, parliament's oversight over the executive power would seriously be diminished and limited to a number of routine functions, including submitting written requests for information, initiating parliamentary inquiries and holding “general meetings.”
Erdogan, 63, came to power in 2002, a year after the AK party was formed. Barred by the constitution from serving more than three terms as prime minister, Erdogan became president in 2014, after winning the elections with 52 percent of the vote.
The changes, if adopted, will see a five-year presidential term, renewable once, meaning Erdogan could be in power until 2029 if his current term is not taken into account.
Moreover, Erdogan’s ties to the ruling AK party would be restored as the amendments would allow the president to be a member of a political party.
Opponents see the proposed changes to the constitution as a blueprint for a power grab. Critics, including those in the EU, have been warning that a "yes" result would abolish the Turkish system of checks and balances.
In response, the Turkish leader compared the policy of some of the European officials to those of "fascists," having promised to keep calling European leaders "Nazis" as long as they keep calling him a “dictator.”
In mid-March, the Venice Commission – a legal body of the Council of Europe, specializing in constitutional law – said a positive Turkish referendum result could pave the way for “an authoritarian and personal regime.”
The Commission labeled such scenario “a dangerous step backward in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey.”
Brussels has also been unhappy with Ankara’s crackdown on Kurds, on independent media, and its strict anti-terrorism laws, which led to a stall in negotiations to grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to the EU.
Relations between Turkey and the EU have heated up in the last few months amid Ankara’s massive campaign to promote the “yes” vote among the 5.5 million Turks living outside the country.
Several EU states, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria, have banned rallies organized by Turkey or have prevented Turkish ministers from Erdogan’s ruling AK Party from appearing at campaign events.
Although Ankara has been negotiating entry into the 28-member European bloc for decades – ahead of the referendum and the subsequent fall-out over campaigning in the EU – the Turkish leader announced plans to hold a separate referendum on whether the country should carry on with its EU accession process.
Relations between Ankara and Brussels are also directly linked to a controversial €6 billion refugee deal which Turkey has repeatedly threatened to suspend. The agreement remains vital to stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants into Europe.
Erdogan has said a new constitution would ensure that the Turkish political system would remain stable and secure, and be similar to the presidential systems of the “world’s strongest nations.”
Among other pro-amendment arguments is the assertion that it's paramount for the president to restore order in the country after the failed coup attempt in summer 2016, which Ankara blames on religious figure Fethullah Gulen living in exile in the US.
The failed Turkish coup led to a massive crackdown on opposition figures – with thousands of people, including military officials, judges, academics, and journalists arrested.
Erdogan has already vowed to restore the death penalty in Turkey "without any hesitation," should he be given powers sought for in the referendum.
Turks living abroad cast their ballots on April 9, showing what Erdogan called an “amazing” turnout of around 1.42 million. The results of their vote will be announced together with those inside Turkey.
Midweek polls showed the population was largely divided on whether to empower the president or not.
The Konda polling company, which predicted a 90 percent turnout on Sunday, said that 51.5 percent of Turks were ready to back the constitutional amendments. The survey, however, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percent, according to Reuters. Another polling company, Gezici, put the “yes” vote at 51.3 percent. Both research entities found that between nine and ten percent of the people remained undecided.