Turkey Referendum Prompts Domestic and International Concerns

Turkey will hold a constitutional referendum on April 16 that will consider replacing its existing parliamentary system with a presidential one. The Turkish presidency has traditionally been a largely ceremonial office, with the prime minister possessing most political power. Nevertheless, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is largely considered the de facto leader in Ankara. He and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been the main proponents behind the referendum.

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The proposed constitutional reforms would give the president practical powers of government, at the detriment of the prime minister whose office would be abolished, said The Washington Post.  The presidency would also retain its role role of head of state.

Furthermore, new presidents would no longer be required to relinquish their own party membership, allowing for an openly partisan head of state.

The amendments also outline the creation of a vice presidency and an increase in the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) from 550 to 600. MPs would also be able to investigate the president and initiate impeachment proceedings with a majority vote.

In addition, the amendments would give the president extensive new powers to appoint a large number of senior judges, declare states of emergency, and dismiss Parliament. The president would be limited to two terms.

These proposed reforms would engender the most radical change in Turkey’s political system since the founding of the modern republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

The Yes campaign, led by the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has argued that an executive presidency would streamline the decision-making process and avoid weak parliamentary coalitions. The campaign has repeatedly cited political instability and security threats from groups such as Islamic State and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party as added reasons for a strong presidency.

The No campaign, largely led by the Kemalist center-left opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) with the support of some MHP dissidents, has described the proposed reforms as a slide towards authoritarianism. They argue that Turkey does not have the required checks and balances for a true presidential system, particularly given the recent crackdown, which saw over 140,000 people arrested, dismissed, or suspended in the aftermath of the failed July 15 coup-attempt.

The divisive campaign has spilled well beyond Turkey’s borders, with both sides soliciting votes from the Turkish diaspora in Europe. Recent attempts by government ministers to hold Yes rallies in the Netherlands and Germany were thwarted by local authorities who denied them entry and cancelled events. The German and Dutch governments cited security concerns, but Ankara argues that the European Union is overtly taking sides to favor the No campaign.

The Council of Europe, the EU’s human rights monitor, recently declared that the proposed constitutional amendments are “dangerous” and “would risk degeneration into an authoritarian presidential system.”

President Erdogan responded by calling the Netherlands “Nazi remnants” as tensions soared between the NATO allies, reported Reuters.

In a panel discussion at Georgetown earlier this year, Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament, described Turkey as “a ticking time bomb” that could “bring Europe and NATO down with it.” This analysis looks increasingly accurate as many worry about the future of Turkey-EU cooperation, which has proved crucial particularly in dealing with the migrant crisis.