A Single Referendum in Turkey by Julia Robinson @ University of California, Los Angeles
The recent referendum passed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey will lead to long term democratic backsliding. The redistribution of power to the executive office, the dissolution of checks and balances of higher power, and the change of procedure for dissolution of the legislative branch will all contribute to inevitable democratic backsliding. However, within these new amendments are small loopholes that give the Republic of Turkey a chance to overcome their transition to a regime with very limited democratic institutions.
Before I begin my argument, I would like to give a brief summary of Turkey’s political history. In 1950, Turkey became a democratic state, shortly after joining the UN and NATO. However, many events led to an decrease in stability, and multiple military coups occurred to attempt to give political power back to civilians from multiple anti-democratic groups. In 2016, after an attempted military coup and the firing of over 100,000 employees in all sectors of the political fields, Turkey declared a state of emergency which extended to 2017. As a resolution to this state of emergency, recently elected President Erdogan proposed a referendum that would revise or repeal 76 of the 177 Turkish amendments, the main point of this referendum transitioning Turkey from a Parliamentary system to a purely Presidential system.
Now, when we consider democratic backsliding, we have to remember that it means it will make democracy harder to happen in the next period. The proposed referendum, which was passed in 2017, will use political leaders and their personal agendas, the alteration in horizontal accountability, and a skewed form of electoral process to make democracy harder to achieve in the upcoming years Turkey has to face.
First, the referendum changes the parliamentary state to a presidential one, abolishing the Prime minister and delegating the power of head of state and government to the president himself. This change in government is what I would say falls under the political leader hypothesis of democratic backsliding. The effects of this change of power will be short term, meaning they will happen almost instantaneously, the change will affect the supply side of politics, involving the political leaders and their power to reform, and change politics on an institutional level. In addition to the condensation of power to one individual, the referendum now allows for the President to hold partisanship, meaning that the power the executive office holds can now lean towards a certain party or group of individuals. This will now lead to a disruption of civil and political liberties, where one group of citizens is highly represented whereas the other gets almost no representation at all.
Second, we can analyze the change of horizontal accountability, meaning the checks and balances of the branches of government. The referendum takes legislation’s power to hold the executive office accountable away in three specific ways. The first, is that parliament no longer oversees the council of ministers, the only power they have to make a change is that they can offer written submissions to only the Vice President, a newly added position, and to the Ministers. While this seems reasonable. Both these groups are accountable to only the President, not to the people or legislation. Second, in order to re-pass a bill the President vetoes, the Parliament now needs an absolute Majority to get the Bill passed, this makes it almost impossible for Parliament to pass any Bill that is not allowed by the President. Finally, the process of impeachment has changed drastically, involving a vote higher than the absolute majority, an additional review by a separate committee, and another ⅔ majority in order to get the case sent for a final review. In other words, the Parliament has now a very limited process in how they can hold the President accountable. On the side of the judicial branch, the President goes from appointing four out of twenty-two judges, to four out of thirteen, with an additional two being appointed from his council of Ministers. This is a clear decline of democratic qualities in a government. Losing the ability to hold your executive office accountable allows for free reign of any legislation, and an ultimate power to a single individual. Officials will no longer have to provide facts to justify their actions, and the capacity to impose negative sanctions on questionable actions has been almost wiped away with the newly passed referendum.
Finally, a manipulation of elections strategically in the newly passed referendum will lead to a compromised electoral system, removing government’s limited duration and constitutional limits. The referendum, in its final dramatic change, alters the process of the dissolution of Parliament. Essentially, the President can dissolve Parliament at anytime, without dissolving his own office, but if parliament wants to dissolve themselves it must include the office of the President. However, if the President is in his second term, which is the technical legal limit, but was re elected with the popular vote, he is allowed to surpass the restriction of his term limit and hold a third term. While this may be a rare occurrence depending on the President’s popularity with the people, it is possible for a President to old office for decades at a time, superseding electoral procedures and disregarding that government should have limited duration.
These changes, due to the referendum passed, will slowly destroy democratic institutions, but there is a possible way to stop the changes from leading to more democratic backsliding. The referendum creates a convenient loophole for Parliament, that if used correctly could stop an autocratic leader from rising, and soon abolish the referendum. The loophole states that is any Presidential decree contradicts fundamental civil rights and responsibilities in the constitution, it is not allowed to pass, regardless of the majority. It also states that if the decree contradicts a law, the law takes precedence, and that the President cannot overturn existing laws where Parliament was once involved. While this seems like a very small loophole, it is enough to catch the dissolution of these democratic institutions and potentially save Turkey from an incremental democratic backslide.