Millions of Turkish citizens will go to the polls on April 16 to vote on eighteen amendments to the 1982 Constitution – including the replacement of the parliamentary system, which has been in place since the late Ottoman period, with presidentialism.
Until 2014, Turkish presidents were selected by Parliament after lengthy negotiations between the leaders of the major political parties. Over the decades, there were times when the various parties proved unable to reach an agreement over which presidential candidate(s) to support and created deadlocks – which coup plotters repeatedly exploited to intervene in civilian politics. For instance, the 1980 coup d’etat took place hours after Parliament failed to pick the country’s seventh president after 124 rounds of voting.
Since 1960, succeeding generations of coup plotters imagined the President as a head of state with no political mandate or executive authority, but enough power to hamper the actions taken by the executive branch, led by the Prime Minister and Parliament. The 1982 Constitution, which was drafted under the military junta’s supervision, reaffirmed the Presidency’s role as an instrument of the guardianship regime to maintain the establishment’s control over the country’s affairs and keep a lid on the power of elected officials. In the 1980s, Gen. Kenan Evren, the 1980 coup’s leader, became Turkey’s seventh president and ensured that elected governments did not stray too far from the narrow confines set by the military. The judiciary, likewise, had been structured since the 1960s with the purpose of clamping down on any initiative developed by the Turkish people’s elected representatives. When center-right politicians like Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel replaced Evren in the late 1980s and 1990s, a period characterized by political turmoil and economic crises, supporters of the establishment made the case that presidents ought to be chosen from outside politics to prevent political chaos. Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the Constitutional Court’s chief justice, proved them wrong. Handpicked by the leaders of major political parties, Sezer not only triggered the devastating 2001 financial crisis by throwing a copy of the Constitution to thenPrime Minister Bülent Ecevit, but also vetoed key pieces of legislation sponsored by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government between 2002 and 2007.
When the military openly threatened to overthrow Turkey’s democratically-elected government following the AK Party’s decision to nominate then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül for President, the deadlock was resolved through early elections – in which the incumbents won a landslide victory. Later in 2007, a constitutional referendum was held to introduce direct presidential elections for the first time in the Republic’s history. In addition to making the Presidency more representative, the amendment eliminated the risk of parliamentary deadlocks over presidential elections in the future. In August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Turkey’s first directly elected president – which, in turn, created a problem of dual legitimacy, since both the President and the Prime Minister had a clear mandate and considerable powers.
If the April 16 referendum passes, the Presidency and the Prime Ministry will be merged to create a more functional, streamlined and effective system of government with a clear separation between the executive branch, the legislative and judicial branches. Opponents of constitutional reform, in turn, maintain that the parliamentary system has served Turkey well and argue that the proposed changes will give too much power to the President. This booklet serves as a technical guide to the proposed constitutional changes and provides a summary of the arguments made by the yes and no campaigns regarding each amendment.