Turkey referendum: Latin Americanization on the road to autocracy

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16th, to vote on a set of constitutional amendments which would change the country’s system of government to presidentialism. Though it seems that in Turkey, the current system is generally referred to as ‘parliamentary’, Turkey has actually been semi-presidential (specifically, premier-presidential) since the country’s first direct presidential election was held in 2014.

The amendments passed the three-fifths legislative majority necessary to put them to referendum with support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Introducing presidentialism has long been president Erdogan’s express wish. The idea has apparently been around in Turkish politics for a while before it was adopted by the Erdogan and his party, AKP. Full presidentialism seems to have been ‘plan A’, so introducing semi-presidentialism (passed in 2007, entering operation in 2014) was perhaps only ever meant as a way-station toward this goal.

The main details of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Establishing presidentialism:

As stated above the president is already elected directly, specifically using a two-round system. The president is to become both head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and fire ministers and the vice president. There is no requirement for the Grand National Assembly to confirm appointments. Executive office is incompatible with assembly membership. Interpolation of ministers is to be removed from the constitution, leaving MPs with written questions.

  1. Legislative powers:

The president is to have veto power over legislation, subject to absolute majority override in the assembly. He is to have the power to issue decrees in “matters concerning the executive power” and regulations “to provide for the enforcement of the laws, provided they are not contrary to them”. These cannot affect fundamental rights, except under a state of emergency; an emergency can be declared by the president without confirmation by the assembly, but the latter must be notified immediately and can shorten or end it at any time. These decree powers are essentially the same as those currently held by the cabinet. The president would also dominate the budgetary process: the complete budget is to be proposed by the president and put to a straight up-or-down vote in the assembly without possibility of amendment, with failure to adopt a budget within a timeframe leading to continuation of previous arrangements.

  1. Term lengths and dissolution power:

The assembly’s term in extended to five years (from the current four) and legislative and presidential elections are to be held concurrently. If the presidency becomes vacant, fresh presidential elections must be held. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections; if the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which presidential and parliamentary election cycles are held concurrently again.

The president is to be limited to being elected twice, but there are some exceptions, the first of which is that a mid-term vacancy-filling election doesn’t count towards the total. The current presidential power to dissolve the assembly is retained, in addition to a new clause which enables the assembly to dissolve itself, by three-fifths majority vote – in either case, fresh elections are held for both president and assembly, who serve new five-year terms. Early concurrent elections triggered by the assembly can always be contested by the president.

  1. Impeachment

The president or any member of the executive is indicted by two-thirds majority in the assembly (upon which many powers, including dissolution, are suspended), which takes the decision on removal to the Supreme Court. A president which has thus been removed is ineligible for re-election.

  1. Judiciary

The acts of the president, previously protected, are now to be subject to judicial review. The structure of the judiciary will not change much – with the role of the president in appointments remaining quite strong. Of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the president is to appoint 6 and the assembly is to appoint 7 (4 of whom must be judges from the highest courts) – for renewable four-year terms. The Council appoints most (two-thirds to three-quarters) of the judges of each of the highest courts, with the rest being appointed by the president directly.

According to the BBC, Erdogan claims that the new system will ‘resemble those in France and the US’. There is clearly little truth to this. First of all, France is semi-presidential, specifically the premier-presidential variant. This means that the prime minister, while appointed by the president, can formally only be removed by the assembly – in other words, what Turkey has now. These amendments would outright abolish the prime ministership and parliamentary responsibility, granting the president (already in a position to play a dominant role in the country’s government) absolute control over the executive branch.

Does that mean that the new system will essentially be the same as the US? Not really. Presidential or not, the proposed system includes numerous features bearing little resemblance the American model of checks and balances. The amendments would invest the Turkish president with extensive constitutional decree powers, allow him to all but dictate the budget, but on the other hand leave him with a substantially weaker veto than the US. The absence of assembly confirmation vote for ministers, not to mention presidential dissolution power, are also alien to the US constitution. Overall, the proposed institutional framework is to bear far greater resemblance to past and present constitutions of Latin America, where assembly confirmation is non-existent, emergency and decree powers are common, while some of the other institutions in question have featured occasionally, e.g. presidential dissolution power (Ecuador, formerly Chile and Argentina) and weaker veto (Brazil, formerly Venezuela).

In any case, the proposed amendments represent an immense consolidation of power in the hands of president Erdogan. It would probably allow him to serve beyond the supposed limit of two five-year terms. Judicial appointments involve a somewhat greater degree of presidential influence over a judiciary that has already lost a great deal of independence in recent years. Judicial review, needless to say, will not amount to much. Furthermore, the requirement for judicial ratification may leave impeachment ultimately toothless even in the unlikely event that the requisite majority were achieved in the assembly. Meanwhile, the weak veto and the assembly’s own (weaker) power to call early elections is unlikely to provide much balance in practice. Though dissolution would entail new elections for both president and assembly, a president armed with the power to dissolve the assembly still seems more likely to have the upper hand in the exceptional situation his party ever lacks a majority there – exceptional because of the country’s majoritarian system, and because the president’s very power of calling early elections enables him to do so opportunistically, as Erdogan did in 2015[1].

The Venice Commission’s report characterises the proposed changes as “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. It certainly feels hard to disagree.


[1] One might add (as the Venice Commission does) the fact that elections will be concurrent, which is certainly true, though, as we have recently seen, it’s certainly possible (though still uncommon) for countries to elect a president in the second round that was not of the legislative majority elected concurrently with the first round (e.g. Argentina, Peru), while more generally, two-round systems cause vote fragmentation in the first round. If elections in Turkey remain competitive, it may be that the two round system will, in the long run, cause fragmentation which will spread to the assembly. Perhaps more likely is that once in a while, the concurrent elections could result in divided government as in the first scenario I mention here. A situation like that might provoke Linzian scenarios, but is probably most likely to simply result in early elections at some point, whose outcome would most likely be a reversion to the regular unified control.

Turkish election, 2015

Turkey is holding general elections on 7 June. It is an unusually important election, coming as it is after the first direct presidential election. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking parliamentary support to amend the constitution to make the presidency far more powerful–currently it is mostly ceremonial. For that he needs either his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to win two thirds of the seats, or to have willing coalition partners that would get a constitutional amendment bill to two thirds.

This time around, a potentially significant party for the Kurds is running. In past elections, Kurdish candidates have generally run as independents. According to Henri J. Barkey, in Foreign Policy, the AKP is polling in the low forty-percent range. The main party of the Kurdish minority, People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is polling anywhere from 8.5% to 11.5%. Which end of that range the HDP ends up in is critical, because Turkey uses a 10% nationwide threshold.

In 2007, I questioned whether the Turkish system even should be considered democratic, because of its very high threshold, combined with district-level allocation of all seats. That is, there is a system of 550 seats divided among 80 or so constituencies, for a mean district magnitude of around 7. However, even if a party wins sufficient votes to to get seats in one or many of these districts, it actually will get no seats at all if it has not won 10% nationwide. I have previously offered some egregious examples of district-level results generated by this combination of districting and nationwide threshold. Independents, however, can and often do win seats–many of these have been informally affiliated with Kurdish parties that couldn’t win 10% nationwide but could elect some “non-party” candidates in specific districts where their supporters are concentrated.

In 2011, I did some calculations meant to estimate how many parties should be expected based on this system. Over the 1995-2007 period, the averages are about what my estimates implied they should be. I concluded that maybe the system was bifurcating into two parallel systems–one of parties passing the 10% threshold, and another of non-party MPs representing Kurds and other interests.

The 2015 election will be a major test of both the representativeness of the electoral system and the strategy of the HDP. If the party clears 10%, it can hold the balance of power and force Erdogan to make concessions to the Kurdish minority in order to get his presidential powers.* If HDP fails, the AKP will probably get a manufactured two-thirds majority and be able to govern and amend the constitution at will. And, in that event, the Kurds will be worse off for not even having a bloc of independent legislators present in the parliament. For their sake, and the sake of Turkish democracy (such as it is, I hope the HDP and Kurdish leaders know what they are doing. As Barkey, the worst thing would be for the HDP to just miss the threshold, and AKP to get two thirds.

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* Some weeks ago, I recall seeing an article in the Economist that suggested Erdogan was intending to strike just such a deal. The tenor of Barkey’s Foreign Policy piece is quite different. I don’t know the Turkish situation well enough to know which is likely.

Presidentialization in Turkey

As previously discussed at F&V, Turkey has made the constitutional change from parliamentary to premier-presidential system. The country’s first-ever direct election of the presidency is on 10 August (first round).

A headline today is a nice summary of the sort of things presidentialization can do to political parties: “Turkey’s secular opposition endorses devout Muslim for president“.

The two parties in question, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), would be unlikely to have nominated for prime minister someone like Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, described as “devout Muslim tasked with winning votes from the AKP’s traditionally pious electorate”. They also would have been somewhat unlikely to forge a pre-electoral coalition. However, given the need to appeal to the median voter against the incumbent Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be seeking to move to the directly elected presidency, the opposition parties have devised a new vote-seeking strategy.

As the news item also makes clear, not everyone in the parties is happy about it. Yes, I have seen this sort of thing before…