The AK Party will kick off its official “yes” campaign this weekend for the constitutional changes to switch to the presidential system. The referendum scheduled for April 16 represents the culmination of a process that started with the constitutional crisis of 2007. At that time, the military and civilian bureaucratic establishment opposed the candidacy of the AK Party leadership for presidency by requiring a two-thirds quorum and 367 votes in the parliament. The secularist establishment made its preference clear: a candidate whose wife wore a headscarf had no place being the president of the republic. The AK Party went to the people through a snap election and came back with an election victory, with Abdullah Gül as its presidential candidate. To resolve the constitutional crisis, a subsequent constitutional amendment opened the way for the president to be elected by popular vote, beginning with the end of President Gül’s seven-year term. Ironically, the constitutional crisis of 2007 created by the military and civilian establishment would produce the first popularly elected president.
In the pre-2007 system, the office of the president was meant to be part of the establishment that would prevent the elected governments, led by the prime minister, from wielding actual power. After the election of the president by popular vote, however, this structure was no longer tenable. The presidential candidates ran political campaigns on political platforms and election promises to the people. Previously, the system was designed to give the president broad powers to function as a check on the popularly elected government in favor of the establishment. In other words, the office of the president was meant to obstruct the executive power’s efforts, especially when the interests and ideology of the establishment was perceived to be threatened. With the proposed changes, the president will assume an executive role, representing the majority of the people, rather than the narrow interests of the ruling establishment as envisioned by the 1980 constitution.
Ever since the election of President Erdoğan, in 2014, by popular vote, the political system had two elected heads of government with overlapping powers that have placed stress on Turkey’s political system. This situation is untenable even when both elected leaders are from the same party. Thus, it has become necessary to adjust the constitution to resolve the issue of distribution of powers between the offices of the president and the prime minister. The April 16 referendum is intended to respond to this incompatibility particularly after successive attempts to write a fully civilian constitution in the parliament proved impossible. The failure of the past efforts to draft a new constitution from scratch make this major, yet, evolutionary constitutional change necessary. Moreover, the July 2016 failed coup attempt demonstrated once again that civilian supremacy over the old bureaucratic tutelage was yet to be accomplished. The April 16 referendum promises to fully undo the role of the president as the protector of the status quo and the old elite, an anti-democratic role given to the President by the 1980 coup constitution.
It is no coincidence that many Turkish political leaders have, in the past, advocated for a change to the presidential system. It has not been possible largely because of their lack of political support comparable to the support the AK Party commands. Those leaders understood that the popularly elected governments were often kept at bay in terms of the major issues of the country, especially those in the national security and foreign policy area. The military and civilian bureaucratic tutelage would not allow civilian governments to rule although they would have to face the electorate at the elections. The April 16 referendum represents a turning point in this often-dangerous competition between the establishment and the popular will. If the office of the president is elected by popular vote, then it must be allowed to implement policies and be responsible to the people in elections. It makes no sense for a popularly elected president to serve as a bastion of the old tutelary system against popularly elected governments.
Past constitutional changes have passed primarily because Turkish voters understood that the 1980 coup constitution was not designed to allow popular will to be reflected in the government. The April 16 referendum is yet another opportunity to reform the governing system to render it more accountable to the people. Most recent polls give the “yes” campaign an edge in this process, although the campaign is only getting started. If the voters approve of the proposed constitutional changes, Turkey will have made the most fundamental and consequential changes to the government system since 1980. The tutelage system designed by the military and bureaucratic elites has given Turkey many interruptions in the form of military coups, as recently as the July 2016 failed coup attempt. It has also led to constitutional crises such as the 2007 constitutional crisis. The proposed changes of the April 16 referendum will help establish civilian supremacy over the political system, prevent constitutional crises, and eliminate bureaucratic confusion caused by two elected leaders at the helm of the state. The referendum is an opportunity for Turkey to reform its political institutions and rid its governing structures of their traditionally tutelary character.