Editor’s Note: Ibrahim Kalin is spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
On Sunday, Turkey will hold a referendum to vote on 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish Constitution, including the adoption of a presidential system of government.
In recent months, much has been said about the proposed changes. Some critics have claimed the reforms would lead to one-man rule. Others have complained about the perceived weakening of checks and balances. And some critics have falsely accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of accumulating “new” powers such as appointing Cabinet ministers – which he already approves as president anyway.
By contrast, the constitutional reform bill represents a step in the right direction: a more resilient democracy, a stronger economy and increased checks and balances with a clear separation of powers.
Since 1960, at least four elected governments in Turkey have been removed from power by the military. The parliamentary system, which the coup plotters designed to keep a lid on popular demands, tends to produce short-lived and unstable coalition governments.
Over recent decades, politicians from across the spectrum have acknowledged the shortcomings of Turkish-style parliamentarianism and its tendency to create deadlocks – which have crippled the economy, weakened confidence in civilian politics and paved the way to military interventions.
A case in point was the 1980 coup d’etat, which took place, incidentally, after the Turkish parliament had failed to pick the country’s next president after 115 rounds of voting.
The Nationalist Movement Party’s founder, Alparslan Turkes, along with former Presidents Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel, were among the many advocates of presidentialism since the 1970s.
For years, Erdogan has been a strong advocate of constitutional reform. As early as 2007, his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, drafted a new constitution but was unable to move forward with the plan. The same year, a constitutional referendum was held to introduce presidential elections by popular vote for the first time.
In 2011, an all-party commission was formed at the parliament to facilitate dialogue between Turkey’s major political movements, which would eventually dissolve the body after reaching an agreement on 60 articles, to draft a new constitution. Again in 2015, the AKP attempted unsuccessfully to jump-start the reform process. Finally, in the wake of last summer’s coup attempt, the Nationalist Movement Party announced it would support the AKP’s constitutional reform bill to address the structural problems with the current system of parliamentarianism. On Sunday, the decade-long debate could end with meaningful reform.
If adopted, the bill will abolish the prime ministry and unite the executive branch under the President. Since Turkish presidents are required to win the popular vote to be elected, the proposed system of government effectively eliminates the threat of political turmoil caused by weak coalition governments.
Keeping in mind that Italy changed its electoral laws in 2015 to put an end to coalition governments, it is only reasonable for Turkish citizens take similar steps and address the existing system’s structural flaws.
Another important point is that Turkey’s stability benefits the entire region. In recent years, the Turkish government was able to take swift and effective action to stem the refugee flow to Europe, deal heavy blows to ISIS in Syria and provide intelligence to foreign governments about international terror threats due to the presence of a single-party government and a like-minded President at the helm.
If the referendum passes, future governments will be able to govern the country with similar effectiveness.
Constitutional reform will also help keep the Turkish economy healthy. Historically, the economy has thrived during periods of political stability and suffered under unstable coalition governments.
Stable governments have been able to handle crises more effectively, implement structural reforms in due time and render the investment climate more favorable by increasing predictability.
Under single-party governments, the economy recorded 5.6% annual growth on average – compared with 3.4% overall.
Single-party governments, historical data show, have also attracted more foreign direct investments: Compared with $18 million in 1980, Turkey received $684 million worth of foreign direct investments in 1990, thanks to the presence of Ozal’s single-party governments.
By contrast, the Turkish economy has underperformed under coalition governments. According to World Bank data, in 1994 and 1999, the economy shrank by 4.7% and 3.4%, respectively. Again in 2001, the economy slowed down by 5.7% amid a financial crisis triggered by a public fight between the two heads of the executive branch.
It was only after the AKP came to power and implemented a series of reform bills that the Turkish economy recovered from the shocks.
Finally, the constitutional reform bill aims to strengthen checks and balances. The proposed amendments will give the Turkish parliament unprecedented powers to investigate the actions of sitting presidents – who currently enjoy full legal immunity unless charged with treason — and to remove the president from power by calling for early elections.
Although the president will have the same right, it is important to note that he or she cannot exercise it pending the parliamentary investigation’s completion. If the parliament, furthermore, wishes to overrule a presidential decree, whose scope is quite limited, it only needs to pass a law on the same issue. As a last resort, the people get to settle any disputes between the executive and legislative branches by voting in simultaneous early elections for both offices.
At the same time, the Constitutional Court will continue to review decrees and laws to ensure their constitutionality. Provided that the court’s members serve on the bench for 12 years and retire at the age of 65, it is virtually impossible for any president – even if he or she serves two consecutive terms, or for 10 years – to gain control over it. Likewise, the parliament maintains control over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors – which oversees appointments across the justice system: While the president picks four members of the board’s 13 members, seven members are appointed by the parliament. The justice minister and the undersecretary of the Justice Ministry maintain their roles as natural members of the board.
Sunday’s referendum in Turkey represents a historic step toward democratic resilience, economic stability and a clear separation of powers.
The bill not only addresses structural flaws with the Turkish-style parliamentarianism but also introduces limits on executive power. It aims to promote political stability and keep the economy growing but gives the people and their elected representatives the power to step in at any moment. Although critics would like to paint a dark picture for Turkey’s future, the truth is that both the Turkish people and Turkey’s true allies around the world will be better off if the referendum passes.