The parliament passed amendments to seven articles in the constitution in a second round of voting in the early hours of Thursday, and is expected to continue voting on the remaining articles on Friday.
Legislators have so far approved amendments that increase the number of MPs from 550 to 600, lower the minimum age for serving in the assembly to 18, mandate holding presidential and parliamentary elections every five years, and allow the president to maintain his affiliation with his party.
Government critics say the reforms will undermine democracy in Turkey, which has already faced many challenges including terror attacks, an insurgency in Kurdish areas in the east of the country, a stalled economy and a wide-ranging crackdown in the aftermath of an attempted coup last July that has been extended to political dissidents and journalists.
Opposition parties say the reforms will usher in an era of authoritarian rule and cement the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party’s hold on power. Under the new constitution, Erdoğan will be able to stand in two more election cycles, potentially governing as a powerful executive until 2029.
Aylin Nazliaka, an independent legislator, handcuffed herself to a microphone on the rostrum in parliament to protest against the reforms, forcing the deputy speaker to twice call a recess and halt debate for more than an hour.
During the recess, a group of female legislators from Erdoğan’s party tried to convince Nazliaka to end her protest, while counterparts from the opposition pro-Kurdish party surrounded the rostrum to support her. TV footage showed several politicians coming to blows – the third such time that fighting had broken out since deliberations on the proposed amendments began.
Supporters of the reforms say Turkey needs to revise its outdated constitution, drafted in 1982 under military tutelage. They say a strong executive, often compared by pro-government pundits to the system in France or the US, will help to prevent having to form fractious coalition governments whose instability and policies in the 1990s drove Turkey into deep recession.
Erdoğan became the first president to be elected by direct popular vote in 2014, after a campaign in which he pledged to use his power to reform the system. His supporters point to the legitimacy conferred upon him by his election.
“You have a president elected by the people, you have a government or parliament elected by the people, so to overcome all this duality and all of that, the new system will provide clearer and more efficient form of governance as you have in most presidential systems,” said İbrahim Kalın, a spokesman for Erdoğan.
“Now, as you don’t call the presidential system authoritarian necessarily in the US and Mexico or other places, or in France where you have a semi-presidential system, there doesn’t have to be an authoritarian presidential system in Turkey either. There are checks and balances there.”
MPs are expected to continue voting on the remaining amendments on Friday, in a second round mandated by the constitution. If all of the articles pass, parliament will vote on the package of reforms as a whole.
The ruling AK party and its allies in parliament, the nationalists, have enough votes between them for only a simple majority, so the bill is likely to have to be put to a referendum in the spring.
Polls have varied widely in estimating the support for the reforms, suggesting the electorate is polarised. A plebiscite would inevitably be seen as a referendum on Erdoğan himself, a towering figure in Turkish politics. The party he founded has steadily increased its share of the popular vote, securing nearly 50% of the ballots cast in the last parliamentary polls in late 2015.
Critics say the president has become increasingly authoritarian, pointing to the wide-scale purge of the bureaucracy, academia, the military, judiciary and police in the wake of the failed coup, and a crackdown on dissident media outlets, many of which have been shut down or taken over by trustee boards in a sign of his intolerance for dissent.
Tens of thousands of people have either been dismissed or detained in the months since the coup, many accused of harbouring sympathies for Fethullah Gülen, a US-based preacher whose movement is accused of masterminding the coup attempt, or the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organisation designated as a terror group in the US and Europe.
Other amendments the MPs will vote on include measures to abolish the post of prime minister and allow the president to appoint vice-presidents in charge of different aspects of governance, an amendment to allow for the head of state’s impeachment, and another to allow parliament to repeat elections.
Author: Kareem Shaheen