The 18-article bill was passed by parliament last month without garnering the two-thirds majority needed to become law. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s approval allows the proposed constitutional changes to go to a public vote.
Senior Turkish officials have said the referendum is likely to take place on 16 April.
The constitutional overhaul would allow Erdoğan to run for two more terms in office, potentially governing as a powerful executive until 2029. It is backed by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and its nationalist allies in parliament.
Government critics fear the proposed changes will usher in an era of authoritarian one-man rule, with few checks and balances on the president by a loyalist parliament, allowing Erdoğan to consolidate power amid a large-scale purge of civil servants and a crackdown on opposition media and political parties.
The president’s supporters say an executive presidential system would do away with the instability of the messy parliamentary coalitions that drove the country into economic meltdown in the 1990s and instead build a “strong Turkey”. They also say the change will fix a longstanding conflict of authority between the president and prime minister that was enshrined in the constitution drafted by the military after the 1980 coup.
The debate has added to tensions in an already polarised country, which is still under emergency law. Pro-government surrogates in the media have repeatedly said terror groups including Isis and Kurdish insurgents would benefit were the bill to be defeated in a nationwide poll. Opponents have warned of a path to dictatorship.
The changes in the bill include abolishing the post of prime minister, giving the president greater power to shape the judiciary in addition to the cabinet, lowering the minimum age of parliamentarians to 18 and expanding the size of the assembly. The president would be able to dissolve the parliament, but the chamber could also demand a new presidential election.
“There are so many reasons we oppose it, but the main reason is that the democratic regime in Turkey will be replaced with one-man rule,” said Bülent Tezcan, an opposition MP with the Republican People’s party (CHP), who took part in constitutional committee meetings in parliament.
Tezcan said the amendments would grant the president power over the executive, the judicial branches – because he would be able to appoint some of the top judges – and the parliament – because he will also retain his post as the head of his party, choosing who runs for elections.
Muhammet Emin Akbaşoğlu, a politician from the AKP and also a member of the constitutional committee, said experts had long argued that a presidential system was best for Turkey. That system, he said, would do away with relics of the military constitution imposed on the country in the early 1980s, erase the instability of coalition governments, and resolve longstanding conflicts in the authorities granted to the president and prime minister.
“We consider this change an action of direct democracy [in that] it gives people sovereignty in a more direct way,” he said. “There will be more stability, Turkey won’t lose time any more, the uncertainties and things that can cause instability will be gone, and the state apparatus will shed weight, loosing its poorly functioning parts.”
Turkey is reeling from a series of deadly terror attacks, as well as the aftershocks of a coup attempt in July. Tens of thousands of people have been dismissed from their posts in the government, media, academia, police, military and civil service over alleged ties to the Gülenist movement, a group led by a US-based preacher accused of masterminding the coup attempt.
There are also fears over the role of the nationalists, who have been emboldened in their alliance with the AKP by the passage of the bill. The nationalists are generally opposed to a peace settlement with Kurdish insurgents and have a poor record on minority rights. Secularists fear the fallout from an increasing focus on Islamist and nationalist causes.
Author: Kareem Shaheen