Turkey’s Grand National Assembly on Monday approved the first stage of plans to reform its constitution and introduce an executive presidency, significantly increasing the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) amendment package, which looks likely to go to a binding national referendum in the spring, seeks to abolish the post of prime minister, naming the president the official head of the executive with the power to directly appoint cabinet members and senior judges.
Under the new plans, Erdoğan, who has assumed what is currently a largely ceremonial position since 2014, could potentially remain in office as president until 2029. The new constitution would mean Erdoğan would hold executive powers until the next elections in November 2019, before officially beginning the maximum two terms.
Muharrem Erkek, Çanakkale province deputy for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the main opposition party – and a member of the constitutional committee, told Vice News: “I want to express that it is not a presidential system. It is not related to the US presidential system, which is a great example of a democratic presidential system. They [the AKP] want to change the parliamentary regime of Turkey to a ‘one-man regime’. It could eventually create a dictator.”
Erdoğan was the first president to be elected by popular vote in Turkey after serving the maximum three terms as prime minister from 2003.
On the first day of talks, the draft received support from 338 MPs, 8 more than the necessary 330 votes to get the proposals through to the next stage, although it was a narrower victory than expected.
According to Erkek, his party opposes the proposals as they would effectively eliminate the separation of powers – the legislature, executive, and judiciary – and the president would gain too much legislative authority. The president will also have the right to independently declare states of emergency and will be immune to prosecution, he said.
The AKP maintain that the reforms are necessary and that the current system holds back Turkey’s development. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who will lose his position if the draft is approved, told parliament late on Monday that the changes his party is proposing would “completely solve the [country’s] political problems.”
Other amendments would include an increase in the number of MPs from 550 to 600, the lowering of the age at which candidates can run for parliament from 25 to 18 and elections every five years instead of every four. The president, who is currently required to relinquish links to a political party, would also be able to retain ties.
There was unrest at Ankara’s parliament on Monday as police used tear gas and water canon to break up a crowd of hundreds who gathered outside to protest the draft constitution. Inside, politicians were accused of voter intimidation with many choosing to vote openly and some accused of filming the booths of those who those who chose not to – interpreted by critics as a move to persuade the vote.
A final vote on the draft is expected in late January. The AKP, who seat 317 MPs (although the speaker is unable to vote), are short of the 330 needed to take the amendments to referendum and the 367 (or two thirds) to change the constitution outright. However, they have secured support from ultra-nationalist party the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who have 39 seats.
Since failing to gain a supermajority at the November 2015 elections, the AKP, who Erdoğan founded, has been accused of escalating a conflict with Kurdish militants in order to gain support from the MHP – a far-right group.
İlhan Tanır, a Turkish journalist and analyst based in Washington, told Vice News: “These proposed changes will practically move Turkey back 100 years to the first years of the Turkish Republic in which the founder of the republic was untouchable, when Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were still ruling in elsewhere.”
“Now we have a situation, if the governing party gets its way, all of Turkey’s institutions, including judiciary, military and legislative body will be left powerless against the presidency, permanently.”
The talks come as the country is already operating under a state of emergency, allowing Erdoğan to rule by decree. Turkey, which suffered two terror attacks in the first week of 2017, looks set for a tumultuous year as the government has been criticized for widespread purges since a failed coup attempt in July last year as well as crackdowns on the media and freedom of speech. Turkey is now believed to be the largest jailer of journalists in the world.