Turkey approves 'suicidal bill' to switch to presidential system

Turkey approves 'suicidal bill' to switch to presidential system
The Turkish parliament approved a draft bill on Saturday that could give the president more powers, in what critics describe as a suicidal move.
4 min read
21 January, 2017

The Turkish parliament approved a draft bill on Saturday that would dramatically expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meaning the country will vote on changing the constitution later this year.

The parliament approved the 18-article constitution in a final vote with 339 "yes" votes; 142 MPs voted against the bill.

The government insists the proposals to create an executive presidency will ensure simpler and more effective administration but critics say it will give Erdogan more power that is unchecked.

Each article was put to a vote in the 550-seat parliament, where the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoys a comfortable majority. At least 330 votes - a three-fifths majority - were needed to adopt the constitutional change. 

Immediately after the bill was approved, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the "last word" would be had by the people in a referendum, expected to be held in April.

"No one should have any doubt of this, on the issue of constitutional change, the most correct decision will certainly be given by the people."

The bill would create an executive presidency for the first time in modern Turkey and give the president the power to appoint and fire ministers.

In addition, the post of prime minister will be abolished for the first time in the country's history and replaced by a vice president, or perhaps several.

Kicks, punches exchanged

The debates have been fractious and the assembly has witnessed some of the worst fighting in years including clashes on Thursday night after an independent lawmaker, Aylin Nazliaka, handcuffed herself to the microphone on the platform in the assembly.

AKP lawmakers tried to remove Nazliaka but MPs from the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and Republican People's Party (CHP) sprang to her defence, and punches and kicks were exchanged.

The changes won the support of most MPs from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has been accused of taking bribes from the AKP.

Yildirim earlier told reporters in Ankara that those accusing the MHP leader Devlet Bahceli of taking bribes "do not know him". 

The bill would allow parliamentary elections and presidential ballots to be held at the same time, with the draft giving November 3, 2019 as the poll date.

On Friday, Yildirim said the changes would allow for a "sole power that would be strong", meaning a more decisive approach to solving problems.

"There would be no weakness in fighting terror (or)... on economic issues," Yildirim said in an interview with TRT Haber broadcaster.

The proposed changes will also widen the scope of conditions in which the president can declare an emergency and will allow for a period of six months initially, up from the previous 12 weeks.

Turkey has been under a state of emergency for almost six months following the July 15 failed coup that tried to overthrow Erdogan.

It was extended earlier this month meaning that campaigning for the referendum will take place under the emergency, raising concerns among human rights groups.

Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director of Human Rights Watch, said she feared the public would not be sufficiently informed about the implications of the bill: "There is no possibility under a state of emergency for an effective public debate in the media about the changes that are being brought in."

'Not reform but suicide'

Opponents accused Erdogan of marching towards authoritarian rule, comparing the executive presidency to sultans of the Ottoman Empire.

Sinclair-Webb said the new system could not be compared with other countries like France or the United States, despite the government's insistence.

"In both the US and France, you have strong checks and balances on the power of the president, but according to the Turkish model that is outlined in this amendment, you don't have any such check on presidential power," she told AFP.

President of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (UTBA) Metin Feyzioglu criticised the changes, saying they harked back to the country's Ottoman history. 

"This new system is not unknown to us, because we have been ruled for 600 years in this way. It has a name which is sultanate."

He added: "It is not a reform but suicide and the people will not commit suicide."