Will Erdogan manage to change the constitution in 2016?

Will Erdogan manage to change the constitution in 2016?
6 min read
07 Jan, 2016
Comment: Turkey's leader wants more than just a figurehead job, and could risk destabilising his country to boost the role of the presidency, writes John Lubbock.
Erdogan seeks to change Turkey's constitution to grant more powers to himself [Getty]

President Erdogan's AK Party may have won the second run-off election with an outright majority in November, but it still fell short of the super-majority required to force a referendum on a new constitution.

In the Turkish political system, 330 MPs are needed to propose constitutional changes and to call for a referendum.

Over the summer, the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish PKK again exploded following a two-year "ceasefire". The nationalist rhetoric pumped out by the pro-AKP media helped Erdogan to win back many votes from the conservative-nationalist MHP, helping Erdogan reclaim a parliamentary majority which had been lost in the June election.

Many Kurds who voted in June also seem to have been absent from the November elections, either voluntarily or due to harsh government security measures.

There is a strong appetite for constitutional change in Turkey

Now, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is meeting with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli to discuss proposed changes to the 1982 constitution written by a military junta. Davutoglu has already met with the leader of the largest opposition party, CHP, which stated it would support the AKP's efforts.

There is a strong appetite for constitutional change in Turkey, but many fear that the changes made by the AKP would entrench Erdogan's power for years to come.

Erdogan has been pushing hard for a presidential system since as far back as 2002.

"Give me 400 MPs and let this matter be resolved peacefully," Erdogan said before the June election. The electorate did not give him his demand, however, and as predicted, the result was political chaos.

From August until the end of December, 143 civilians - including 22 women and 29 children - were killed as a result of the conflict in eastern Turkey, according to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.

This instability has transported Turkish politics back to the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, when the military forcibly evicted Kurdish civilians from villages in order to disrupt the PKK's support network.

The legacy of the military campaign in the Kurdish region contributed to the deepening of support among Kurds for the PKK, and failed to provide a political solution to demands for Kurdish autonomy. It seems likely that a renewal of military operations will prove similarly ineffective and only deepen political divisions further.

Erdogan has repeatedly raised the stakes in his battle with the pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP, whose success in June and November elections prevented AKP from gaining enough seats to change the constitution on its own.

HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş called for the establishment of "democratic autonomous regions" in the south-east of Turkey. He went on to say that an independent Kurdistan could be established "in the next 100 years", a statement which provoked accusations of "betrayal" and "treason" by Erdogan.

"How dare you talk about establishing a state in the southeast and the east within Turkey's existing unitary structure?" he lambasted.

Now Erdogan is seeking to lift the immunity of HDP politicians in order to charge them with political crimes.

He said that the HDP would be "taught a lesson" for "attempting to destroy the unity and integrity of the state", according to Hurriyet. This kind of threat by Erdogan is serious, and brings to mind similar threats to Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül for publishing reports alleging that the Turkish security services had been supplying weapons to hardline Islamist militias in Syria.

Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against Dundar after stating he would pay "a heavy price" for "divulging state secrets". The two journalists now face charges that carry sentences up to life in prison.

When Erdogan makes threats, he means what he says.

The curious thing about the charges against the HDP leaders is that the AKP is proposing constitutional changes which would seem to grant more autonomy to local government, including in the Kurdish region.

This is in line with the European Charter on Local Self-Government, according to the pro-AKP Daily Sabah, which goes as far as to proclaim that this would "definitely fulfill expectations about a permanent solution to the Kurdish question".

Daily Sabah journalists such as Ragip Soylu are convinced that, despite what the HDP says about autonomy, they are just the political branch of the outlawed PKK and are actually seeking an independent state.

However, targeting HDP leaders also has another political purpose for President Erdogan. Removing some of the strongest voices against the presidential system could allow the AKP to push through the changes it wants.

Furthermore, if the AKP gives Kurds more local government under its own terms, it can claim credit for this and expand its already significant support among Kurds. This in turn would reduce support for parties seeking eventual self-determination for Kurds, as Erdogan believes the HDP is doing.

The danger is that by using authoritarian tactics to silence opponents and fanning the flames of civil conflict by imposing curfews, displacing Kurds and killing civilians, Erdogan is allowing regional unrest to slowly spread into Turkey.

It is hard to predict what will come of the current constitutional talks

Renewed conflict with the PKK and the diplomatic tension with Russia has already started to affect tourism, and with the Turkish economy slowing down anyway, Erdogan seems to be risking a lot for changes that most Turks don't want and which only benefit himself.

Now there is a proposal to have separate referenda on a new constitution and on a change to a presidential system. This has not been received well by opposition parties, with the MHP Secretary-General saying it signalled a move to "implement a secret agenda".

Erdogan himself did not help matters when he mentioned "Hitler's Germany" as an example of an effective country with a presidential system.

It is hard to predict what will come of the current constitutional talks, and whether the AKP will be able to offer MHP or CHP anything substantial in return for their support for either a new constitution or an enhanced presidency.

It is in the interests of the opposition to have separate referenda on the constitution and presidential system, while Erdogan's best chance of forcing through increased presidential powers is by combining it with the more popular attempts to amend the outdated national charter.

Erdogan's abilities to get what he wants should not be underestimated. However, given the current lack of trust and the possible spread of clashes between Kurds and the security forces to western Turkey, Erdogan's dream of consolidating power may become a victim of the insecurity his policies have fostered.

John Lubbock is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. He worked for Bahrain Center for Human Rights and directed documentaries on Turkish history and politics, including Istanbul: The Politics of Architecture and 100 Years Later.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.