Last week, we partnered with the Centre for Turkish Studies (CEFTUS) to convene a forum to discuss the constitutional referendum in Turkey that would decide far-reaching reforms to the constitution and consolidate President Erdoğan’s hold on power.
At the joint forum, held at the Unite the Union office in London on Thursday 13th April, Dr Bill Kissane, Associate Professor in Politics at LSE, spelled out exactly what was at stake in the referendum, just days before President Erdoğan would go on to narrowly win the vote to have his proposals adopted, which could see him remain in power until 2029.
During the audience Q&A in which Dr Kissane fielded a number of questions about the outcome of the referendum and the potential implications for the future of Turkey, he commented that, “Perhaps one outcome [of a Yes vote] will be a regime breakdown.… there is an element of desperation in the tactics being used to mobilize people, and the amount of opposition is still quite strong despite the restrictions on opposition.… It is a high-stakes gamble.”
Dr Kissane explained that, because in the Turkish Constitution, the role of President is largely ceremonial, and carries far fewer powers than, for example, in the United States, the extent of the powers are therefore somewhat loosely defined, and this had enabled President Erdoğan to expand them without checks and balances. He went on to say that the proposals under consideration in the referendum were similarly unclearly defined, but that, broadly speaking, they would signal a shift to a presidential system in which:
1.) the President could choose the Executive;
2.) the President and Parliament would be elected on the same day, greatly increasing the probability that the same party would be represented in both the office of the President and the Parliament, and thereby significantly reducing the parliamentary check on presidential power.
Dr Kissane argued that the vote was a “high-stakes gamble” by President Erdoğan to further entrench his grip on power, which has already resulted in thousands of teachers, academics, journalists and civil servants losing their jobs, and the closure of the vast majority of media organizations. Given this context, and the state of emergency imposed in the wake of the failed coup attempt last year and increased sectarian violence following the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process, Dr Kissane demonstrated that concerns over instability and insecurity could be used both to strengthen the case for a strong leader with wide-ranging powers, and to deflect attention from some of the less desirable consequences of the proposals to concentrate power in one person.
He pointed out that the referendum was being held after an unprecedented period of fifteen years of single-party government, and questioned the need for further centralization of power. President Erdoğan subsequently went on to narrowly win the vote on Saturday 16 April, although the result has been called into question by European observers, who have said that the referendum was held on an “unlevel playing field” and in a political environment where fundamental freedoms were curtailed.
The audience engaged in a lively Q&A session following Dr Kissane’s presentation, which covered the relative merits of referendums in deciding aspects of constitutional democracy and the implications of a Yes vote for the future of Turkey.
The forum was held in collaboration with CEFTUS, an independent and non-partisan organization that provides an open forum promoting expert opinions and debates focusing on Turkey-UK relations, foreign affairs, economic issues and social developments in Turkey and the region. A video of the event is available on the CEFTUS Facebook page, and a photo gallery is available on the CEFTUS Flikr account.
The event was convened to launch Dr Kissane’s FLJS Policy Brief, What Is at Stake in the Turkish Constitutional Referendum?, which was published last month following a workshop examining the growing trend towards populist, ’post-liberal’ constitutionalism across Europe, the US, and elsewhere in recent years. A policy brief on the French Presidential election has also been published as a result of this workshop, and a series of other policy briefs covering illiberal currents in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere will be published in the coming weeks.
What Is at Stake in the Turkish Constitutional Referendum? is available to download from our Publications pages, and a limited number of copies are available on a discretionary basis to interested institutions and individuals. To request a copy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.