Turkey Faces Crossroads Over Constitution

from The Wall Street Journal,

Legislation to concentrate power in the presidency would fundamentally reshape its democracy.

Turkey faces a historic crossroads as lawmakers prepare to debate a controversial bill introduced this weekend to concentrate power in the office of the presidency, at a time when the nation is polarized about whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a force for stability or insecurity. Hours after Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party deputies submitted the legislation that would fundamentally reshape this North Atlantic Treaty Organization member’s democracy, twin suicide bombings ripped through central Istanbul, killing at least 38 civilians and policemen. Kurdish insurgents claimed the attack targeting Turkish security forces. “Whenever Turkey takes a positive step for the future, we are immediately faced with a response of blood, lives, violence, chaos—delivered by terrorist organizations,” Mr. Erdogan said after the attacks, suggesting a correlation between them and the proposed constitutional amendments. The bill before parliament, essentially a referendum over Mr. Erdogan’s rule, threatens to deepen political cleavages that have all but destroyed the ability to rule Turkey through consensus—even as the country faces myriad other critical threats. These include fears of a prolonged economic slump, a counterterrorism fight both at home and across its borders—as well as the fallout from the failed coup this summer. Mr. Erdogan has been ruling by decree under a state of emergency since July, and over the last four months tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested and purged from their state jobs as alleged national security threats. A sizable number of those detained include political opponents and lawmakers. Amid these politically fraught times, the president pushed swiftly to secure one of his most cherished legislative goals: a plan to endow his currently ceremonial office with executive powers similar to those in the U.S. and Russia. To achieve this, senior ruling party leaders, including Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, held secret negotiations with a small group from the nationalist opposition bloc. Together they hashed out Saturday’s 21-article draft bill, legislation that represents one of most substantial efforts to restructure the state since Turkey’s transition to a secular republic from the Ottoman Empire almost a century ago. People close to the president say the changes would bring stability and relief for Turkey’s most popular politician. “This would put Erdogan’s mind at ease. For the past two years, he was concerned about a leadership struggle, a loss of power,” said a government official. “It’ll be good, it’ll bring relief.” The constitutional changes must pass a vote in parliament and then a national referendum, likely held this spring, before coming to effect in 2019.

The ruling AKP is 14 lawmakers short of the 330 votes needed to adopt the legislation and put it to a referendum. It is counting on the 39 Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, deputies to adopt the changes. But nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli could face defections amid an intraparty upheaval. Within the AKP and MHP, some lawmakers have criticized the top-heavy way the legislation was negotiated. Many lawmakers, as well as government officials, said they had little input in the process, while officials from the president’s office were heavily involved, according to people familiar with the talks. Some nationalist lawmakers accused their leader of being beholden to Mr. Erdogan, whom they believe helped Mr. Bahceli beat back a leadership revolt this summer. The MHP and the president’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Should the amendments clear parliament, most observers say Mr. Erdogan, whose popularity rating in local surveys ranges from 50% to 55%, would secure a referendum victory. Mr. Erdogan has won all nine elections and both referendums he contested since 2002.

“The Saturday night bombings will be used along with other contemporary realities to make the case that Erdogan should be armed with full formal executive powers to effectively combat terrorism and other subversive forces in Turkey,” said Anthony Skinner, an analyst covering Turkey at U.K.-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “We know how much experience Erdogan has in gauging the public mood. So he has a good chance of bagging it.”

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