CHP deputy Tanrikulu: Turkey constitutional reform proposal ‘a coup against democracy’

Kom News spoke to Sezgin Tanrikulu, a human rights lawyer and MP in the Turkish Grand National Assembly with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), about the constitutional reform package, which will be taken to a referendum in April.

Interview by Alev Yaman*

The AK Party government argues that Turkey needs a new constitution that will unify the country and enable it to deal with terrorism. Does Turkey really need a new constitution?

Of course there is a need for a new constitution. The current constitution was introduced in 1982 in the aftermath of the 12 September 1980 fascist coup. However, what is being proposed today is not a new constitution. Rather, what is being introduced is a constitutional reform package: one that will go completely beyond the remit of the reforms genuinely needed in Turkey today.

What is being proposed is a change of the regime in place in Turkey: taking the country away from a political system based on the principles of pluralism and the separation of powers, towards one where one man’s authoritarian and totalitarian rule holds sway. It has ramifications and significance that extend far beyond the constitution.

As a consequence, [the government] talks about [combating] terrorism and stability as reasons for supporting the constitutional changes. In reality, these changes are being proposed in order to realise Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party’s agenda.

The reality is that there is no need for a constitutional change of this scope in order to fight terrorism or ensure stability. Indeed, what this constitutional reform will bring about is not stability, as is being argued, but rather instability; as it will eliminate pluralism and the separation of powers, and the equilibrium between those powers.  It will take Turkey towards authoritarian, totalitarian, one-man rule.  And this will spell the end of Turkey’s almost century-long struggle for democracy.

Can we say then that rather than resolving its fundamental issues, what the AKP and MHP have deemed ‘a Turkish-style presidency’ will leave the country beset by more problems than it had before?

It is apparent from the fact that it is being described as such that the proposed political regime is being shaped according to the needs of Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party, rather than according to any system found in political science and its academic literature. It is being shaped according to their needs and not Turkey’s; with the future of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party in mind.  It is a separate irony that such a bad regime is being described as ‘Turkish-style’.

As a lawyer, what are the most problematic articles amongst the proposed changes?

All of the proposed articles are problematic.  Above all, there is the fact that executive power will be concentrated entirely in the hands of one man. In the past this power was in the hands of the cabinet of ministers but now it will reside solely with the president.  This is the clearest indication that we are moving towards one-man rule.

At the same time, this one man will also have control over the legislature and judiciary.  This is because elections to the legislature will be held at the same time as presidential elections, meaning that in all likelihood the majority of the legislature will be under the president’s direct control.  Furthermore, he will also be able to control the judiciary as he likes, whether it be through the judges he appoints to the Constitutional Court or by the way the members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors will be selected.

As a consequence, the power [to control] the executive, legislature and judiciary will all be concentrated in [the hands of] one man: in the office of the president. This is the most important thing – the elimination of checks and balances.

The second thing is this: the president of Turkey has traditionally had no ties to any political party. Allowing the president to be a member of a political party will be something that further divides and polarises Turkey.  Making the president a party member is the most dangerous thing from the perspective of Turkey’s pluralistic make-up. It will be a change that polarises, divides and virtually splits Turkey straight down the middle.

Furthermore, the decrees the president will put out that go beyond the scope of the law and the powers that he will retain despite the end of the state of emergency will rapidly distance Turkey from an environment of freedom and democracy.

Is the public properly informed about what is at stake in this referendum given the continuing state of emergency, pressure on the media and arrest of opposition politicians?

A ‘state of emergency’ is the name given to a regime where fundamental rights and freedoms are suspended.  At the moment, fundamental rights and freedoms have been put on hold. The state of freedom of the press is more or less common knowledge right now: dissident journalists are in jail, the dissident press isn’t so much being silenced as being completely shut down and destroyed. At the moment, the organs of the press, such as the print media, visual media and online media, are non-existent.

Freedom of thought and expression are both under a great deal of pressure. There isn’t an environment in which people can freely express their thoughts in Turkey. We know that thousands of people have been made redundant. The co-leaders and representatives of a party that received 6 million votes are in jail. There is a great deal of repression in the east and southeast [of the country]. There is an environment that goes above and beyond that of  a state of emergency. There is a great deal of repression in rural areas. It isn’t clear where ballots will be established.

As a result, it boggles the mind that a change to something like the constitution, which concerns every citizen and determines the relationship between them and the state, could be proposed in the atmosphere of an ongoing state of emergency. I mean, why are they in such a rush?

To propose these changes now, in the aftermath of the 15 July coup attempt, when Turkey’s priorities should be lifting the state of emergency, ensuring normalisation, securing peace at home and abroad, and improving the outlook of the economy, is the epitome of opportunism and a coup against democracy itself. And this sentiment has unfortunately been expressed by the Justice and Development Party, straight from the mouth of the president himself, who has described the coup attempt as a ‘godsend to us’. They want to move towards the regime they desire by taking advantage of the atmosphere created by the state of emergency.

What kind of campaign are you as CHP thinking of running?

We are going to try to communicate our message by all means available to us. We have an advantage in that we will not be appealing for people to vote for a political party, to vote for the 6 arrows. The opposition parties won’t be asking the public to vote for them, they will be asking the public to vote for Turkey: for its unity, togetherness, peace and the coexistence of its people. They will be explaining how this constitution is bad for everyone: for Turks, Kurds, Alevis, Sunnis, for members of all ethnic and religious groups, for all other categories (women, children, the young, the elderly). We will be explaining how it make it more difficult for all of us to live together. Everyone will give their reason for voting no.

You mentioned a rush. Why is the government in a rush?

They could not pass a constitution like this in any other circumstances. As I said before, they are engaging in opportunism off the back of the coup attempt. They are trying to get it passed on the back of their victimhood, by saying look: ‘Turkey can’t be governed like this, can it?’

The thing is, there genuinely is a massive regression in Turkey in terms of domestic policy, foreign policy and the economy. They are trying to get this passed before the data showing this becomes public, before the downward slide is totally exposed. Ultimately economic data influences every voter’s behaviour. They are trying to do this before an economic crisis sets in, before the economic environment gets even worse.

What kind of impact could the proposed executive presidency have on foreign policy?

Turkey will grow distant from the EU. It is already doing so. The EU is uncomfortable about the AKP’s anti-democratic practices. Of course, they do not fully express this discomfort because of the refugee crisis. The refugee crisis has taken EU governments and institutions hostage. As a result, nothing anti-Turkey is really being put on the agenda at the moment. However, I do believe that this will change once the current refugee crisis comes to an end.

It is fair to say that Turkey will be moving away from values such as democracy, justice, peace and freedom. In the end, the regime in Turkey will become just like the many Middle Eastern regimes that we oppose.

* Alev Yaman is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in London. She has worked as a researcher and consultant for a number of organisations specialising in freedom of expression, including Article 19, English PEN and PEN International. Her articles have appeared in the Dissident Blog, Middle East Eye, Al Jazeera, the Fair Observer and Bianet.