Turkey’s parliament on January 21 approved constitutional reforms that, subject to a "yes" vote in a referendum, will pave the way for an executive presidential system that critics argue would have sweeping authoritarian powers.
Senior figures from the ruling AKP party have suggested that the referendum on the constitutional package could be held on April 2 or April 9.
The parliamentary debate on the controversial changes several times led to violent clashes between MPs, with one MP handcuffing herself to the chamber's rostrum on January 19.
The constitutional bill, which conceivably could allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stay in power until 2029, was approved with 339 votes in the 550-seat parliament.
The AKP argues that the presidential system will bring about more political and economic stability at a time when the country is still struggling to recover from the failed coup attempt of July last year and faces security threats from the so-called Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
But the opposition claims that executive presidential rule would only further undermine democratic institutions in a country that already lacks a proper set of checks and balances.
The governing party is confident of winning the upcoming popular vote. The “yes” camp includes the AKP and the opposition nationalist MHP, which garnered 11.9% of the vote in the parliamentary elections in November 2015 that delivered a landslide victory for the AKP. The ruling party received 49.48% of the vote in that poll.
The main opposition centre-left CHP, which attracted 25.3% of the vote in the last general election, and the pro-Kurdish HDP, which took 10.75%, are against the presidential system.
The state of the economy will be one of the hotly contested issues during the referendum campaign.
Strong economic figures have helped the AKP win successive elections since 2002, when it first came to power. But the economy has lost steam since the failed coup attempt in July last year. In the third quarter of 2016, Turkey’s economy suffered its first contraction in seven years. The unemployment rate hit a six-year high of 11.8% in October. And the currency remains volatile. The lira has lost nearly 7% of its value against the US dollar since the start of the year. High inflation is another headache for the ruling AKP.
Despite all these challenges, the AKP is counting on Erdogan’s leadership skills to win the popular vote. The opposition bloc lacks a leader as charismatic as Erdogan. The CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat, has proven no match for Erdogan. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the HDP, is currently in jail on terrorism-related charges.
Opinion polls in Turkey are unreliable and should be taken with a pinch of salt. A survey carried out in January by polling company ORC predicted that 62% would vote in favour of the presidential system in the upcoming referendum, while another pollster, Sonar, put the figure at 42.3%.
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