Author: Natig NAZIMOGLU Baku
Turkey has recently launched official referendum campaign with regard to constitutional amendments initiated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The nation-wide voting is scheduled for April but even now significant events are unfolding around the referendum, both domestic political and foreign policy, which can determine the future role and place of Turkey in the European and world arena.
The constitutional package includes 18 amendments. The main objective is to strengthen substantially the institution of the president, who currently performs mainly representative functions. The head of state, namely the president, will also be the head of the executive branch. Therefore, it is expected that the post of prime minister will be abolished by 2019. The president will also receive a right to issue decrees, declare a state of emergency, appoint ministers and other high-ranking officials, prepare the state budget and submit it to parliament, and, most importantly, dissolve the parliament itself. In addition, the president will be given a right not to interrupt his membership in the party for the period of execution of his powers as the head of state and government. Thus, the Turkish president, the founder and actual leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be able to lead his party "left" in 2014 again.
In general, it is all about the transformation of Turkey from a parliamentary to the presidential republic. According to supposed amendments, the presidential term will be extended to five years with the possibility of re-election for a second term, as in the current version of the Turkish Constitution. This will allow the current head of state to run for the highest office in the country in 2019 for five years and then go for re-elections. According to Article 11 of the new version of the Constitution, if the parliament makes changes in the system of presidential elections, the incumbent president running for the second term, will be able to be elected for a new term as well.
Thus, it is the most ambitious change in the country’s Constitution since the time of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The ruling party, AKP, considers the strengthening of presidential power as a key instrument to strengthen the entire government mechanism. It is no coincidence that Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said while officially launching the agitation campaign in support of the upcoming constitutional amendments: "We are making the first steps towards a mighty Turkey" capable of "overcoming the terrorist threats and making the economy reliable".
The motivation for constitutional reforms is indeed very relevant. Turkey is experiencing rather unfortunate economic challenges, and most importantly an unprecedented level of the fight against terrorism, which resulted in the war in almost two fronts: against the PKK (Workers' Party of Kurdistan) and the “Islamic State". In July 2016, the country faced a coup attempt, in the organization of which official Ankara accuses an illegal "parallel force" led by the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who resides in the United States. It is life in the context of the fight against terrorists and rebels that forces the authorities to maintain a state of emergency.
The government claims that the "referendum will be held under any circumstances" and its holding in the state of emergency is "not causing concern." The opposition, meanwhile, fears that in a state of emergency the outcome of the vote will not be able to fully reflect the will of the people.
Sociological researches do not provide an unambiguous answer to the question of risk degrees, which Erdogan accepted persistently promoting the idea of transforming Turkey into a presidential republic. Two leading sociological services of the country - Gur's A&G Research and Metropoll received the opposite results of their surveys. If, according to a poll conducted by Gur's A&G Research, 52% of voters will vote for the adoption of constitutional amendments, Metropoll's report indicates that 51% are ready to vote against. Experts believe that the position of supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (NMP) with 12% of seats won in the parliamentary elections of 2015 and who actually entered into a coalition with the ruling AKP, will play a decisive role. However, sociological studies show that at least half of the supporters of the NMP are against constitutional reforms.
Meanwhile, opponents of constitutional changes in Turkey are not only a part of its citizens. The process of preparing for a referendum is accompanied by foreign policy pressure on the country's leadership. This aspect is closely connected with the role of Ankara in modern global and regional geopolitics, in the context of which the alienation between Turkey and the West grows.
Serious differences of historical allies
Constitutional initiatives of the AKP are criticized by various European institutions, primarily the EU and the Council of Europe. Europe has clearly marked its disagreement with prospects of excessive strengthening of presidential powers in Turkey. In particular, the report of the Venice Commission on constitutional changes in Turkey confirms this approach. According to the Turkish Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag, the report aims to "influence the referendum, as well as to encourage people to vote against it".
Extremely sharp and unethical statements of some European politicians, which have recently become even more frequent, also evidence tensions between Turkey and Europe.
But most of all, the growing tension in relations between Ankara and Berlin manifest the Turkish-European crisis. They escalated after the arrest in Istanbul of a Turkish journalist, Deniz Yucel, who has previously published materials compromising the Turkish Energy Minister, Erdogan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak in the German Die Welt. Ankara believes that the materials were handed over to Yucel by the German intelligence. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, demanded that the Turkish leadership respect freedom of the media and release Yucel.
However, a much larger gap in Turkish-German relations shaped when Berlin became a refuge for Kurdish activists, who Ankara considers as terrorists. In addition, according to the Turkish authorities, Germany is expanding ties with the organizations of Syrian Kurds, which operate as part of the terrorist PKK.
Finally, another extremely painful moment for the AKP government was in January 2017, when 40 Turkish officers asked for political asylum in Germany because of possible persecution in Turkey. The German authorities did not reject the petition of the military. Recently, Berlin has taken a number of measures that Ankara believes is Germany’s obvious attempts to influence the Turkish internal policy to prevent rather positive outcome of the forthcoming referendum for Erdogan and subsequently to help to isolate Turkey in the European arena.
At first, the German government used a political trick by accusing Turkey of allegedly increasing espionage activity in the territory of Germany. Berlin is therefore concerned the approaching referendum might escalate tensions within the 3.5 million Turkish community in Germany. It is believed that the Turkish diaspora does not have a significant influence on political powers in Turkey. However, the diaspora is a significant factor for Ankara in the sense that the Turks residing in Germany (whether they are citizens of Germany or Turkey) are seen as the main support of Turkey in the EU. Thus, despite this factor (rather, considering it), the German authorities banned the speeches of a number of Turkish representatives, who arrived in Germany with an objective to agitate the Turkish citizens residing there to vote for constitutional amendments. In particular, the authorities of Hamburg canceled the planned event with the participation of the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu "in connection with the inability to provide fire safety measures." In Gaggenau (Baden-Württemberg), the speech of the Turkish Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdag, was canceled. In response, the latter abolished the meeting in Karlsruhe with his German counterpart Heiko Maas. However, the most severe reaction to the actions of the German authorities came from the Turkish President Erdogan, who compared the prohibitions on Turkish politicians with Nazi policies.
Nevertheless, Erdogan's statement did not remain unanswered either. The German Chancellor referred to it as "inappropriate" and "unjustified", and recalled that Berlin and Ankara had "serious differences in the assessment of the scope of freedom of press freedom." These "serious differences", on which the European leaders focus so often, confirm the growing alienation between them and the fact that Turkey, perceived by Europe as an alien element, faces the need to strengthen its own political, economic and military self-sufficiency, and at the same time Search for other forms of civilizational integration.
The next visit of the Turkish president to Russia indicated that the latter was indeed very likely. Incidentally, at a recent meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu (who earlier demanded that Berlin stopped teaching about "human rights”), the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel "let it slip" that the European Union's restrained response to political events in Turkey, in particular to a referendum on constitutional amendments, is caused by fears about Turkey’s rapprochement with Moscow. He has even made it clear that it was the West’s "common interest" not to allow Turkey's further turn to the east.
Therefore, it is worth noting that a number of influential German politicians accuse the EU and the Merkel government of the wrong approach in dealing with Turkey. In particular, the ex-Foreign Minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer, believes that "Merkel makes a strategic mistake with regard to Turkey, pushing her towards Russia." He recommended that Europe not "leave Turkey alone on the brink of Europe and the Middle East" and consider Turkey "the historical ally of Germany."
"Turkish map" of the Dutch policy
The Dutch authorities went even further in demonstrating their resentment towards Turkey. At first, the kingdom rejected the landing of the aircraft with Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was supposed to meet with the Turkish citizens living in the Netherlands. Then, the Rotterdam police stopped the car with the Turkish Minister for Family and Social Policy Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya en-route to the Turkish General Consulate, as she was declared persona non-grata, and deported her to Germany.
Moreover, the police forced the protesters to leave the Turkish General Consulate in Rotterdam, protesting against the measures taken by the Dutch authorities against members of the Turkish government.
Following the return to Istanbul, Kaya described the actions of the Dutch authorities as "illegal, anti-democratic and inhuman." “We had a terrible night in the Netherlands, who consider themselves representatives of freedom and democracy. Our Chargé d'affaires was arrested. Five people from my personal security and my advisers were detained", said Cavusoglu.
President Erdogan promised to take retaliatory measures: "They did not let the Consul General leave the Turkish diplomatic mission. All this shows the rebirth of the Nazism in the West. How can the Dutch authorities explain their actions? Turkey will respond to this. The Dutch authorities will finally learn the rules of diplomacy. "
Cavusoglu demanded an official apology from the Dutch authorities, while noting that Turkey would take retaliatory measures anyway. The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte refused to apologize, saying that his intention is to contribute to the de-escalation of tensions between both countries.
It is difficult to understand the stance of the Dutch authorities, especially when the Old World likes talking about democracy, human rights, and the freedom of assembly. Then, what was the reason of Amsterdam’s refusal to allow Turkish officials to hold meetings with the Turkish diaspora? In fact, it is easy to explain this: the Netherlands is on the eve of parliamentary elections and Rutte tries to get as many votes as possible to prevent the main Eurosceptic, the head of the ultra-right Party of Freedom Geert Wilders from taking the power. To achieve this objective, the ruling party decided to use the "Turkish card".
Unlike the Netherlands, France has demonstrated a more restrained position allowing Cavusoglu to hold meetings with the Turkish community. Moreover, the French Foreign Ministry noted that there were no grounds for banning the meeting of the Turkish Foreign Minister and representatives of the Turkish community in some European countries and called for de-escalation of tensions.
Thus, the course of events shows that the Turkish referendum, as a determining step towards the transformation of the country into a presidential republic is not only an internal political activity but also directly related to the strategic role of Ankara in the world arena.