CEFTUS briefing on the proposed changes to the Turkish constitution


Proposed changes to Turkey’s constitution have met with criticism and support, and will have powerful impacts on Turkey’s future

  • The details of proposed constitutional changes have been agreed; the AKP-MHP agreement means the changes could pass to referendum early next year
  • Critics warn the changes would damage democracy and social cohesion, while proponents say they are exactly what Turkey needs in trying times
  • Political security could allow the president to manage Turkey’s domestic and international military conflicts
  • Fears of erosions to democracy and the rule of law could negatively impact Turkey’s economic outlook

On Saturday 10 December, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented a series of proposed changes to the country’s constitution. Now that the proposal is ready, talks with the Constitutional Commission will begin on 20 December, paving the way for a vote in parliament. If all goes to plan, the referendum would be held in spring of next year.

This followed weeks of negotiations with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) over the substance of the changes. The MHP has offered conditional support in the vote in parliament needed to put the changes to a national referendum (see our previous briefing on the AKP-MHP deal). To put constitutional changes to a referendum, the proposal requires 330 of 550 votes in parliament. To implement the changes without holding a referendum requires 367 votes. The AKP currently has 317 MPs. Provided all its MPs toe the party line, the AKP will need to find 13 more votes to have the referendum held. The MHP has 39 MPs in parliament, at least half of whom are expected to vote against the constitutional changes. It could still be tight.

The proposed changes are extensive but the overarching theme is a concentration of powers in the presidency. These developments are the fruit of many years of work on the part of the president and his allies to introduce a ‘presidential system’. The president and his supporters argue that for Turkey to overcome the various problems it currently faces, a stronger president will be crucial. Pro-government pundits have argued that national unity requires strong leadership and that Turkey faces unprecedented challenges. The changes would lead to faster decision making and greater political stability.

Critics of the constitutional changes have claimed such a concentration of power and the type of powers that the president would be allowed could lead to a backsliding of democracy in Turkey. One critic warned that system proposed would be a majoritarian constitution and could consequently damage social cohesion and compromise, moving away from the more universally participatory system introduced by the AKP in its last set of constitutional changes.

Critics have said that the changes will give so much power to the president that Turkey would effectively be constantly under the state of emergency rule in which it currently finds itself, as the president would be able to make decrees with lasting effect (as opposed to the end of the state of emergency, as is currently the case). There would be no need for other decision-making structures, critics claim, leading to a danger of arbitrariness in decision-making.

Under the proposed system, the president would be directly elected. He or she could appoint or fire ministers without parliament, prepare the budget, control parliament spending, confirm and veto laws, appoint a large portion of judges, among many other powers. Notably, the president would be able to have elections held whenever he or she would want. Under the proposed system, if a presidential election occurs during the president’s second term, he or she could run again. This effectively means that under this system a president could potentially hold office for almost three full terms.

With conflicts just across its borders, dozens of attacks in its cities, an ongoing domestic conflict, Turkey is faced with many challenges. Given the sensitivity of the Kurdish issue, resolving Turkey’s domestic conflict may necessitate a stronger president with more political security. During the last attempt at peace talks, then prime minister, now President Erdogan, saw off criticism that he was giving into violent Kurdish groups. Now, with so much animosity around the issue, re-starting peace talks will take even greater political strength. Moreover, Turkish armed forces are now operating within Syria. Decisive leadership could help bring this issue as well to a conclusion that is healthy for Turkey.

On the other hand, commentators and international investors, whose sentiments play a large role in dictating or perhaps reflecting the health of the Turkish economy, due to its reliance on FDI, have expressed concern over the system. Their concerns are to do with upholding the rule of law, democratic standards and the potential for arbitrariness in decision-making. Thus, the constitutional changes could have a harmful effect on Turkey’s already troubled economy.


15 December 2016

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