Turks are getting ready to vote for a constitutional amendment, which has rekindled the deep divisions within society about the future of democracy at a critical time for the country. The amendments are backed by Turkey’s ruling party, the mildly religious and conservative Justice and Development party (AKP).
Its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has spearheaded the “Yes” campaign for Sunday’s vote, even warning Turkey’s business leaders that “those who remain impartial shall be sidelined”. He contends that the granting of union rights for civil servants, the right of individual recourse to the Constitutional Court and the establishment of an independent ombudsman amount to a radical overhaul of Turkish democracy.
But the opposition asserts that the core objective of the package is to allow the government to exert more control over the judiciary. By changing the set-up of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, the opposition argues the AKP aims to bring the judiciary under its control, thus extending its dominance over almost all state institutions.
This fear reflects a major and structural shortcoming of Turkish democracy: the lack of a strong and reliable system of checks and balances on political power. In Turkey, the military had in the past assumed this role. That is how the army was essentially able, with popular support, to oust unpopular governments. The age of this undemocratic leeway enjoyed by the armed forces has now come to an end. As the army’s power wanes, however, the need to strengthen the democratic alternatives for providing a counterweight to executive power is ever more pressing.
In parliamentary systems where the executive already controls the legislature, this is essentially ensured by an independent judiciary and a free media. The AKP’s record on protecting media freedoms and pluralism is poor. Not only has it striven to nourish an unabashedly pro-government media, it has also induced remaining media groups to tone down their criticism as witnessed by the politically motivated $2.5bn dollar tax fine imposed against the Dogan group.
As for the judiciary, the AKP contends that the amendments will break the outdated tradition of allowing the judiciary to interpret the law in a way that favours the state over the individual. In other words, for the AKP the problem with the judiciary is over its impartiality rather than its independence.
The proposed treatment, however, is at odds with this diagnosis. The amendments do not enshrine measures that may be relevant for addressing this shortcoming: there are no new rules for ensuring lawyers, judges or prosecutors become versed in the liberal tradition of legal practice. Instead, the amendments introduce procedural changes to the appointments of supreme justices allowing more to be appointed by the president and the legislative branch from state institutions controlled by the executive branch. An independent but ideological judiciary may thus be transformed into a dependent and possibly equally ideological entity. The independence is further undermined by allowing the minister of justice to remain at the helm of the supreme board of judges and prosecutors, which has the overall responsibility for the supervision of the judiciary.
Turkish leaders are fond of presenting the country as a unique model combining modernity, democracy and Islam. The attractiveness of this model, which underpins the country’s growing regional influence, depends on the sustainability of these credentials. A genuine democracy however needs rules and institutions to limit the government’s freedom of action. Devoid of such a crucial system of checks and balances, Turkish democracy runs the risk of being taken hostage by elected but authoritarian leaders. This would constitute a significant setback for a democracy that has laboured for years to replace the cult of a strong and unimpeded leader by a shared belief in institutions and the rule of law.
Such a development would not only distance Turkey from its traditional partners in the west and give new ammunition to the Turkey-sceptics in the EU but would also significantly undermine the burgeoning soft power of Ankara.