Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK), yesterday (October 17) voted to go ahead with the planned constitutional referendum on October 21, amid continuing confusion about its legal validity.
The constitutional amendments foreseen in the text that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) originally planned to put to a referendum included: reducing the maximum term of a parliament from five to four years; setting a quorum of one-third of MPs for all parliamentary votes; cutting the presidential term from seven to five years while allowing the president to stand for a second term; and, most critically, introducing a popular vote for the presidency to replace the current system whereby the president is elected by parliament. The main reason for the latter was that the AKP wanted to ensure that its own candidate, Abdullah Gul, was appointed to succeed Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Turkey’s tenth president, after the party’s attempts to have him elected by parliament in spring this year were blocked by country’s secular establishment. The text explicitly stated that a popular vote would be introduced for the eleventh president and his/her successors.
When Gul was unexpectedly elected by parliament on August 28 the AKP refused to listen to warnings that it needed to amend the text of the amendments or it would effectively force Gul to step down pending a popular presidential election (see EDM, October 4). It finally realized its mistake. On October 16, the AKP pushed a law through parliament removing the two clauses related to the popular vote for president from the text of the constitutional amendments (NTV, CNNTurk, DHA, October 16). The law was rushed onto the statute books late on the evening of October 16 after being ratified by President Gul, who was understandably anxious to remain in office (Radikal, Hurryet, October 17).
However, starting from September 11, Turks who expect to be abroad on October 21 have been voting on the constitutional amendments at ballot boxes placed at border crossings, ports, and airports. Critically, the referendum asks them to approve or reject the package of constitutional amendments as a whole, rather than voting on each one individually. Their votes will then be added to those of the majority of Turks who will go to the ballot box on October 21. However, following the removal of two of the clauses from the text on October 16, this now means that the combined votes will be for two different texts.
More confusingly, the decision to put the amendments to a referendum was taken by President Sezer. But the text that he put to a referendum no longer exists, thus making the referendum on October 21 technically illegal. However, this did not stop the YSK, which is responsible for all popular votes in Turkey, from voting by 6-5 not to halt the referendum process.
Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has already described the decision to hold the referendum as a “legal scandal” (CNNTurk, October 18). Public attention is currently absorbed by the possibility of a cross-border military operation into northern Iraq and the continuing anger at the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee to characterize the mass killings of Armenians in World War I as a genocide. With only a few days to go before the referendum, only 30% of the residents of Istanbul had even received the official notifications informing them of the location of their ballot boxes. In some rural areas, the precinct notification rate is reported to be close to zero (Milliyet, October 18).
There seems little question that, however low the turnout, those who go to the ballot box on October 21 will vote to approve the package of constitutional amendments. But there is also little doubt that the AKP’s opponents will apply to the courts to have the results overturned. How the courts will rule remains unclear, although there is a strong possibility that they will annul the referendum in its entirety. But it is not impossible that they will decide that all of the votes cast on October 21 are invalid, as they were not for the text for which legal permission for a referendum was originally given. Yet if only the votes cast at border crossings, ports, and airports are counted as valid, Gul will have to step down.
Perhaps more worrying is the prospect of the courts allowing the results of the referendum to stand. The AKP’s opponents are already claiming that, flushed by its landslide election victory on July 22, the party is acting as if it is above the law. Such accusations would only intensify if the referendum was not annulled and would be a gift to hard-line secularists in the Turkish establishment, who are looking for an excuse to undermine the AKP’s credibility and legitimacy (Radikal, NTV, October 18).