A New Constitution for Turkey?

President Erdogan, in coordination with his MHP coalition partner, has declared his intent to open the floor to debate on a new constitution. Nonetheless, interpretations of the vague and limited declaration vary.
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On 2 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted his desire to draft a new constitution, “if we reach a common understanding with our partner within the People’s Alliance [i.e. the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)]”. Such a declaration comes on the heels of long-voiced calls to form a new constitution that would replace the existing one which was prepared in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. The current constitution is an amalgamation of many amendments, including the most recent change that ushered in a strong presidency by way of referendum in April 2017.

Erdogan’s declaration has been interpreted in three different ways. Many see Erdogan’s announcement as a move to return to a parliamentary system that would give the ruling party the chance to form and sustain a government by way of a majority vote. While currently holding a parliamentary majority, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its MHP coalition partner could struggle to ensure reelection in the future. According to Metropol’s November 2020 poll, the AKP and MHP were backed by a respective 28.5% and 7.9% of respondents. Seeing that the opposition block is united in its desire to return to a reinforced parliamentary system, this option would not necessarily be difficult for Erdogan to achieve, nonetheless, doing so would signal his acceptance that the presidential system was a mistake (in just three years’ time).  

The second interpretation is that Erdogan is slowly drifting away from his MHP coalition partner and this declaration is actually intended to put them on the spot as an actor that blocks reform. Erdogan’s recent meeting with an established name in politics, namely, Oguzhan Asilturk from the Felicity Party, sparked rumors about the potential for a new alliance between Islamist parties. Nonetheless, the Felicity Party leadership seems to hold reservations when it comes to such an arrangement.

The third interpretation is that the announcement is intended to divert attention from the dire state of the Turkish economy, just as everyday Turks continue to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis. Erdogan has made such grand declarations of reform in the past, but in practice little to no tangible economic or democratic improvements have been observed in the country as of late. Besides, a constitutional change may actually work to grant Erdogan even more power. Here, it is still unknown whether Erdogan means to revert to a parliamentary system, especially one that would dramatically limit his powers.