Don’t hurry, it will happen soon enough

Reforms to the presidency are to be put to Turkey’s first referendum in two decades
Ahmet Necdet Sezer
Ahmet Necdet Sezer
Ahmet Necdet Sezer

Reforms to the presidency are to be put to Turkey’s first referendum in two decades

In the last hour, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer announced he was calling a referendum on a bill that would allow his successors to be elected directly by the people. A short statement from the President’s Office said that the public vote would be for the entire bill, which was a package of seven rather fundamental changes to the Turkish constitution.

It reduces a president’s term from seven years to five, but allows for two terms. Candidates would need the support of twenty MPs to secure a nomination. The election itself would be a nod to the French system, in which the candidate securing an absolute majority would win. If no-one gets enough votes, there would be a second round two weeks later in which only the top two candidates would run.

The bill also explicitly establishes the figure for a quorate meeting in parliament: 184. This article was included to avoid a repeat of April’s election fiasco, in which the presidential vote was annulled because there was no clear figure in the constitution.

One final article reduces a full term of government from five years to four, which would set the next general election for 2011.

Mr Sezer was not allowed veto the package this time – that privilege is only granted to him once – so it was a choice between approving it and calling a public vote. He will also be taking the bill to the Constitutional Court, although the specifics of his complaint are anyone’s guess for now.

All in all, this is good news. It does scupper the government’s plans of running simultaneous parliamentary and presidental elections on July 22nd, but as a Turkish proverb goes, “the devil interferes in hurried work”. Under the current rules, the referendum itelf can’t be held before October. A separate bill that would bring it forward to August is still in Mr Sezer’s inbox. And this one he can veto.

Mr Sezer has previously said he is against directly electing a president because the office in its current state wields too much power. There needs to be a discussion on how to alter the office, he says, before it can be publically electable. He has a point: Turkish presidents do have a first-time veto over any law that comes out of parliament and the final say on the appointment of all top state officials. Of course, Mr Sezer himself doesn’t shy from using that power. He has vetoed more laws than any of his predecessors.

So you might be wondering where the good news is. The Constitutional Court, after all, can still throw out the bill and halt the referendum process. That would mean that Mr Sezer’s successor would have to be elected under the old rules – that is to say, by MPs. But even if that does happen, a new AK goverment is more likely to opt a compromise candidate after their experience in April. That new president could then lead a debate on an elected president’s powers. It would allow Turkey to make a calm and gradual transition to a public presidency, and bring to an end a debate that has raged long before Mr Sezer ever took office.

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