TURKEY, VENEZUELA AND THE SEPARATION OF POWERS

A few days ago I was at the gym. I looked up at a large screen TV to see a news report on the Mother of All Protests taking place in downtown Caracas, Venezuela. The political opposition had mobilized thousands to protest the regime of President Maduro. Below the images from Caracas and the subtitles for the silent screen, a ribbon reported on the statements of President Erdogan concerning changes to the Turkish constitution that will result from the referendum on April 16th.

I am intrigued by developments in both these countries. I was also somewhat amused to see the stories competing for attention across a CNN broadcast. I’ve been in both nations within the last few weeks and have thoughts about how they and the wider world are being impacted by government. At the same time, a friend wrote in response to my post on the Malatya Martyrs – https://thefullerreport.com/2017/04/18/malatya-remembered/ – asking for any comments I have on what is happening with the Turkish government.

In an Easter Sunday referendum the Turkish people approved by a slim majority measures that will significantly increase the power of the Turkish presidency. Current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 until 2014, and was widely hailed as the leader who turned the Turkish economy around, causing substantial growth in many parts of the nation. Since becoming President, Erdoğan has pushed for changes to Turkey’s constitution that would change the government from the parliamentary one that originated in the 1923 creation of the modern Turkish state to an executive presidency. The prime ministerial role would be abolished and much more power would be vested in the presidency. Proposed changes would also make it possible for the political independency of the presidency to end. Erdoğan would thus be able to return to the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which he co-founded in 2001.

It is often the case that it is difficult to get the full facts of news events. There has been plenty of news in the USA about so-called ‘fake news’. However, it does seem that the current president of Turkey has been pushing for changes in Turkey’s constitution for several years. During the two parliamentary elections in 2015 the AKP was endeavoring to gain the kind of majority that would enable them to make constitutional changes. This was impossible in the June election because for the first time in more than a decade the party lost its majority and the Kurdish party gained seats in the Parliament. The AKP failed to form a coalition government so called new elections in November. Conveniently, violence in some Kurdish areas broke out, resulting in a reduced vote for the Kurdish party and a renewed majority for the AKP.

The coup attempt last year has been blamed by the president on the Gulenist movement, an Islamic transnational religious and social movement led by the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen[i], who was at one time an ally of Erdoğan. Thousands of Turks in government, administration, education, military and police have been detained. Some have been jailed, many have lost their jobs. Our family befriended a Turkish administrator and his family when he was studying in Richmond. We visited him in 2015. He was one of several Turks who drew my attention to the writings of Fetullah Gulen. He is one of those who lost his job as a result of the failed coup attempt.

Erdoğan has stated that: A presidential system would ensure confidence and stability in Turkey[ii] He has stated that it would bring Turkish government more in line with the Presidential systems which operate in France and the USA. The previous figurehead role of President, for which he is the incumbent, would become the central executive role. The recent referendum has therefore been an opportunity to consolidate power as Erdoğan argues that an all-powerful presidency is a guarantee that the political instability that used to plague Turkey will not return[iii]. Among the proposed changes are the following:

  • Prime minister role scrapped, new vice president role created
  • President becomes head of government as well as state, and can retain political party ties
  • President given sweeping powers, with ability to enact laws by decree and dismiss parliament
  • Parliament no longer able to scrutinise ministers
  • Parliament given limited powers to investigate or impeach president [iv]

Critics argue that by voting in favor the country will get rid of all the checks and balances that keep the government in line[v].

On April 26th in a further post-coup purge: 1,009 covert ‘imams’ in 72 provinces have been taken into custody so far [vi] in what was reported as a further important step in purging the nations of the Gulenist element. It was widely expected that the post-coup purge would accelerate once President Erdogan achieved the victory he wanted in a referendum on expanding his powers. He feels emboldened and there’s no longer a risk of jeopardising potential referendum votes, states BBC correspondent in Istanbul, Mark Lowen[vii]

I believe President Erdoğan is exhibiting the kind of paranoia that those in power for a long-time often exhibit. They are concerned for their legacy, they want what they believe is the best for that which they have led and created in their own image, and that vision limits their ability to work with those who see things differently.

 

The Venezuelan situation communicates a similar idea. Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998 as a Socialist seeking to alleviate the poverty of many Venezuelans. He was elected several times more with a strong popular mandate as his social reform programs, funded by high oil revenues (Venezuela is one of the top ten oil producing nations in the world and has the largest proven oil reserves of any nation[viii]), resulted in improvements in areas such as poverty, literacy, income equality, and quality of life[ix]. The proverbial good times ceased to roll however when the oil price collapsed in 2009.

My contact with colleagues and friends in Venezuela and my visits in 2012 and 2017 have shown me that the nation is not an easy place to live. There are shortages of basic food and medical supplies. Venezuela’s lack of foreign currency means that they have directly traded oil for meat from Uruguay and toilet paper from Trinidad. During my recent visit, rice and wheat flour were in short supply. Plenty of packaged bread was available but not the flour to make the traditional bakers loaves. A shortage of corn meal in Caracas meant that ordinary households resorted to grinding their own corn to produce the flour for the traditional arepas. I stayed in a nice apartment with a beautiful modern kitchen, however faucets in the kitchen and flush mechanisms in the bathrooms did not work properly because of a lack of parts to repair plumbing.

The flight of money from the nation has caused the government to implement increasingly strict currency controls, and inflation is operating at hyper levels[x]. During my visit in March the official exchange rate for the Venezuelan Bolivar was around 10 to the dollar, however black marketeers were offering over 4,000 for the dollar. At the official exchange rate a kilo of rice, when obtainable in a supermarket, cost several thousand dollars.

There have been weeks of intermittent protests against the current president, Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Chavez in 2013. His government has imprisoned opposition leaders, endeavored to have the Supreme Court nullify the powers of the legislature, and blamed the USA and other western governments for encouraging chaos in Venezuela[xi] . On April 7, the government banned opposition leader, Hector Capriles, who ran a very close second to Maduro in the 2013 election, and planned to run again in next year’s election, from political activity for 15 years.

I believe Maduro is unfit for office. He certainly does not have the experience or track-record of his predecessor. Unlike Erdoğan he cannot claim credit for economic and social advances in his nation. However, Chavez followers faithfully adhere to him as Chavez’ appointed successor.

The insecure will often lash out at anyone they can blame when the things they value go wrong, or when former supporters turn against them. When this happens at a national level, dictatorships emerge and chaos ensues.

In both these modern cases leaders are meddling with the balance of separated powers which has previously benefited the good governance of their nations. In the USA, powers are clearly separated. The Executive, Legislature and Judiciary are designed to operate independently of each other and thus provide checks and balances upon overreach. I believe that this characteristic of the US Constitution lies behind the peaceful transition of power between presidents that has been our history since 1797 when George Washington retired to Mount Vernon. In his farewell address he made clear the value of a constitutional separation of powers as a defence against ‘a real despotism’[xii] I have written further on this subject in my post entitled The Inauguration at https://thefullerreport.com/2017/01/26/the-inauguration/ .

Good leadership requires the leader to listen to all his constituency. He may have gained a majority in an election, however he still has to lead all the electorate. The passage of the referendum in Turkey was by a slim margin. The election of President Trump in the United States was not by a majority. The slim margin of the Brexit vote in the UK was a democratic mandate for exit from the European Union but not a mandate to ignore the interests of the minority. All of these votes give a mandate. However they also carry a responsibility to handle the mandate with care. Every elected leader and every appointed leader, regardless of style has a responsibility to listen to the opposition, if their leadership is ultimately to win hearts and minds to their vision for leadership into the future. I fear for the futures of Turkey and Venezuela under the current leadership, and encourage you to pray for peaceful change.

 

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%BClen_movement (accessed 4/26/2017)

[ii] Anadolu Online – http://aa.com.tr/en/politics/erdogan-calls-on-all-parties-to-back-charter-reform/755857 (accessed 4/22/2017)

[iii] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13746679 (accessed 4/18/2017)

[iv] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/Erdogans_Turkey (accessed 4/26/2017)

[v] Esra Ozyurek,Chair for Contemporary Turkish Studies at the London School of Economics – quoted from http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/15/europe/turkey-erdogan-referendum-politics/index.html (accessed 4/26/2017)

[vi] Suleyman Soylu, Turkish Interior Minister, quoted at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39716631 (accessed 4/26/2017)

[vii] ibid

[viii] http://geab.eu/en/top-10-countries-with-the-worlds-biggest-oil-reserves/ (accessed 4/26/2017)

[ix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_Chavez (accessed 4/26/2017)

[x] “Venezuelan consumer prices rose 800 percent in 2016 while the economy contracted by 18.6 percent, according to preliminary central bank figures seen by Reuters, the sharpest contraction in 13 years and the worst inflation reading on record”. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/20/venezuela-2016-inflation-hits-800-percent-gdp-shrinks-19-percent-document.html (accessed 4/26/2017)

[xi] See for example https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/14/venezuela-president-declares-60-day-state-of-emergency-blaming-us-for-instability (accessed 4/26/2017)

[xii] “It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.” George Washington, Farewell Address to the American People – SENATE DOCUMENT NO. 106–21, WASHINGTON, 2000 – p. 19

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