With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sworn in as Turkey’s first popularly elected president last August, the debates on adopting a presidential system have once again come to the forefront in the run-up to the Turkish general election in June. The most important implication of the election will be whether it will lead to a formal move toward presidentialism in Turkey’s constitution.
Prior to the election, Turkey’s political system was admittedly complex. In 2007, Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan’s predecessor, was the last to be elected under the former system, in which parliament elected the president. He took office following a strained process between the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish Armed Forces, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The first presidential election in April was boycotted by the CHP. The Chief of the General Staff of the army made statements expressing the wish for a sincerely secular president, and published an e-memorandum warning against emerging disputes regarding the secular nature of the Turkish republic in the context of the election. Eventually, the AKP called an early general election in July, after which the presidential election was re-held in August.
As a further response to the crisis, the AKP held a referendum in October, ensuring the popular election of the president. Thus, Turkey remained a parliamentary system with a ceremonial president until the first popular presidential election was held, and Erdoğan was elected last year. Now, the system has become semi-presidential with both a popularly elected president and a prime minister responsible to the legislature. Crucially, the president does not hold substantial executive powers.
However, Erdoğan has shown that he is eager to go beyond his constitutional powers on several occassions. He has been able to do so as his former party, the AKP, has a legislative majority and a single-party cabinet. After the elections results were declared on 15 August 2014, Erdoğan was legally obliged to resign from his post as prime minister, but he chose to wait till 28 August, when Gül’s term ended. Effectively, he served as the president, prime minister, and chairman of the AKP for over two weeks. He announced the candidacy of Davutoğlu as the Chairman of the AKP and attended the AKP party congress on 27 August, personally handing over power to Davutoğlu. All of this was unconstitutional. Erdoğan continues to act in a similar manner. Recently, he called on his supporters at a rally to vote for the AKP in the 2015 general election in order to demonstrate the “national will”. So, is Turkey on the path to its own model of presidentialism?
The AKP has expressed interest in transitioning to a presidential system since 2011. Powers given to the president (as evidenced in AKP statements and the AKP’s constitution draft in 2013) would allow the president alone to form the executive. Further, he will have the power to issue decree laws when he deems necessary, dissolve parliament by calling new elections, appoint cabinet members without approval from the legislature, and appoint a greater number of the members to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.
That this new system will be a unique, Turkish variant always takes center stage in national discourse. Though members of the AKP and affiliated commentators praise presidentialism as a system that has ensured the healthy functioning of American democracy, the bulk of their arguments ironically relate to presidentialism with a strong executive: the opposite of how the executive plays out in the U.S. A strong executive is framed as a solution to the coalitional deadlocks of the 1990s, as well as the AKP’s first term in power, when legislation was seriously halted by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a secularist and formal head of the Constitutional Court. The AKP wants to eradicate the potential for coalitions to form in the executive, while also ensuring that an oppositional president cannot slow down the process of legislation.
However, these arguments are shortsighted; they hinge on the assumption that the AKP will remain the dominant party in the legislature. Furthermore, the belief that the direct election of the president would halt the possibility of an oppositional president’s slowing down the legislation process only assumes that the president will always belong to the same political affiliation as the majority in legislature. This shows that the AKP aims to reform the Turkish political system in a way that reflects its partisan dominance. With the possibility that the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) will not pass the 10 percent threshold and be left out of parliament as it has decided to participate as a party rather than a list of independents as in the past, the AKP is likely to increase its proportion of seats in parliament and succeed.
If a transition is made to the designed presidential system, two things are certain. First, given the current political balance, the Turkish legislature is likely to become more of a rubberstamp than it already is under a single-party government, and this will be detrimental for opposition groups, which are already weak and unable to affect policy. Second, given that Erdoğan is one of the most divisive figures in Turkish history, he has not been, and is unlikely to be, a uniting figure as president. Erdoğan has dramatically increased his resort to populist discourse since the Gezi protests, referring to his support base and electoral victories as milli irade (the will of the people). His brand of presidentialism under a new system will only enhance the division between his supporters on the one hand, and non-supporters as a group to be taught a lesson on the other.
Thus, Turkey may come to demonstrate the problems of dual legitimacy that Juan Linz pointed out more than two decades ago, with Erdoğan representing the will of a “people” that form less than half of the electorate, given the low turnout in the presidential election. Policymaking under the proposed system will indeed be swift and efficient; however, whether these policies serve the interests of the Turkish polity will become more and more questionable as the line between Erdoğan’s supporters and opponents becomes more clear-cut. Coalitions are often seen as a danger for policymaking, but from a consensual point of view, they are useful in protecting the interests of diverse groups in a divided society like Turkey.
Furthermore, although a return to a multiparty system seems highly unlikely, given that the AKP has grounded its justifications of system change in concerns for returning to the era of coalitions, it is important to consider its implications. The unlikely event would increase the likelihood that the president will resort to decree powers: arguably one of the riskiest parts of the AKP’s proposal. The president will be able to use decree powers when he deems them necessary for the “functioning of politics in general”, in areas where there are legislative gaps. It is likely that these decree powers will be resorted to consistently if the legislature proves to be a challenge to presidential authority. This could even result in political collapse.
Regardless of the path ahead, Turkey’s proposed presidential system has been designed to entrench the AKP’s, if not Erdoğan’s, personal dominance in the foreseeable future at the expense of any real opposition. The tightening of the little political space available to the opposition in Turkish politics is highly problematic at a time when the country still has hugely divisive issues to solve, the foremost being the Kurdish solution process.