Erdoğan’s Long-Standing Struggle for a Turkish Type of Presidential System

Constitutionally Turkey is a semi-presidential country with a president whose constitutional powers are more than ceremonial but less than executive. Despite having few constitutional powers with which to check and balance the Council of Ministers, in reality President Erdoğan is an executive president who can control foreign and internal policy choices. Being the founder and the real leader of the ruling AKP, President Erdoğan has managed to compensate for what he lacks constitutionally by his de facto position. Despite the opposition’s reminders that according to the Constitution President Erdoğan should act impartially and that he has no legal powers to involve himself in day-to-day politics or to decide Turkish foreign policy, Erdoğan seems fully in control of his party and the government.

Yet President Erdoğan is still campaigning for a new presidential constitution. Since the AKP’s overwhelming win in the November general election that consolidated its predominant position in the system, Erdoğan has returned to his campaign for a so-called Turkish type of presidential system. This raises three questions. Firstly, why does the president insist on a constitutional change to a presidential system since he can already control every aspect of the government? Secondly, what is a Turkish type of presidential system? And is a new constitution going to come about in Turkey’s intensely polarised political climate?

The answers to the first question differ greatly depending on who is being asked. The president himself claims that a presidential system would stop the double-headedness within the executive which he often complains about despite the fact that he handpicked Prime Minister Davutoğlu. In a meeting with NGOs supporting his campaign, the President argued that an elected president cannot work with an elected Prime Minister, especially if they are from different political backgrounds. He thinks that a prime minister from a different background  might be elected in the future and that this would create tremendous discord within the government. For that reason, precautions should be taken against it now in the form of a new presidential constitution .

This should be an argument against all forms of semi-presidentialism, but President Erdoğan says that it is an argument against a parliamentary system. At one point he even talked of the “French Model” being a positive example, even though the French experience would seem to contradict his argument.

The second argument that the president uses is related to the first one. He claims that a presidential system would create “absolute stability” and prevent a “bureaucratic oligarchy” from implementing legislation and regulations. He says that Turkey needs restructuring, that laws and regulations would prevent it, so he has to be brave and set them aside .In order to completely restructure the system, Turkey must adopt presidential system which would bring absolute stability.

President also emphasises that it is not in favour of a separation of powers. He describes the system he defends as a Turkish type of presidentialism with a harmony of powers, rather than a system of checks and balances. He often complains that the current system is based on a conflict between the judiciary and government (meaning the executive and legislative majority). He argues that this system should be replaced by a system in which powers support each other. He perceives judicial review auto be an impediment, so often he refers to judicial review as being a problem that stems from a parliamentary system. Even though this is not an accurate, it illustrates what the president expects from or means by a Turkish type of presidential system.

In fact, any response given to the first question of why Erdoğan insists on a new presidential constitution also indirectly answers the second question of what Turkish type of presidential system he wants. Often opposition leaders or MPs express their fear that President Erdoğan wishes to become a super-president merging all state powers in a single office and eliminating any constitutional checks and balances as well as the alternation in power between political parties. For the opposition this is not a democratic model. All opposition parties oppose Erdoğan’s arguments for a presidential system and state that they are in favour of keeping alive the country’s parliamentary heritage, which goes back to 1908 albeit with certain changes to improve its efficiency as well as democracy and rule of law.

On the other hand, neither the AKP nor the President has so far produced a text showing the details of the system that they defend, except for the short text presented by the AKP to the former ad hoc parliamentary Commission of Constitutional Consensus which was dissolved in 2013 due to a failure to reach a consensus among participating political parties over the governmental system. This draft text gave strong legislative powers, like the power of decree, veto, initiating budget laws to the president and curbed judicial review. (See Şule Özsoy Boyunsuz, ‘The AKP’S proposal for a “Turkish type of presidentialism” in comparative context’, Turkish Studies’, DOI 10.1080/14683849.2015.1135064.

A new Constitutional Consensus Commission was formed a month ago in parliament under the chairmanship of the Speaker. It comprises three members from each of the four parliamentary groups and has been charged with penning a new constitution. After three meetings in February 2016 this ad hoc commission was dissolved by the speaker due to the disagreements over the presidential system, just like the previous constitutional consensus commission which was formed for the same purpose in 2011 and which was dissolved in 2013. The CHP, the main opposition party, declared that they will not discuss a presidential system as a viable alternative. The HDP and MHP, the other two opposition parties, refuse to form another commission without the participation of the CHP. So the answer to the question of how it is going to be possible to make a new constitution altering the regime remains largely unknown.

President Erdoğan announced that a new presidential constitution will be produced even if opposition parties do not sit in the Constitutional Consensus Commission and that it will then be submitted to a referendum for the public approval. However, This would require at least 14 votes in parliament from the opposition. That would mean fishing for opposition votes using any kind of methods or calling for an early election, which would be another way of changing the composition of parliament albeit one that runs the risk of losing more seats too.

Aside from legal and technical issues related to amending or making a new constitution, changing to a presidential system is a politically divisive topic in today’s highly polarised Turkish society. There is a climate of ongoing conflict between the PKK ( Kurdish separatist terrorist organisation) and the security forces in certain South Eastern cities that has claimed many lives on both sides and this is on top of the government’s increasing involvement in the Syrian war. The co-chair of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Yüksekdağ, has accused President Erdoğan of “opening the door to a very big war and chaos in the region (Syria) in order to become an executive president by becoming chief commander through a declaration of mobilization and martial law” . Indeed, when Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border, the polls showed the highest public support (53.5%) for presidential system. Yet it remains to be seen if the war will help the President realise his dream of a presidential constitution.

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