Marién Durán – ‘Dual Presidentialization and Autocratization: Turkey at a Critical Crossroads

This is a guest post by Marién Durán. It is based on an article that was recently published in Mediterranean Quarterly (2018) 29 (3): 98-116. https://doi.org/10.1215/10474552-7003192.

The article argues that dual presidentialization has accelerated Turkey’s movement toward autocracy in several ways: a greater control over the judicial branch and over public freedoms, in general, and freedom of the press, in particular.

This idea of dual presidentialization, a new concept proposed in this article, is useful for explaining autocratization and its implications. That the system is presidential does not always imply authoritarianism or autocratization; problems arise when a presidential system is designed with no adequate checks and balances or when the country is not a democracy.
What does dual presidentilialization mean in Turkey? It means that there has been a convergence or combination of two forms of presidentialization: legal reforms, and contingent or informal factors. In the first place, the article explores the legal and constitutional reforms that created presidentialization. The second relates to the presidentialization of Turkish politics, with an analysis of both the executive and the electoral and party aspects of the process, in accordance with the analytical framework provided by Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb (2005). The objective is to explain how the resources of power have increased through both institutional reforms and the informal aspect.

The study of Turkey’s constitutional reforms is key to understanding the importance and impact of the institutional changes increasing the ruler’s power resources. The article analyzes constitutional changes that began with the 1982 constitution of the Third Republic, including the role of the president and the prime minister, the reform of the constitution in 2007 that enabled the direct election of the president of the republic, and the reforms approved in the 2017 referendum that converted Turkey to a presidential system. Both the 1982 constitution, without any adequate check and balances, and its successor in 2007 paved the way for a system in which priority is given to granting greater powers and control to the executive branch. Finally, the reforms approved in the 2017 referendum favor a presidential system without any constraints.

These constitutional reforms in Turkey have been accompanied by a process of presidentialization in which a charismatic figure has a particular and personal style. What does the presidentialization of Turkish mean? In this case, it refers to “the process by which regimes are becoming more presidential in their actual practice without, in most cases, changing their formal structure, that is, their regime-type.” (Poguntke, Webb, 2005). We refer to Poguntke and Webb work, because in the case of Turkey, this process has accompanied Turkish politics for decades, which became more pronounced since 2002 when the AKP came into power. Consequently, independently of any legal and constitutional factors, there have been contingent and structural factors leading toward a more presidential manner of acting, contributing in the end to a change in the form of the state.

Given we have clarified what dual presidentialization is, how has Turkey’s dual presidentialization accelerated the movement towards autocracy? The article analyzes that impact in terms of three key indicators: judicial power, civil liberties in general, and press freedom.
Why these areas specifically? This is because the judiciary and the media are horizontal and vertical checks and balances respectively on executive power. Certain power resources, such as electoral victories, the control of the main institutions and agencies, and the support of the ruling party, have helped President Erdoğan control appointments to the main positions in the judiciary.

Important reforms to the judiciary began in 2010 and continued in 2013 (due to corruption cases in AKP). The philosophy of these changes was to guarantee that there were no judicial decisions that could be negative for the AKP in important trials. Consequently, since 2013 onwards the judiciary has been under considerable pressure from the executive, damaging the separation of power.

Regarding civil liberties, the media and civil society constitute vertical checks and balances that have been eroded significantly in recent years by reforms and by the government’s authoritarian style. The AKP’s majority in parliament has allowed these reforms to be carried out. They also include Erdoğan’s continued leadership and ideology, with his belief in a “pious generation” and the imposition of certain values (including declarations regarding LGBT rights, couple relations, and so forth); as well as the control of the main institutions and media.

Finally, the AKP has continually degraded the freedom of the press since 2002, both in legal and constitutional terms and in the executive aspects of presidentialization. In this latter regard such pressure has been carried out in various forms: by creating communications media outlets close to the party and by placing pressure on the communications media. Pressure on journalists is common and Reporters without Borders lists numerous violations. Some indices such as Freedom House have reduced Turkey from the status of partially free to not free.

In summary, the progressive concentration of institutional power, aided by personal factors, has led to a process of autocratization. Since Erdoğan came to power, he has been able to gather enough resources to erode and virtually destroy certain checks and balances. His absolute control over the AKP, his ideology, the consecutive electoral victories (parliamentary, local, and presidential), his charismatic leadership, the control of the main institutions and state agencies, social networks, and media control have repressed freedom and institutions. In other words, the system has been damaged in terms of the functioning of government, rights, and public liberties.

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