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GTE Question of the Month, October 2014


Is Turkey heading towards a presidential system?

Ergun Özbudun

This is perhaps the most critical question facing Turkey in the coming months. The debate started when the governing party, AKP, submitted to the Constitutional Reconciliation Committee (CRC) of Parliament a proposal to change the system of government from the present (somewhat weakened) parliamentary system to a presidential one. However, the AKP’s proposal was radically different from a US-style presidential system with a real separation of powers and proper checks-and-balances. Rather, it was a kind of super-presidentialism with an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the president. Thus, the president would be empowered to dissolve the legislative assembly and to issue decree-laws under certain circumstances. He would also be granted significant powers in the selection of the Constitutional Court judges and members of the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors.

The three opposition parties represented in the CRC firmly opposed this proposal and expressed a preference for a standard parliamentary system. Partly as a result of this disagreement, the work of the CRC came to a deadlock and the CRC ended its work. However, Erdoğan and other AKP spokespersons kept the topic on the agenda, declaring that if their constitutional amendments received the majority vote in the Parliament, they would go ahead with this plan. At the moment, the AKP is short of such a majority - that is, three-fifths of the full membership of the Assembly, to be followed by a mandatory referendum. Therefore, the AKP is likely to make every effort to obtain such a majority in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 2015.

If the AKP failed in this effort, an option would be to seek the support of the Kurdish nationalist HDP (Democracy Party of the Peoples). Obviously, such a bargain will not be an easy one, since the HDP will insist on major concessions concerning the Kurdish issue. This, in turn, will displease many AKP supporters with strong nationalist leanings.

Thus, the likeliest scenario is the continuation of the present system of government. However, with the election of Erdoğan as President on 12 August 2014, the system has already turned into a semi-presidential one on a de facto basis, since Erdoğan clearly indicated in his election campaign that, if elected, he would not be a symbolic president, but an active one with the intention of using his existing constitutional powers to the maximum.

(Ergun Özbudun is a Professor at İstanbul Şehir University)

Emiliano Alessandri

The US government has historically seen a re-balancing from congressional to presidential power, but has maintained a system of checks-and-balances, as rightly pointed out by Prof. Özbudun. What preserves pluralism is not only the division of powers, but also separate sources of legitimacy, as the President and Congress are elected on different bases and do not depend on each other: unlike European parliamentary systems, the US President does not need a vote of confidence from a majority in Congress, and Congress cannot be dissolved by the President. In Turkey, the first direct election of the President of the Republic this year could have created a certain duality compared to the past when MPs were involved in the selection of the head of state. This has not happened, because the successful candidate for the presidency was the incumbent Prime Minister and the historic leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The months ahead will be a formative period for Turkey's evolving political system. The new President seems to aspire to use all the explicit as well as implicit powers of his charismatic tenure to transform the presidency into more than a ceremonial post. This could lead to a 'super-presidentialism' even without formal changes to the Turkish Constitution, more simply as a result of the alignment between presidency, premiership, and the Grand National Assembly in which the majority of representatives owe their presence to the decisions made directly by the then Prime Minister, now the new President.

President Erdoğan may be thinking much about the next general elections in 2015. Will the AKP garner enough seats to rule unchallenged as it did in the past 12 years? Will Prime Minister Davutoğlu preserve or start dissipating the huge consensus that Erdoğan built over the years? Even without contemplating a scenario in which the Grand National Assembly would be led by one of the current opposition parties - a fairly unrealistic prospect for next year's elections - variations in levels of consensus will have an impact on the system of government and the current (im)balance of power. Of equally critical importance for Erdoğan will be securing support from non-AKP groups, such as the Kurdish party, to change the formal rules of the system in due course in light of those that govern the type of presidentialism that is in place in France, and also to maintain a larger constituency than the Prime Minister, as well as a larger base than the AKP's traditional one, so as to be able to ‘lead the game’ in spite of the limited powers formally endowed to the Presidency. This will lead to some paradox: the only real check-and-balance of recent years have been the Turkish citizens that were able to take to the streets in big numbers in 2013 after the Gezi Park controversy - who are also Erdoğan’s best bet for his continued unchallenged hegemony. Will populism continue to serve him well or will the people delimit his power and ambition?

(Emiliano Alessandri is an analyst of Mediterranean politics)

Dimitar Bechev

Turkey already has a sort of a presidential system in place. Even in the absence of formal constitutional change, Tayyip Erdoğan effectively controls both the executive branch and, importantly, the AK Party. The selection (not election) of Ahmet Davutoğlu as Prime Minister and the make-up of his cabinet, the choice of deputy ministers in particular, clearly indicate that it is Erdoğan who remains in charge of policy-making. The chances for the emergence of a second power-centre around the prime minister are therefore limited. His prime task will be to deliver a fourth victory for the AKP in next year's general elections. The quasi-presidential regime might well prove a durable arrangement, rather than a transitional phase, in case the elections fail to produce the majority AKP needs to amend the constitution, and then put it to popular plebiscite as in 2007 and 2010.

(Dimitar Bechev is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE))