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Presidential system: Looking for absolute power

HDN | 4/30/2010 12:00:00 AM | CENGİZ AKTAR

Because everyone in Turkey believes that only the top positions can change things in the country, everyone wants to become prime minister. But now Erdoğan wants more power.

April 23 was the anniversary of the political resolve that established the parliamentarian system in Turkey and yet is now a critical date for another reason. The debate that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan started over whether or not to choose a presidential system coincided with such an important anniversary.

This is nothing but simple misfortune to say the least. Inhabitants of these lands suffered a lot from a single man ruling the Ottoman Empire or Republican Turkey. The Orient’s destiny was and still is to struggle with such dreadful regimes. In opposition, Turkey has been trying to exercise a pluralist system since 1946. It has tackled coups d’état but keeps coming back to parliamentarian democracy. And each time it fights with tutelages as the remnants of the military mindset. This is what is happening right now.

Turkey is discussing how to build a new social contract for the first time in its stumpy history of democracy. Without having such discussions, social peace and order will suffer a lack of legitimacy as it was the case with the constitutions of 1924, 1961 and 1982. Debates will get deeper as the new Constitution will be brought to the agenda. And right there, Erdoğan comes forward and distorts this healthy discussion. As society, for the first time, reaches a level of being able to strike a social contract, we see that it will face another obstacle: The debate on the presidential system.

The debate, however, is about the fundamentals of the new social contract. What will be the definition of citizenship? How will the separation of powers and/or alliance of powers take place? How will we free our democracy from all sorts of tutelage? Today, all these basic questions are being reduced to a simple discussion on power through the argument on the presidential system. On top of that, this provides an incredible argument against the government’s constitutional amendment package, coming as they do as part of these strange accusations of a “civilian coup.”

Indeed, the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has made no noteworthy effort to develop the parliamentarian system in Turkey. Not even a single step has been taken in the representational equity and reinforcement of political parties, as the two milestones of the parliamentary system. The highest and most unfair national election threshold in the world exists in Turkey. In relation, the single round election system helps big political parties turn bigger and grants no right of speech for smaller ones. Political parties are being closed one after the other. No intra-party democracy exists. Legislation in this one-man system consists of backbenchers who do nothing but raise or not raise their hands.

And now we are talking about another system which will obviously make the current one more problematic. What is this for? It is said that it is for stability, but seeking political stability has paradoxically become one of the obstacles before democracy.

[HH] Most presidents are dictators

The presidential system or semi-presidential system is applied in many countries. As a matter of fact, there is an unnamed quartile presidential system in Turkey. President Abdullah Gül used to say that he has too much power for a parliamentarian system. Indeed, thanks to the 1982 Constitution, the presidential office has a powerful voice in appointments to the very critical public institutions such as the Higher Education Council, or YÖK, and the Supreme Board of Radio and Television, or RTÜK, as well as both the high judiciary and academia. The presidential office is a kind of fine tuning instrument. During the former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, this fine-tuning power was exercised many times.

Although it is a widespread style of administration, the presidential system works democratically well only in the United States, maybe in Brazil now and perhaps in Mexico in the future. Most countries governed by a presidential system are dictatorships. A few familiar names are Azerbaijan, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Armenia and Sudan… But before we discuss this model, we should look at the discrepancies of the system at work. For the problem is not the lack of more power but of a social contract to keep this power at check through legislature, law and regional structures; or in other words, it is about the lack of a democratic constitution.

Since everyone in Turkey believes that only top positions can change things in the country, everyone wants to become prime minister. Apparently, the prime minister is unsatisfied with having such power, so he wants to have some more by becoming the president of the country.

So, let me wrap this up with a famous quote by Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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