‘AKP’s presidential system will lead to one-man rule’

‘AKP’s presidential system will lead to one-man rule’

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
‘AKP’s presidential system will lead to one-man rule’ The government’s proposal for a presidential system is for “super presidentialism” that will lead to too much concentration of power in the president’s hands, prominent scholar Professor Ergun Özbudun has told the Hürriyet Daily News.

In contrast to what the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argues, the presidential system is not a widespread success story across the world, with the exception of the U.S., according to Özbudun, a professor of law at Istanbul Şehir University.

Is this the first time Turkey has discussed changing to a presidential system, or is this an issue that has come up before?

Both are partly true. This is the first time it has become a major issue in Turkish politics. In the past, certain political leaders spoke in favor of the presidential system, such as the late president [Turgut] Özal in the 1980s and [Süleyman] Demirel in the 1990s. But it never became a major issue and it was forgotten. Today’s discussions are the first time it has become a primary issue in an election campaign. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is strongly pushing it. It appears that the coming parliamentary elections will center around this issue more than anything else. Erdoğan has made it very clear that if the AKP obtains a strong enough parliamentary majority, they will proceed with changing the constitution in a presidential direction.

So, when we look to the past, is it possible to say there has not been a systemic problem but rather a wish voiced by certain leaders?

I don’t think there is a systemic problem. Özal and Demirel mentioned it but did not pursue it vigorously. Maybe the reason some advocated a presidential system in the past is because they had been prime ministers with real political power before becoming president. In our system, the presidency is not a politically powerful position, but they wanted to exercise political power again.

So in the past there was never a strong demand for a presidential system from society?

Exactly. It was never an official position of the Motherland Party, even though the party’s leader, Özal, talked about it.

Today’s advocates of the system in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) say countries are better governed under a presidential system. Is there a consensus among academics on the virtues of presidential systems overweighting those of parliamentary systems?

If there is something close to a consensus, it is the other way round. Most political scientists prefer a parliamentary system. The American style presidential system is perfectly democratic, but it is based on a strict separation of powers and a very effective system of checks and balances. It has a federal system where states’ governments have wide powers. It is based on the idea of limiting the central state. Our problem is that what the AKP proposes is not an American style presidency, but more or less one man rule without the checks and balances of the U.S. constitution.

Why did Turkey opt for the parliamentary system? Is there anything specific so we can say the parliamentary system is the right one for Turkey?

From the start of constitutional government in the Ottoman Empire, (with the first constitution dating back to 1876), the system was built on the parliamentary model. Turkey has never experienced a presidential system. For more than a century, the Turkish system is based on the parliamentary government model. Even today, even though the president was given quite extensive powers in the 1982 constitution, the system is essentially parliamentary.

In answer to your question, there are very few countries where the presidential system has functioned well, with the exception of the United States, which has unique circumstances.

In the rest of the world, the presidential system is pursued mostly in Latin American countries, where the system has not worked so well. In those countries there have been deadlocks between presidents and parliaments, and sometimes militarily interventions.

With the sole exception of the United States, we can’t really say the presidential system is a success story.

The president and the AKP say exactly the opposite, arguing that presidential systems are more successful around the world.

That doesn’t conform to what we have experienced. Another point is that a great majority of Western democracies have parliamentary systems. Only France has a semi-presidential system. There is no reason to assume that presidential systems work better or provide better administration compared to parliamentary systems.

But how can we explain their stance? Are they misreading this or are they trying to form a certain perception in the public?

They are creating a perception, but I’m sorry to say they are distorting the facts. Even within the AKP there are doubts. Former President Abdullah Gül, (a founding member of the AKP), has said several times that he prefers a parliamentary system. There are hesitations even within the AKP.

But President Erdoğan strongly wants it. I think the basic reason is that he does not want to remain a symbolic president. He wants to be in a position of real power. At the moment this is the de facto case; what he wants to do is to make it de jure. In other words, he wants to legalize his behavior in the presidential office, as it has attracted a lot of criticism because it is not compatible with the present constitution.

He wants to build the system on more secure foundations, changing the constitution and getting actual power to run the country.

The Turkish parliamentary system has been accused in the past as the reason for political instability in the country.

Of course, no system is perfect. There may be crisis periods in the parliamentary systems too. If we look at the Turkish experience, normally we have single party governments. Today, the AKP has been in power without needing a coalition for 12 years. In the past too we had long periods of single-party governments. So it is wrong to associate parliamentary government only with weak and unstable coalition governments. Of course, we had examples of this, but we also had harmonious coalition governments.

But do you think the current system needs reform?

I don’t think we need radical reform. Normal parliamentary systems work satisfactorily in most European democracies and elsewhere.

However, we do need to reform the 1982 constitution, which was essentially a military document. It gave the president extensive powers that are not compatible with a pure parliamentary model. In a pure parliamentary system, the head of the state - be it a monarch or a president - has a symbolic and representative position, not a policy-making position. Because it was penned by the military and the first president was the leader of the coup, the 1982 constitution strengthened the office position of the presidency. That is an inconsistency which should be eliminated by cutting down the powers of the president, making it a symbolic office. In this way we won’t have a major conflict between the president and the cabinet.

What you want is exactly the opposite of what the AKP wants. Ironically, the AKP had asked you and some other academics to write a new constitution in 2007 - a more democratic constitution based on the parliamentary system.

Exactly. At the time that was a promise - a constitution based on parliamentary system - included in the AKP’s election platform. We took it very seriously and in the draft we prepared we tried to create a parliamentary system with fewer powers for the president. Now, the AKP’s position is exactly the opposite.

Why is that?

It is difficult to explain. But Erdoğan chose to become president and he wants to be a strong president.

What is your main objection to the presidential system that is being proposed by the AKP?

It is not a presidential system in the American sense. We can call it a kind of “super presidentialism.” The idea in the U.S. system is based on limited governance and checks and balances. In the AKP’s proposition, such checks and balances are missing. Under certain circumstances the president would be allowed to run the country with decree laws, which is inconceivable in the U.S.

In certain circumstances the president will be allowed to dissolve the parliament and go to new elections, while he also has to submit himself to reelection. These features are different from the U.S. system. They lead to a “super presidentialism” where there will be too much concentration of the power in the hands of the president. That’s why we are worried. With this model you are bound to have one-man rule. With weak judicial independence, and with a unitary centralized administrative system that is exactly the opposite of the U.S., there will be a natural tendency toward the concentration of power in the hands of the president.

Would you say that recent developments in the judiciary are made to weaken it in order to pave the way to what you call “super presidentialism”?

That’s exactly the case. Over the last year, several laws have been passed to limit the independence of the judiciary. Now the governing party dominates the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors [HSYK].

The year 2014 was a year of weakening judicial independence. This is a complete contrast with the U.S., where the judiciary is very independent and provides a strong check on the abuse of power.

Erdoğan does not hide the fact that he does not want checks and balances. He seems not to mind criticism that this will lead to authoritarian rule, rather than democratic governance.

His understanding of democracy is based exclusively on popular support. He relies on the support of 50 percent or so of the electorate. However, we do not define democracy simply by parliamentary majorities or popular majorities. Of course, majorities have a right to run the country, but within limits.

The majority rule should be supplemented and combined with appropriate checks and balances, but that element of democracy is missing in the AKP’s presidential proposals.

Turks are said to like a strong ruler. Indeed, Erdoğan gets half of all the votes, so perhaps he should be left free to run the country. What about the concept of the benevolent dictator?

I am not convinced that the Turkish people are looking for a benevolent dictator. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said it himself recently, “if we have 50 percent but if the other 50 percent hates us, it would create an ungovernable country.” That’s perfectly true.

Your final remarks about the AKP’s period in government?

There were important plus points up to the 2011 elections, but in their third term, for reasons that are not clear to me, they took a different turn and there has been a drift to a more majoritarian and authoritarian understanding. They missed the golden opportunity to serve as an example to the whole Muslim world as the only Muslim majority country compatible with democracy and universal standards.

Who is Ergün Özbudun?


Born in Ankara in 1937, Ergun Özbudun graduated from Ankara University Law Faculty and completed his PhD at the same faculty on public law.

Özbudun has worked as professor at Bilkent and Ankara University and as a visiting professor at Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Georgetown Universities. His principal subjects of research include constitutional law, political science, political parties and parliamentary law.

He is the author of more than a dozen books including “Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation,” “Emergency Powers,” and “Democratization Reforms in Turkey 1993-2004.” In addition to editing several books, he has also contributed to the translation of several books into Turkish.

Özbudun was until recently the Turkish representative of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters.