Constitutional calculations and pitfalls

Constitutional calculations and pitfalls

Sinan Ciddi
On Nov. 14, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül stated his opinion that Turkey “should not veer away from the EU path,” adding to existing suspicions that clear differences in opinion exist between himself and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. This comment came following an extended period of disengagement from the EU accession process, which is likely to continue. Further difference in opinion between the government and the office of the president became apparent days later when Gül disclosed his disapproval of the pending removal of prosecutorial immunity rights for parliamentary members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which would open up the possibility of several members of the BDP being jailed for allegedly supporting terrorism. This emerging discord between the country’s two leaders may broaden as Turkey moves to adopt its new constitution sometime in 2013.

The 2013 deliberations on Turkey’s new constitution will be less focused on streamlining Turkey’s democratic governance structures, than it will be on defining who will govern Turkey and what powers they will be equipped with. Once negotiations have been completed and the final document is prepared for a parliamentary vote, followed by a public referendum, the type of presidential system which Turkey adopts will become apparent. As the constitution defines the scope of increased executive presidential competencies, it is likely that Erdoğan will not be the only contender for the newly empowered office, even though he is currently favored to be the likely winner. The presidency will be a five year post, renewable two times and the office holder directly elected by the voting population. Its framers aspire to create an office reminiscent of the grandeur and respect which the American presidency commands, and the efficiency and broad sweeping executive freedoms which the Russian model embraces. The creation of a presidency with increased executive powers will make this a much coveted position, one which Abdullah Gul may be willing to challenge Erdoğan for.

Regardless of the competition for office between the AKP’s two main architects, it is also likely that with the departure of Erdoğan from the chairmanship of the party, several individuals will seek to capture the top party position. This said, it is likely that without Erdoğan at the helm of the party, the AKP will become an increasingly marginalized political force as the public image and popularity of Erdoğan far surpasses the AKP party organization or any subsequent individual who may eventually come to lead it. For the most part, Turkish politics and party politics in particular have historically been dominated by individual personalities rather than party programs and organizations. Examples include Kemal Atatürk, İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes, Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal. All such individuals were greater than the sum of their party organization and their individual legacies far outlast their party affiliations. This said, Turkey’s political governance since 1923 has functioned as a parliamentary system and will be unused to adopting any type of presidential system. Despite its lack of experience in presidential governance, it may very well be the case that given the personality dominated nature of Turkish politics, the adoption of a presidential system may not be as far fetched as it seems.

Before any of these scenarios can be entertained, however, the beleaguered question of how the AKP will get the new constitution past the parliamentary vote remains, as the party by itself lacks the minimum number of votes required. To answer this question, one needs to take a closer look at the posture of the Nationalist Action Party, which may help realize a fundamental change in governmental system, the likes of which has not been seen since the inception of the republic.

Dr. Sinan Ciddi is the Executive Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University.