The Trump impact and the ‘a la Turca’ presidency

The Trump impact and the ‘a la Turca’ presidency

As the Turkish Parliament continues its second round of voting on a constitutional amendment package shifting the country from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, the White House will welcome its new resident Donald Trump today. 

As a Turkish journalist in Washington to cover the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, it feels quite ironic to witness the still ongoing state of shock in the capital, sustained by both the rhetoric and actions of President-elect Trump since election day. My conversations with well-read Washingtonians inevitably end up with them questioning me on how life may be like under the influence of a bullying leader. 

Just as the opposition in Turkey argues that the constitutional package, predominantly crafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), undermines the fundamental pillars of separation of powers and drags Turkey towards a one man rule, the opposition in America argues that Trump will run the country much as he has run his company: For himself! 

Since Trump’s election victory last November, the political establishment in the U.S. has been discussing whether American democracy as we know it will collapse with Trump in office who has been showing clear authoritarian inclinations. Well, a collapse might be a long shot but it has become evident that Trump will game the system to weaken the safeguards that traditionally constrain a U.S. president. 

“The institutional safeguards protecting our democracy may be less effective than we think. A well-designed constitution is not enough to ensure a stable democracy,” argued professors of government at Harvard University Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in a New York Times article back in December. They emphasized the importance of reinforcing democratic institutions through informal norms and unwritten rules. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, for much of American history both Republican and Democrat presidents resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions.

In Turkey, the ruling AKP’s masterminds have often referred to the U.S. presidential system as a means of a healthy and functioning democracy. In fact, the former chair of parliament’s Constitution Committee, Burhan Kuzu, has conceptualized the AKP’s executive presidency proposal as an amalgam of the American and French models, where a unitary state meets the rights and powers of a U.S. president. 

I believe it is about time for everyone in Turkey to pay a closer attention to the current debate on American democracy as we move closer to a referendum that will determine the country’s political fate. Today, the U.S. is becoming a living example demonstrating that despite a well-functioning system of checks and balances, the concentration of power in the hands of one man may still pose a danger to democracy. Imagine what would happen under a system that allows a president to form a government independently of parliament, to appoint and discharge top officials, to control judicial appointments, and to dissolve and reconstitute parliament.

Trump’s inauguration marks the start of a new era in global politics. Fair play will not be the theme of Trump’s White House. Meanwhile, in Turkey we have enough reasons to worry that Trump’s leadership style and execution of the presidency might have a detrimental effect on Turkish politics, which are already driven by one man. God save American democrats and the rest of us from President Trump, who until now seems to have measured his success according to the number of norms he can violate.