Executive authority and political leadership: Where the twain shall meet
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had a choice this week: Either define a modus operandi for cohabitation a la Turca, or step down. He chose the latter. Davutoğlu had the opportunity to help shape the new normal after the first popularly-elected president took office. He did not use it. Given our current constitutional setting, a president elected by slightly more than 50 percent of the popular vote and a prime minister elected by slightly less than 50 percent of the vote could only mean trouble. Why? Let me explain.
“All politics is local,” U.S. Representative Tip O’Neil famously said. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden changed it up a bit and, during a private meeting in Istanbul some time ago, said “all politics is personal.” He didn’t have to know the intricacies of Turkish politics to see that the country he was visiting was suffering from what was, first and foremost, a personality problem. Think about the structure in which those people are embedded. A presidential candidate appeals to the people. He gets elected by promising things. Yet once elected, there is no mechanism in the constitutional architecture for him to be effective in policy making or implementation - not even the power to propose new legislation to parliament. Yet the president will soon realize that he does have bargaining power. A lot of paper trails end with his signature, which means that he can leverage those papers to enforce his will in areas he has no formal authority over. The disconnect between the constitutional order and the de facto state of things leads to policy instability and, ultimately, political instability. This is a structural issue. The constitutional architecture is supposed to confine the power of individuals, no matter how charismatic. Ours seem to be failing. Why?
Electing the president by popular vote was the result of the 2007 referendum, when Abdullah Gül was the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) candidate. Back then, it was considered a clever political maneuver to override the resistance of the Turkish establishment to a first lady with a headscarf. The amendment was accepted with a “yes” vote of around 70 percent. This was no problem during the first seven years, as Turkey did not have direct presidential elections until 2014. That 2007 amendment to Turkey’s constitution became operational only when Tayyip Erdoğan took office as the first popularly-elected president in 2014. Since then, political competition at the top has paralyzed Ankara. Davutoğlu had the legal authority to govern, but the political leadership of the movement he was nominally the head of rested with the president. Considering that the whole point of democratic process is to combine the popular will with the legal authority to govern, this bifurcation was inherently unstable and doomed to fail.
With Davutoğlu’s decision, the genie is out of the bottle. He had the chance to align executive authority and political leadership in his person and gave it up. Now, it is Erdoğan’s turn. However, this process will involve a debate about Turkey’s constitution and a presidential system. Interesting times lie ahead.