Is the presidency a priority?

Is the presidency a priority?

With or without Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the discussion about the power of the presidency is among Turkey’s priorities. Let me tell you why.

Turkey is a country in flux, still trying to change from one form to another. The economic transformation process started in the early 1980s with policy reforms. In the 2000s, that was coupled with political transformation shaped by the growth of industry outside big cities and the emergence of a new middle class. Today the drafting of a new constitution signifies not only the beginning of a new era, but also a starting point for open and hearty debate in Turkey. A long stretch of political ventriloquism is coming to an end. The constitutional debate is not only about drafting a document, but is also a delicate process of healing the wounds of the past. 

The current political elite are notorious for starting their dances on the wrong foot. The constitutional process, however, started in a surprisingly positive atmosphere. The last six months of debate on the issue was time well spent. The Conciliation Commission for the new constitution was set up with an equal number of deputies from all four of the political parties represented in Parliament. Equal standing is good for a healthy deliberation process. 

Next, citizens’ assembly conventions were organized under the leadership of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodities Exchanges (TOBB). Turkey has a grassroots, democratic chamber network. These conventions, titled “Turkey Speaks,” were the first example of deliberative democracy in Turkey. Now the Commission will process the compiled information. I participated in all 13 of these meetings, organized across 12 provinces. And I am a convert. I firmly believe that Turkey will soon have a new constitution. As speaker of Parliament, Cemil Çiçek has said several times in the context of these meetings that if the political parties fail to deliver they should be ready to pay a high price. 

As the Commission prepares to begin writing the new constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ has begun a new debate on the presidency and the presidential system. The prime minister weighed in with an aphorism from the famous writer and poet Namık Kemal, saying that “the light of the truth emerges from the clash of ideas.” There was no need for Erdoğan to express his support for one side or the other – everyone in Ankara knows that Bekir bey would not have spoken without getting the prime minister’s blessings first. And so, the debate about the presidential system has begun. It is an open secret that Erdoğan himself would like to become the first real president of the country. 

So is the presidency an urgent issue in the constitutional debate? Unfortunately, it is. Is it only the whim of Mr. Erdoğan? I don’t think so. Since the constitutional amendment of 2007, presidents are to be elected by popular vote. That is a remnant of the Justice and Development Party’s political arm wrestling with the army at the time. There is no more arm wrestling now, but the amendment remains.

A president elected with 51 percent of the popular vote will inevitably clash with a prime minister elected with 40 percent of the popular vote. A crisis is inevitable, given the current design. The solution is simple: Either lower the authority of the president, turning him or her to a figurehead, or enhance the power of the president with more executive powers. Whether Erdoğan is in the picture or not, Turkey needs a debate on the structure of its executive branch: the sooner the better.