Of Turkish and French presidents

Of Turkish and French presidents

Turkey had its legislative elections on June 7. The result was simple: Four parties made it into parliament and not a single one had enough seats to form a government by itself. As prime minister designate, Ahmet Davutoğlu failed to form a coalition government. In line with his constitutional powers, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dissolved parliament and declared that snap elections would be held on Nov. 1. 

None of that would be unusual, if not for President Erdoğan’s role throughout the whole thing. He is the first president in the history of the republic to be elected by popular vote and the first to campaign for a party in parliamentary elections. On top of that, he now also dissolved parliament. So does that mean, some ask, that Turkey’s political system is like that of France? The French semi-presidential system, after all, elects its presidents by popular ballot and gives them the power to dissolve parliament. It sounds like Mr. Erdoğan’s job, but there is a crucial difference between the two: The French president can dissolve parliament unilaterally, while the Turkish president’s power to do so is only circumstantial. Let me explain.

Remember how Francois Mitterrand dissolved the French parliament in 1988? He did not have to consult anyone. One stroke of the pen at the time of his choosing was enough. That’s what unilateral means. France has a semi-presidential system where the popularly elected president is meant to be strong. Turkey has a parliamentary system where the popularly elected president is meant to be weak. 

The Turkish president’s authority to dissolve parliament can only be used if, and only if, a newly elected parliament fails to form a majority government within 45 days after the president elects the leader of the most successful party to form a coalition government. That is what President Erdoğan has done. That does not mean that he could do it when a government was in place. Parliament has precedence at every other stage in Turkey.

But let me return to the Mitterrand example for a moment. Mitterrand was elected president of the French republic in 1981, but his Socialist Party lost the legislative elections in 1986. Mitterrand was forced to appoint Jacques Chirac as his prime minister. Instances like that where the president and parliament are of different parties are referred to as “cohabitation.” They are hard to manage. 

Then, in 1988, Chirac challenged Mitterrand for the presidency, but Mitterrand held on to his seat and began a second term. Seeing that he was popular, he dissolved parliament and called for early elections to bring back a Socialist majority government. He succeeded. The 1988 elections brought back a Socialist majority to work closely with the president. Note that Mitterrand could have called for snap elections at any time, but he waited two years for a more conducive environment. 

But what made politics fun was stifling policy. Presidential elections were being elected every seven years, while parliamentary elections happened every five years. That meant that there was enough time between those elections for people to change their minds and the two arms of government were more often than not held by separate parties. In 2000, France passed a parliamentary amendment to synchronize the cycle at five years. Presidential and parliamentary elections are now held within a few months of each other.

Turkey’s case today is difficult to compare to any other country. The June 7 parliament is the shortest lived of all 18 in Turkey’s multi-party politics history. Why? Because cohabitation proved to be impossible under the current circumstances. Turkey is no France. Politics here are more personal, and that is unlikely to change before Nov. 1. Yet Turks are asking for cohabitation. How many more elections will it take for their leaders to be convinced? And if achieved, how will Ankara’s lawmakers manage what their French counterparts found unsustainable? We will see.