Erdoğan moves for de facto regime change in Turkey

Erdoğan moves for de facto regime change in Turkey

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan convenes the board of ministers in his new Presidential Palace today on Jan. 19 for the first time since he was elected to his new post after the Aug. 10, 2014, election.

This is not the first time in Turkish history that a president has called the cabinet for a meeting - it is a constitutional authority after all - but all other examples were either times of serious international crisis (like the meeting called for the Iraq war by Turgut Özal) or by invitation of the prime minister, again in times of a major crisis, like Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s invitation of Süleyman Demirel as the president at the time.

Today is different. Erdoğan said during his election campaign that he would be actively involved in government affairs; something Constitutional but out of political tradition in the country. It was not Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (who was hand-picked by Erdoğan as his successor) who invited him to chair the cabinet (and not in the Prime Ministry building), but it was Davutoğlu who accepted the circumstance that it would be Erdoğan who ruled the country.

According to politics backstage in Ankara, among issues like the dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a settlement of the Kurdish problem and rooting-out (his former ally, U.S.-based Islamic scholar) Fethullah Gülen’s sympathizers from government agencies, there is an important systemic issue on the agenda. Erdoğan wants to set new ground rules for president-government relations.

He has been establishing a sort of executive coordination mechanism within the presidency for months; the coordinators will be expected to work as links between the president and government ministers on issues from foreign policy to the economy, from national security to social policies.

It is possible that such a cabinet above the cabinet may not trigger a major crisis with a prime minister like Davutoğlu who is obedient to Erdoğan, but it might be a recipe for one if and when the president and the prime minister come from different parties.

Erdoğan has been designing this de facto semi-presidential system (even without the need to change the Constitution) thanks to Davutoğlu that it could only work if the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) stays in power as long as it can.

But even under the current circumstances, there are signs of problems. For example, in the last two weeks Davutoğlu proudly announced two economic reforms; one about new urbanization and building regulations to prevent unfair rent on land, and the other on transparency, urging all public personalities, including the provincial heads of political parties (not only civil servants) to declare their assets regularly, which could be monitored online by the citizens.

Erdoğan reportedly invited the members of the Executive Board and spokespersons in parliament from the AK Parti to a working dinner last week and, in the absence of Davutoğlu, slammed those two reforms, claiming that they could work against the AK Parti in the June 7 elections. The president has to be bi-partisan and should not get involved with party politics according to the Constitution, but there is another issue. Will those reforms that Davutoğlu proudly promised be submitted to and passed by Parliament? Will AK Parti executives listen to Erdoğan or Davutoğlu on those reforms?

What Erdoğan has begun to do, as he had promised to the voters, is a de facto change in Turkey’s administrative system. It is a question waiting for an answer, whether it will serve for efficiency as Erdoğan says, or further consolidate the powers in the hands of the president.

But it is clear who is going to pay the bill if and when someone asks for it. According to the Constitution, the president has no responsibility in the executive body, all the responsibility goes on the shoulders of the Board of Ministers, including the prime minister.