Is the presidential system Turkey’s most urgent problem?

Is the presidential system Turkey’s most urgent problem?

During a speech on Jan. 6 to local headmen, President Tayyip Erdoğan brought up the issue of a regime shift from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one. Erdoğan said that if the representatives of the people - meaning MPs - were not ready to deliver this shift, he could appeal directly to the people in some form of referendum. 

“Why are we making the parliamentary system a fetish for democracy? There have been parliamentary systems that produced dictators in the past. When I recently gave the example of Hitler and Nazi Germany as a dictatorship that resulted from a parliamentary system, they [implying opposition parties] distorted my words,” he said.

The reply of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu came in the form of a Twitter message: “The country has turned into a zone of fire. There is a state of emergency in the east but their only problem is the presidential system!” Kılıçdaroğlu wrote. “Their personal ambition has blinded their eyes and deafened their ears.”

Kılıçdaroğlu was referring to ongoing clashes between the security forces and outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in towns and neighborhoods in eastern and southeastern Turkey near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. The PKK has tried to declare autonomy by resuming its armed campaign while the government has responded by imposing curfews and sending in the military and police. While TV stations were broadcasting Erdoğan’s speech live, news agencies were reporting footage of military officers trying to evacuate civilians who want to escape from their homes in curfew-hit zones. Hundreds of people have been killed in the clashes and operations over the past three months: Civilians, soldiers, policemen, and PKK militants.

“When I wake up in the morning,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was quoted as saying two weeks ago. “The presidential system is not always in my mind. I’m thinking about the struggle against terrorism, Syria, Iraq, and other matters.” However, since Davutoğlu started meeting the leaders of other political parties for a new constitution, he started to talk about the merits of the presidential system more often. Perhaps that is why Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli claimed on Jan. 5 that Davutoğlu was giving “involuntary” support to Erdoğan’s “ambitions” for a change to a presidential system. 

In the meantime, Davutoğlu withdrew his invitation for a meeting with the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on writing a new constitution, on the grounds that HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş said Turkey should start debating autonomy (for Kurds and not only Kurds), which was slammed by President Erdoğan as “treason.”

Erdoğan yesterday asked parliament to strip HDP deputies who speak about autonomy in support of the PKK of their parliamentary immunities and send them to court.

Indeed, Turkey does have a number of serious problems - from the economy to security to diplomacy. Nevertheless, Erdoğan is doing his best to make sure that the shift to a presidential system is not dropped from this list.