Turkey’s last prime minister

Turkey’s last prime minister

The debate on the constitutional shift from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system, as demanded by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, started in parliament on Jan. 9 in a highly strained atmosphere.

Opposition to the draft by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which is supported by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), came from the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). The Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also harshly criticizes the draft, which concentrates all executive power in the office of the president and increases the influence of the executive branch over the legislative and judiciary branches. However, protesting the ongoing arrest of a number of its MPs, including HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the party’s deputies chose not to use their votes in the first stage of the debate.

In this first debate the General Assembly decided on whether the whole framework should be debated, resulting in 338 votes in favor and 134 votes against.

Considering that seven CHP deputies were absent in the voting out of its total of 133, it can be said that all CHP deputies, plus five MHP dissidents, plus two independent MPs said “no” to the shift to presidential system.

The threshold to take the draft to a referendum is 330 votes in the 550-seat parliament. Parliament will now debate and vote on each of the 21 articles of the draft, and if any of them get below 330 votes, that article will be excluded from the package, even if the remaining ones get at least 330 votes.

The MHP has an interesting position in the constitutional debate. Its head Devlet Bahçeli, who is today strongly supporting the draft, used to be a staunch opponent of the idea of the presidential system and of the president keeping his position as a party chairman. Addressing his MHP group in parliament almost one year ago, Bahçeli asked whether Erdoğan “would demand to be king next” if he was elected as the party head-president. “A new Putin is rising and seizing Turkey step by step,” Bahçeli had said.

In his speech at parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım expressed gratitude for Bahçeli’s support for the proposal.

Former CHP head Deniz Baykal, meanwhile, delivered a strong speech against the draft, saying it would formally drag Turkey into a “party state.” He said it would endow the president with authorities enjoyed by neither Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the War of Independence almost a century ago, nor Bashar al-Assad of Syria today. Baykal asked AK Parti and MHP deputies to vote against the draft “if they wanted to defend their dignity and honor,” as if it is approved then parliament would lose most if its functions.

One of the main subjects of debate was the abolition of the Prime Minister’s Office foreseen by the constitution changes, as president would become the head of the cabinet if the shift is approved.

“My position is not that important,” Yıldırım said in response to the criticism and mockery of CHP deputies.

“There should not be two captains on a boat,” he added, noting that he had no problem with being the last prime minister and perhaps becoming the first deputy president.

If the constitution is approved, the Turkish administrative system will have no prime minister for the first time in centuries, including during the sultanate of the Ottoman Dynasty.

After all, it was Ottoman Sultan Orhan I appointed a prime minister, called “sadrazam” at the time, who was superior to other ministers and advisors back in 1364. The first such office-holder was Çandarlı Kara Halil Paşa, as the state authority second to the sultan. It was he who made the first political-military reform in Turkish history to set up the most effective military bureaucracy of the time, the Janissaries, (“Yeniçeri” in Turkish, meaning “new soldiers”).

If the Prime Minister’s Office is abolished, the Chief of General Staff, as the army chief will no longer be under the prime minister but directly under the president as the commander-in-chief. If that were not enough, the president will also have the authority to be his party’s chairman and be able to appoint a majority of the judges at Turkey’s top court.