The next battle: Presidential system

The next battle: Presidential system

The other day, President Tayyip Erdoğan spoke to a large crowd at a big hall in Ankara. The audience was made up of representatives of some 250 nongovernmental organizations, but specifically ones that seemed to be sympathetic to Erdoğan’s cause. To them, and to the cameras, the President announced the new goal for Turkey: A new constitution with a “presidential system.” 

Among these two concepts, a new constitution has truly been a longtime ambition in Turkey. The current constitution was drafted under the auspices of a military junta in 1982 and hence, democrats of various colors longed for a “civilian constitution.” Such a new charter, they hoped, would secure more rights and freedoms to Turkey’s diverse society and restructure the state on more liberal grounds. 

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also championed this “civilian constitution” idea for a long time. In 2008, the AKP even asked a team of liberal constitutional law professors to prepare a draft. They did, and really drafted a very good text, emphasizing more freedom, rule of law and pluralism.

Something was conspicuously missing, however, in that AKP vision: There was no “presidential system.”

The reason is that the AKP had no interest in a “presidential system” until 2012. That year, apparently, Erdoğan, who was then the prime minister, decided that the next job he wanted for himself was the presidency. The presidency of Abdullah Gül, the very founder of the AKP, was going to end in 2014 and Erdoğan wanted to replace him. But the presidency in the current construction was not powerful enough. So the whole system had to be changed and a very powerful presidency had to be created.

That is how the longtime dream of a “civilian constitution” and the sudden need for “a presidential system” married each other. I, for my part, dropped a short note on this on Twitter way back in August 2012, saying:
“Let me say in advance: I am not in favor of the presidential system. I also think it is an unnecessary debate. Whether a system is presidential or parliamentary does not matter. What matters is whether it is democratic, pluralist and liberal.”

Today, I don’t only think the presidential system is an unnecessary debate, I also think it is a worrying scheme, for most probably it will not be “democratic, pluralist and liberal.”

Why? In fact, both President Erdoğan and his supporters are speaking of nothing but “democracy” all the time. When you look at the trend of the past three years, however, there is little room to doubt that this is a very illiberal conception of democracy: The majority of the nation (religious conservatives) are taken to be the “nation” itself. The rest have been called on to bow down, in every field of life, from the media to the academia, to the elected leader.

Moreover, President Erdoğan’s personal remarks on this issue do not give much hope. He declared that the presidential system will be “national and native,” which is a far cry from the “Copenhagen Criteria” that he used to champion in the early 2000s. The other day, he also said the system will be based on not the “separation of powers,” but a “harmony of powers.” One can read this as the ultimate farewell to checks-and-balances.

The worst news is that the president and all his supporters seem incredibly determined to bring this “presidential system.” So, it probably will be next big battle for the next few years.