Why does Erdoğan want a ‘presidential system?’

Why does Erdoğan want a ‘presidential system?’

These days, one of the hottest topics in Turkey is the campaign to shift to the “presidential system” with a new constitution after the upcoming elections on June 6. If this really happens, it will amount to the greatest systemic transformation Turkey has had since the beginning of the republic in 1923. In fact, the roots of the current parliamentary system go back to the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, so a “presidential system” will be trashing a 140-year-old tradition. 

What is the big difference between two? In the parliamentary system that Turkey adopted from Europe, the head of the state is the politically neutral president, whereas the head of the executive is the politically responsible prime minister. The presidential system is rare among democracies, and is known to work well best in the United States, whose political history and culture is quite unique. 

Now, the bigger question is who wants a presidential system in Turkey and for exactly what reason. The first question is not hard to answer. The push for the presidential system clearly comes from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his close advisors and his committed propagandists. It would be wrong to add the “Justice and Development Party [AKP],” for many people in the ruling AKP are silent on this matter, if not silently resistant. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, too, does not seem terribly enthusiastic about this great transformation, which would practically dissolve his office.

In fact, no one with a clear mind doubts that we are discussing the “presidential system” simply because Erdoğan wants it. No one also doubts that if the presidential elections of last August were won by not Erdoğan, but one of his rivals, such as Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the discussion would simply not exist. 

So, let’s come to the second question: Why exactly does Erdoğan want a presidential system?

One answer given by both him and his advisors is that this system will be “more efficient.” Erdoğan recently complained that the current system is bad because it is “double-headed.” What he meant was the diversification of powers between the presidency and Prime Ministry. The implication is that he wants to combine both offices under a super-presidency. 

Yet being the sole master of the whole executive is not the only matter here. In Turkey’s electoral system (and political culture) that super-president would control the legislation (i.e., the parliament), too, as long as his party wins the majority. So, you would have a super-president that will have full control over both the executive and the legislative branches of the government.

But would this be enough? Of course not. Erdoğan recently complained that he feels “chained” by the current system in Turkey, and pointed to the judiciary as one of his “chains.” As an example, he pointed to a case where he appointed someone to an executive position at the TRT, the state TV, but a court annulled the decision. 

Other signals also suggest that all such “chains” by the judiciary, including the Constitutional Court, will be torn apart in the new presidential system. Checks and balances, in other words, will cease to exist. Meanwhile, autonomous institutions such as the Central Bank, which Erdoğan bashes almost every week for not listening to his guidance, will probably be tied to the super-president. Add to this all universities, whose heads are already appointed by the President. Also add the media, where a steadily growing segment is directly controlled by Erdoğan. The result, indeed, will be a very, very “unchained” presidency.