Presidential system or ‘supreme guidance’

Presidential system or ‘supreme guidance’

The president determined the basic topic of the coming general election as “constitutional change and the presidential system,” and he has personally begun to “campaign for the presidential system.” In fact, “the presidential system,” in the mind of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters rather sounds like a system of “supreme guidance.” After all, the project of a so-called “New Turkey” is about not only building a new political system, but also a new society bound by loyalties which are defined along the lines of a new ruling ideology.

The “New Turkey” project is based on an ideology which is shaped by an Ottomanist version of Turkish nationalism and neo-Islamism. “The ideal” is to reform Turkey into a community of believers and supporters of the national cause under strong guidance and leadership. The so-called “national cause” is the empowerment of Turkey as a global player with the capacity to challenge Western supremacy, not only in the name of proud new Turks but also the oppressed “ummah.” In the minds of neo-Ottoman nationalists, Turks governed vast lands and the majority of Muslims under Ottoman rule until the empire collapsed at the hands of Western powers and their internal Westernist pawns. In this view, after a century-long Western assault and grand treason, Erdoğan is now “the unbound Promethus” of the nation and of an ummah which craves for the return of the good old days of Turkish leadership. 

Therefore, the choice is not a matter of a political system, but about supporting “a historical mission.” In this view, the undisputable leader, Erdoğan, should be free from all restraints to change the course of history, which is why Turkey needs a new political system and constitutional legitimacy. That is also why Erdoğan and his supporters define the system in their mind as a “Turkish-style presidential system,” to avoid the constraints on presidential power present in other presidential systems.

Under those circumstances, we first have to realize that, in fact, we are not discussing a presidential system, but rather a political arrangement for Erdoğan’s “supreme guidance,” which will shape a “new order.” Erdoğan’s supporters define him and his power as “strong-willed” for this reason.

This is why we are, first of all, supposed to discuss the core issues of the promised “new order,” rather than the pros and cons of the presidential system. On the eve of political change, Turkey’s democrats, liberals and leftists should engage in a grand and urgent debate on the discourse of a “New Turkey.” I think democrats, liberals and leftists decline to discuss core issues to avoid the political, social and cultural pressures present when discussing historical, national and religious matters. Nevertheless, unless we begin to address the shortcomings of a “New Turkey” directly, we will once again miss the point.

Time is tight for those who prioritize democracy and freedom in Turkey, so they should begin to run the risk of challenging the red lines of the “New Turkey” discourse and all political values being promoted in the name of nationalism, religion and a historical mission. We should defend individual rights and freedoms against the supporters of the “New Turkey” discourse, who require us to be obedient members of a national harmony and will. Against those who require us to be unconditional supporters of “the national historical mission,” which is a “political myth,” we should defend the right of “freedom from history.” We should defend freedom of belief and conscience against those who expect political loyalty in the name of religious or cultural values. 

I, for one, want to declare my disobedience concerning all political claims in the name of “the nation,” “our history” and “cultural and religious values.” I happen to be a believer, though I might not be, and I am very interested in our Ottoman past, though I might not be - these are my choices. Finally, I love to live in this country, but denounce any sort of nationalism. In fact, I am not an individualist, but a strong opponent of transforming Turkish society into “a political community” in which everybody is expected to obey some national, historical, cultural and religious values defined by the ruling party or even by a majority. We, first and foremost, have to underline our position toward those core issues, because we are not voting for or against the presidential system, but for the fundamentals of a free, democratic society that may perish altogether too soon.