Turkey’s presidential system debate as farce

Turkey’s presidential system debate as farce

“Populism is primed to open the door to a plebiscitarian transformation of democracy insofar as it makes the role of personality essential in representing the unity of people and elections through a plebiscite that crowns the leader. For this reason, presidential democracies are more exposed to both the populist style of politics and a plebiscitary kind of relation between the leader and the people.” (Nadia Urbinati, Democracy Disfigured, Harvard University Press, 2014, page 175)

Urbinati’s book, which brilliantly elaborates the crisis of contemporary democracy, has a lot of relevance for the problem of Turkey’s democratic regression in general and for the recent “presidential system debate” in particular. The adoption of a presidential system through a new constitution is the last bastion of efforts to build the “New Turkey,” which will be the culmination of “authoritarian one-party/one-leader under God” project. 

Urbinati writes that “Representative institutions and constitutional rules enter the scene at this point as strategies for stopping the plebiscitarian democratic leader from becoming a plesbicitarian dictator,” but unfortunately these things have either lost their power or are under threat of complete demolition in today’s Turkey. Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself recently stated that the system he has in mind (unitarily centralized and presidential at the same time) has been experienced in history, as in Hitler’s Germany. Worse, those who are shocked by Erdoğan’s statements have been accused of “distorting what the president said,” despite video recordings of the press conference clearly showing what he said and what he meant. All in all it has turned into a complete farce.

All authoritarian regimes end up being farcical, but farce replaces reality for as long as power cannot be challenged. This is one of the painful aspects of living under an authoritarian regime. However, the most painful aspect of authoritarian regimes is war - and indeed there is a war going on in some parts of Turkey where Kurds live. People are living under fire in surrendered towns and many are imprisoned in their homes under military curfews that last for weeks. Still, nobody is supposed to know the truth or even demand to know the truth. 

This is not to say that Kurdish politics has no responsibility for the current war situation, or that everyone other than the government should be pardoned for the process of deterioration on the Kurdish front. But at the end of the day it is Turkey’s democracy deficit that has led it to disaster in many ways, and the ruling party and its leader continue to insist on presenting the disease as a cure. The current situation will obviously lead to a further deterioration of both the Kurdish problem and the democracy deficit under a more centralized system. Especially under current conditions, the proposal for a constitutional change to realize a “Turkish-style presidentialism” through a referendum (or a plebiscite) are nothing more than efforts to ultimately legitimize authoritarianism. It’s worth noting that a theologian who is very close to the government party has already declared that “the presidential system is like the Islamic system.” Others have compared presidentialism to the Islamic religious belief of unity as opposed to the Christian concept of the Trinity (with reference to the parliamentary system).

At a time when an authoritarian system with religious legitimacy is waiting at the door, some so-called liberals are still trying to justify the whole affair as a fair debate on different types of democracy. That is another painful aspect of living under an authoritarian system, where the worse kind of hypocrites and intellectual clowns find a comfortable space to pursue their career at the expense of peace and freedoms.

Those who believe in democracy, freedom and honest debate, on the other hand, do not even have space to breathe.