The first year of Turkey’s presidential system

The first year of Turkey’s presidential system

Turkey marked on July 9 the first anniversary of the implementation of the executive-presidential model that replaced a 95-year-old parliamentary system.

As it’s been a year since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was sworn into office with new powers, a balance sheet on this sui generis system and its impact on the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s performance is necessary.

An immediate analysis on the system reveals the governance architecture could not be fully set and there is still a big confusion on the decision-making process.

As can be recalled, the core of the new governmental architecture had been designed by the first three consecutive presidential decrees that installed the office of the vice president, 16 ministries, nine councils, four offices and scores of new institutions under the presidency.

However, there is still not an easy way to understand how all bodies and ministries coordinate and interact either horizontally or vertically. Erdoğan remains as the sole decision-maker almost on every major or minor issue while the ministers are less visible than they used to be in the past.

In a meeting with his lawmakers last week, Erdoğan admitted that there could be some problems but the system is just a year old and malfunctioning parts would be fixed in due course. Despite opposition voices, Erdoğan sticks with the system.

However, an overview of the AKP government’s performance in the last year is not brilliant.

On the economy, the government has obviously failed to deliver the demands of the people. The measures taken by Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak have been considered as insufficient as they did not address the required reform on the structural side. The Turkish Lira has devalued and unemployment figures have reached a new record. Erdoğan’s decision to remove Central Bank Governor Murat Çetinkaya has added a new element to the vulnerability, leaving the Turkish economy less predictable.

On foreign policy, the early days of the executive-presidency had marked an unprecedented crisis with the United States over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson on terror charges. Sanctions imposed on Turkey by the Trump administration had led to major economic turbulence in August 2018. Ties with the U.S. have relatively normalized after the release of the pastor but were later strained due to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s from Russia. The role of the Foreign Ministry, prominent ambassadors and other relevant institutions in the policy-making processes has apparently been reduced in the same period.

Turkey has further improved its ties with Russia in the same period, although Moscow paid little attention to Ankara’s concerns over the Syrian regime’s attacks on Idlib province. In addition, Moscow seemed to be reluctant in pushing the YPG terrorists out of the Tel Rifaat province from which they attacked Turkish positions.

One positive approach observed in the same period was the resumption of the Reform Action Group meetings with the task of upholding democratic reforms in an effort to revive ties with the European Union. The two sides have boosted dialogue in the last one year but it’s hard to argue that these interactions have provided concrete results. EU leaders will obviously not rush to further engage with Turkey on the candidate country’s long-standing demands, although Ankara hopes to open a new page with Brussels as both sides have left elections behind.

On the democratic front, the last year has not marked serious improvements except for the drafted judicial reform strategy. There are serious human rights breaches and restrictions on the use of fundamental freedoms. The cancellation of the Istanbul municipal polls has been considered as yet another solid example of the government’s influence on the judiciary. Parliament became less visible, but it could still protect its legislative weight on Turkish politics. 

As for the political landscape, the last year did not promise much for the AKP government. Its votes declined in the March 31 mayoral polls as the ruling party lost its two strongholds, Istanbul and Ankara, to the opposition. The loss in the Istanbul rerun was more dramatic as the opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, increased his votes by 800,000 in less than six weeks. This setback at the AKP encouraged its former strong and prominent members like Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu to form their own political parties.   

This brief assessment openly reveals that the shift to the executive-presidency did not work perfectly. It failed to function properly and create an efficient decision-making process within the government and bureaucratic elite. That eventually resulted in a governmental disappointment in fixing the ailing economy, in restoring broken ties with many countries as well as in attracting the electorate’s votes.

Serkan Demirtaş,