Turkey’s loaded discussion on system change

Turkey’s loaded discussion on system change

Birol Akgün*
Although it has been a pioneer among developing countries in terms of its experience with constitutionalism and democracy, the Turkish political elite are still discussing what the best form of government is for Turkey. In the context of the discussion of the new constitution, there seem to be two diverging views emerging in Turkish politics. One is the anti-presidentialism movement represented by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in parliament, and another is the pro-presidential group led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). While the ruling party asserts that a presidential system with checks and balances will be the key to ensuring Turkey’s long-term stability, the CHP categorically rejects presidentialism and argues that it will only make Turkey an authoritarian regime, not a better democracy. 

A close observer of Turkish politics, however, will easily recognize that Turkish democracy has in practice slowly evolved to resemble the semi-presidential system of France, marked by the first ever election of the president by the popular vote in 2014. The strong powers and prerogatives granted by Turkey’s 1982 constitution to the president of the republic, combined with resilient popular support and his charismatic leadership style, have indeed put President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a de facto presidential position.

Therefore, many of the political scientists who specialize in governmental systems would be hard pressed to classify the current Turkish system under the heading of parliamentarian anymore. The reason is simple.

Despite the defined elements of the parliamentary system in the current constitution from a comparative political perspective, such as appointment of the cabinet and the requirement of a confidence vote from the parliament, the functioning of the system is very different from that of a parliamentary democracy and is perhaps closer to semi-presidentialism.

From the outset of its establishment in 2001, the AK Party and its leader, Erdoğan, firmly believed that the best way to ensure democratic stability in Turkey is to rewrite the Turkish military-made 1982 constitution and implement a well-defined presidential system. Coming from a conservative political tradition, the AK Party’s main argument for defending a presidential system is understandably political stability. The party leadership believes that Turkey’s further development and its desire to become an independent and powerful actor in the international arena hinge on protecting political stability at home within a democratic framework. The only available democratic model that will achieve this seems to be a presidential democracy with proven constitutional checks and balances.

Unfortunately, attempts to change the constitution and institute a presidential system have so far failed. As a result of weakened role of the military in Turkish politics, the AK Party is putting the issue back on the political agenda. The growing support of 70 to 80 percent of the Turkish population for a new constitution puts further pressure on all the parties in parliament, and this pressure cannot be resisted in the long term. The strong participation of the Turkish electorate also indicates that there is a large demand for a new constitution to be formulated by the Turkish parliament. Finally, in the Nov. 1, 2015, election, the AK Party campaigned on a promise of introducing a new constitution and implementing a presidential system. It gained almost half of the popular vote. 

However, there are two major challenges facing the AK Party in its aim to establish a presidential system. 1) The election on Nov. 1, 2015, left the AK Party with a total of 317 representatives. This is less than the 330 members required to change the constitution. Due to this numerical handicap, the AK Party has no choice but to look for support from other political parties. 2) The AK Party narrative aimed at garnering sufficient support from the general public must be convincing enough to assure its constituents and others that the parliamentary system is outdated and that the presidential system will offer a better future with more political stability. For Erdoğan and the AK Party, it is a new target to be achieved as well as an item on the agenda for further reform. That is what politics is all about – leading the public and surviving in a politically competitive environment. 

*Prof. Dr. Birol Akgün is the chairman of the Institute of Strategic Thinking (SDE) in Ankara, Turkey. This is an abridged version of the original published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2016 issue. www.turkishpolicy.com