Presidential System in Turkey
On 16 April 2017, Turkish voters approved a package of constitutional amendments aimed at replacing the existing parliamentary system with an executive presidency and thereby granting President Erdoğan to extend his power. AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Justice and Development Party), led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ruled the country since 2002 and since the fail coup attempt in 2016, he consolidated power because of the state of emergency.
After the fail coup attempt, Erdoğan took several measures such as sweeping of defectors from the civil services, police, teachers, journalists, closure of media outlets and blocking of websites (Esen & Gumuscu, 2018). The constitutional amendments transformed the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system after coalition of Erdoğan won presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June 2018. Erdoğan's coalition, which consist of AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), had 53% of the vote against Muharrem Ince’s 31 percent who was the candidate of the opposition. This victory means that he will expand his authority for at least another five with the possibility to remain president until 2028. Presidential system of Turkey impairs parliaments role and weakens the judiciary independence and it results in raising some concerns about the country. Both negative and positive aspects of the new presidential system in Turkey will be discussed and it will be argued whether it is practicable for the country or not.
The New System and More Power to the President
The new system is one of the most significant political development since the foundation of republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and it is arguable that whether presidential system is applicable for Turkey or not because Turkish politics has faced with military interventions, constitutional changes, economic recessions, Kurdish question, and the EU process as Kanatli argues (2020). There are various risks associated with a Presidential form of democracy. According to political scientist, Juan Linz, a Presidential form of government runs the risk of making the political process rather rigid. The power distribution structure between the executive and the legislative branch in a Presidential structure is also unyielding as Kanatli (2020) and Esen & Gumuscu (2018) claims. “Since the foundation of the republic, Turkey has had three different constitutions, four military interventions, and sixty governments in 80 years”. Regarding of practicability of presidential system in Turkey, Kanatlı argues that the Turkish type of presidential system “undermines the basis of the rigid separation of powers, as indicated by 20th article of the draft the supremacy of the president against the assembly is legitimized”. According to him, it shows that the JDP’s Presidential System Draft neglects the vital principle of the separation of powers and “does not give the central stage to the National Assembly as an arena in which political problems can be deliberated and solved, in addition to that, new model prevents the assembly from checking the executive branch effectively”.
As Esen and Gumuscu (2018) claim;
“Whoever holds the presidential office has absolute control over cabinet appointments and selection of an unspecified number of presidential deputies, without any parliamentary oversight or approval. The president by default would rule by decrees on a wide range of issue areas unless the legislature passes a bill with a simple majority to override the presidential decree. The president also designs and governs the public administration system and bureaucracy through decrees without any parliamentary oversight and sets the criteria for bureaucratic appointments and personally makes these appointments, again without parliamentary input. He/she can also determine and define the mission, jurisdiction, and duties of all public institutions tied to the state. Last but not least, the president can declare emergency rule”. As Esen and Gumuscu argue in their article “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey,” (issued in Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9, February 2016, p.1588), “Turkish presidentialism is particularly dangerous because of its flawed design regardless of who possesses the seat of the president. Especially concerning are the weakness of the parliament and the judiciary vis-à-vis the president, who enjoys vast appointment powers and limited horizontal accountability”.
The Perils of Turkish Strong Presidential Power
There is growing concern about presidential system with a very strong single executive and its consequences on the issue of secularism. Turkey was founded as a secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, father of the nation, and one of the main principle for secularization and modernization of the state was laicism and he introduced secular reforms to political and social structure. “The constitutional court defines laicism, which has been part of the constitution since 1937, as “a civilized way of life that forms the basis for an understanding of freedom and democracy, for independence, national sovereignty, and the humanist ideal, which have developed as a result of overcoming medieval dogmatism in favor of the primacy of reason and enlightened sciences.” Moreover, the court determined that “in a laicist order […] religion is freed from politicization, is discarded as an instrument of power, and is assigned the proper and honorable place in the conscience of the citizens.” (Cemal Karakas, “Turkey: Islam and Laicism Between the Interests of State, Politics, and Society”, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), 2007, No. 78, p.8 ). However, AKP rule since 2002 has reshaped the country along conservative lines and the government is being criticized for failing to implement laicism which is one the main principles of Turkish Republic. “Policies for Islamisation of Turkey’s secular education system is particularly one of the the main concerns along Turkish society. Not only conservative religious values have started to be integrated into school books but also the overall quota of the theology faculties were drastically increased from 813 in 2007 to 5620 in 2009. The books for high school philosophy courses were revised and changed in the way to prioritise the philosophy of religion and concept of wisdom”. “While some conservatives in Turkey accept imam-hatip schools (traditional training schools for Sunni Muslim clergy) as an instrument of religious education, other conservatives reject them for being a state instrument for shaping religion. The secularist community in Turkey, on the other hand, has long regarded imam-hatips as a threat to Turkey’s secularist system. Recently, however, critics add that parental choice is being denied as part of a move by the government to convert secular institutions into imam-hatip schools”.
Another important criticism is the use of media by government because it extends control over the media since coming to power, especially after failed coup attempt which force the government to take measures against political and security issues results from distruptive effects of media. However, the effort for media turned into a pro-government tool for campaigns and they lose their objectivity. “These efforts proved particularly successful in creating an uneven political playing field. After the 2015 elections, for instance, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a report that highlighted the AKP’s uneven access to media via public and private outlets. In particular, the state-owned Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) station closely controlled by the ruling party has been a bastion of government propaganda. During the June 2015 campaign TRT allocated 46% of its airtime to the ruling AKP, not counting the airtime reserved for President Erdoğan, who actively campaigned for the AKP during elections”.
On the other hand, some argue that presidential system has advantages in terms of strong and stable government because of the separation of legislative and executive organs which cannot discharge each other. Furthermore, it is argued that it has positive sides in terms of transparency and rapid decision making process. “For instance; it is true that in a presidential system, as Akcali argues, a rigid separation of the executive and legislature branches prevents both branches from constructing hegemony over one another; a fact which is important with respect to democracy. Similarly, since there is no hierarchical order between the legislature and executive branches, both branches are not only enforced to work harmoniously, but also are prevented from seizing absolute power”. “Sartori stated the features of the presidential system to be the election of the president by the people, the inability of the parliament to remove the president from the office and the power of the president to preside over the government he or she appointed or to influence the government by other means. In this framework, the presidential system was claimed to provide consensus and stability in the executive in the narrow sense”. The election of the president by the people is essential character of the system in terms of democracy and accountability and implicates that “the president is in charge directly to citizens and the legitimacy of president comes from citizens. The second crucial and significant character of presidential system is that it addresses the broad and the colorful identities and provides consensus. In the presidential system, there is not a coalitional government, so any candidate president should get votes of majority in order to come to office of presidency”.
In conclusion, every political system has advantages as well as disadvantages, however, what is important is that how much the system contributes to the development of values such as democracy, peace and security, human rights, political culture, and development of social and economic structure. With respect to consequences of the presidential system in Turkey, Mehmet Kanatlı in his article “The Practicability of the Presidential System in Turkey and the Discussions Over Never Ending Dreams of Democracy” argues that “Turkish type of presidential system will result in authoritarian type of regime which will undermine the main principle of a rigid separation of powers and cause the domination of the legislature and judicial branches by the executive, in addition, polarize the society under the mask of stability, and undermine the democratic gains in Turkish political life”. As indicated by him, it is easy to change any system of government within the context of a majoritarian type of democracy and he suggests that Turkey should try to reach pluralist and radical types of democracy. Futhermore, Esen and Gumuscu, in this sense, claim that “the new system will exacerbate personalism, winners-take-all politics, majoritarianism, polarization, and the marginalization of minorities in the country”. Therefore, Turkey should seek to answer ‘Why do we need presidential system?’, ‘Why parliamentary system did not address political, social and economic problems?’ Or ‘Will vital problems be solved by presidential system, or, Why do not we focus on main reasons for vital problems rather than making radical structural changes?’ and all developments in time will show whether the new system is beneficial or dangerous for the country.
About the Author:
Melinda Demirel is a former intern at the Institute of International Relations. She is studying International Relations at Bilkent University. Her areas of interest include human rights, sustainable development, Middle East and Turkish Foreign Policy.