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May 13, 2012, Sunday

Yes to presidential system if...

There are certain political debates in Turkey that are reheated and brought onto the agenda as if they were some regularly performed, prescribed religious rituals.

One of the debates that has been frequently fired up since the time of late President Turgut Özal is whether a presidential system is better than Turkey's parliamentary system, which has been in place, albeit not very successfully, since the establishment of the republic. It seems that the prescribed time for this political ritual must have come, that although the whole country is anxiously awaiting the drafting of a civilian constitution for the first time, the presidential system debate has been reignited to push civilian expectations for the constitution into the background. "The government system debate -- a presidential or semi-presidential or parliamentary system -- should not overshadow or postpone the fundamental problems that are supposed to be solved by the new constitution," the final declaration of the May 2011 meeting of the Abant Platform, one of Turkey's intellectual forums, titled "New Term, New Constitution," stated. And it seems we are closer to this risk being fulfilled.

While I fully agree with this concern the Abant Platform voiced as early as May 5, 2011, I find any discussion of any political issue, be it on a presidential system or a federal one, in the country's still-limping democratic atmosphere useful. Let me put it straight at the beginning to avoid any misunderstanding: In principle, I am not against the presidential system as long as it is effectively addressed, debated and transferred to Turkey in its entirety with all of the rules and institutions of well-working models of presidential systems.

I should also note that what we mean with a presidential system must be very clear. This is because there is not one single type of presidential system in the world, and the number of those that are successful in terms of democratic standards is very few. A form of governance where a country is led by a single entity called a president, elected by the public, is, by definition, a presidential system. In this regard, there are a number of presidential systems, in a vast area ranging from Central Asia to Africa and from South Asia to Latin America. Almost all of them, with a few exceptions, prove that good governance, good administration, better democracy or a freer and wealthier country is not the necessary or natural outcome of a presidential system.

There is not only the American-type presidential system, where the checks and balances system functions perfectly and the separation of powers is designed in an exemplary manner, but also the Russian-type of presidential system or those systems prevalent in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Venezuela, where presidents are decorated with extensive powers and authorities that make them dictator-like. Yet, I think whenever a presidential system debate erupts in Turkey, people tend to assume that everyone is referring to an American-type presidential system. But it is very likely that the people engaging in such debates may have different notions about what a presidential system is, or they may be referring to a model that will reinforce their own powers. In this regard, if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explains what kind of presidential system he is talking about, the debate can be pursued on a more effective platform and in an efficient manner. Therefore, Prime Minister Erdoğan must clearly state whether he is after an American-style, Russian-style or Latin American-style presidential system.

Although, with this article, I have gotten myself involved in the presidential system debate, I believe it would be better for Turkey to eliminate the weaknesses of its parliamentary system, which has been in place, except for some interruptions, since the Tanzimat -- a legislative remodeling of Turkish administrative methods -- and reinforce the power and independence of the legislature instead of the executive. I don't think we have to abandon the parliamentary system and replace it with a presidential one in order to improve democracy, transparency, individual rights and powers, and reinforce the separation of powers, a sine qua non component of democracies. Furthermore, I cannot be sure if the long-term needs of the country or the future of a politician or his party are being considered in bringing the presidential debate to the agenda. At a political juncture where systemic needs are intermingled with individual concerns, I seriously doubt any debate about forms of governance will produce any sound result. Still, I want to emphasize that while my personal choice is that the parliamentary system should be maintained by eliminating its defects, I am not against the presidential system in principle, as long as the system in question is the successful and democratic American-type presidential system, and this system is transferred in its entirety.

It must not be forgotten that a presidential system is a form of governance that relies on a strict separation between and balance among the legislative, executive and judicial powers, and that extends the domain of the executive under the review of the legislature and the judiciary. And it must further be noted that the US, which is the sole successful implementer of the presidential system, is at the same time a federal system. In the American-style federal system, all powers and authorities, excluding foreign policy and defense -- and including legislative, executive and judicial -- lie with the state administrations that further share their powers and authorities with local elements in a perfect system of decentralization. In this system, not only governors, mayors, police chiefs and local officials, but also superintendents who are in charge of the management of schools in a neighborhood, sheriffs and even judges are elected to office for a definite term by the local people. I hope those who initiated this debate are aware that the successful implementation of a presidential system in the US is made possible largely thanks to a sui generis federal structure and extreme decentralization, rather than because of the checks and balances between federal institutions and state powers.

The American model in which decentralization and local administration permeates every facet of life is the most successful presidential system model -- perhaps it is the only successful presidential system in terms of democratic standards. In other cases, it is virtually impossible to find a model that does not amount to dictatorship/authoritarianism. I must note once again that the US is the only country where a presidential system functions normally and in a democratic manner. Its Latin American and African implementations, in particular, are disastrous in terms of democratic standards. In these countries, the presidential system has not been implemented successfully. Today, democracy is under constant threat in many Latin American countries that are seemingly democratic and always at risk of a coup. In the Philippines and Indonesia, which fall under the category of a presidential system, it is clear that democratic traditions have not been properly established.

So I say a strong "yes" to an American-style presidential system provided that the system inherits all of its principles and institutions. And I say a strong "no" to a change of political system implemented with a mindset that sees a presidential system as consisting solely of the presidency. I think reason and conscience tell us that it is better to reinforce the parliamentary system in favor of the legislature than to delve into a system debate when we don't know where it will end up.

Previous articles of the columnist