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May 13, 2012, Sunday

Turkey’s priority is its constitution

For a while, there have been attempts to create a discussion regarding switching to a presidential system in Turkey.

The system is promoted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağç, who attempted to initiate a discussion on the presidential model last week. Bozdağ said, “We need to discuss the presidential system,” a statement that Erdoğan’s confidant Burhan Kuzu, a constitutional lawyer, seconded. It is interesting that these statements are being made at a time when the parliamentary commission on the constitution has completed the consultation process. The commission has now started the process of writing the constitution. In the aftermath, the prime minister made some constructive remarks on the presidential system; to this end, he said, “During the making of the constitution, the presidential system should also be discussed.”

Frankly, I think that Erdoğan’s ambition to create a new constitution is greater than his eagerness to introduce a presidential system, and this makes me concerned because even making a new constitution is a challenging task in this state of extreme polarization in Turkey. I see that discussions on the presidential system will undermine the process of making a new constitution. It is obvious that it is pretty dangerous to cause additional polarization over the presidential system, which the people are not well-informed about.

It could be said that there is no single country in the world other than the US where the presidential system has been successful. The system has evolved a unique style over time in the US and has become a complicated political mechanism. Even so, the presidential system attracts a great deal of criticism. It is also known that countries which moved to a presidential system had to deal with serious problems. For instance, in Ecuador the president ordered police units to attack parliament with tear gas.

In the presidential system the legislative branch is separated from the executive branch, and the president is elected by popular vote; however, it is not possible to have control over the president because there is no such mechanism as a “vote of confidence.” In case they become unsuccessful or authoritarian, they still remain in power for their office term. The power of the executive branch is attributed to one single person and this ensures rapid use of this power; but this also brings some serious risks. Harmonization is secured in case the president is the candidate of the party that holds a majority in parliament; however, in case of disagreement or conflict between the president and the parliament, the latter may insist on not passing the legislation that the president needs, and this may lead to serious crisis.

The countries that moved to a presidential or semi-presidential system have done so at times of crisis when they needed a strong leader. France did so during the war in Algeria, and Sri Lanka during the war with the Tamils. And their choice actually worked back then.

However, Turkey is experiencing the most stable period in its history. And it is about to make a new constitution. The weak link of the chain in Turkey is not the parliamentary system. The problems in Turkey include local administration reform, the coup-era constitution and legislation that still remains unchanged. For instance, there is a fairly antidemocratic law for political parties. The election threshold still remains at 10 percent. And during the election, the candidates are picked almost exclusively by the party leader. Parties receive funds from the state in the elections; but the distribution of these funds is not fair because the big parties are in fact favored.

There is a flawed belief that presidential system will be a better option to empower local administration, a solution that is favored to address the Kurdish problem in Turkey. However, there are successful models like Japan, which employs a parliamentary and administrative system where the regions and districts are led by elected governors.

The issue could of course be discussed. However, it is not clear whether Erdoğan wants the presidential system for the betterment of the country or for his own ambitions to become president by 2014. In the past, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has introduced reforms at times when the status quo has become a real burden. However, despite there being almost no obstacles left, it fails to introduce further reforms, including making a new constitution. And the prime minister’s recent statements on the match-rigging bill and the Feb. 28 coup investigation also raise additional concerns.

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