Every time, those who bring the issue up talk about the need for debate. As though the public has the slightest idea about the issue. As though decisions on this or that issue -- including the place where a soccer cup should be handed over -- aren’t taken by one person only, and have been for some time now.
Let’s first consider the assertion by proponents of the presidential system that the parliamentary system has had its time and the most democratic and stable system is the presidential one. Indeed, presidential or semi-presidential governments exist in many countries. Even in Turkey there is an unofficial “quarter-presidential” system. President Abdullah Gül often states that the power attributed to his function is too much for a parliamentary democracy. According to the 1982 Constitution, the presidency has quite a broad impact on appointments of officials to crucial institutions such as high courts, universities, the Higher Education Board (YÖK) and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK). This may counterbalance the power of both the executive and the legislature. During former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s tenure, this power was used and abused on many occasions by him.
Although it is widespread, the only country where presidential government runs more or less satisfactorily in terms of democracy is the US. Brazil is slowly getting there and maybe Mexico in the future. Those who advocate for the presidential system are emphasizing political stability. Indeed, dictatorships are very stable until the day dictators who keep being re-elected with ludicrous margins are toppled. The search for stability should not become an obstacle to democracy.
Systems which guarantee sustainable political stability aren’t headed by a single person or even a strong majority. They are those in which checks and balances are built on maximum political representation. Turkey, a country that can’t solve any of its problems in a lasting manner, makes a perfect example of this paradox.
Thus, before discussing the model, one should first understand why the existing system doesn’t work well in Turkey. Here are some hints: Nothing was done for fairer political representation and strong political parties. The world’s highest and most unjust election threshold (10 percent) is still in place. There is a single-round election system that strengthens already strong political parties while further weakening small ones. With some exceptions, the majority of deputies are unrelated to the regions where they are elected. Democracy within parties is hopeless. In such a system of total allegiance to the party bosses, legislative action consists of deputies raising and lowering hands. Political parties are under constant threat of being shut down by the Constitutional Court.
Although the government has made no serious endeavors to empower the parliamentary system that it no longer likes, the presidential model is presented like a magic wand which will suddenly soothe all ills. In the end, the issue is not an underpowered executive but the lack of a democratic Constitution laying the foundation for a system that would control and balance the power of the executive through a strong legislature, an optimally independent judiciary and adequately decentralized regional structures.
The unique reading from the political advocates of the system is “Her Yönüyle Başkanlık Sistemi” (The Presidential System of Government from Every Angle), which was written in 1997 by AK Party deputy Burhan Kuzu and republished last year after being revised in haste. On page 112 the prime minister referred to is Tansu Çiller and the president Süleyman Demirel!
Although the author mentions a strong legislative power throughout the book, it is unclear how the legislative power which was made functionless will suddenly be strengthened by the same politicians through the presidential system.
But the trick is elsewhere, in the obvious proviso regarding the power of regional structures: “We should immediately state that federal and provincial aren’t among the indispensables of the presidential model [p. 14]. … In our model the unitary structure of the French system and the power of the president in the US meet [p. 139].” While some among the Turkish press, politicians and academics contemplate a regional check and balance, Kuzu overtly describes an autocratic system without any hesitation.
Kuzu’s book is remarkable in one aspect: It guarantees that the system the prime minister dreams of can’t be built on the superficial conceptual ground of its argument.
However, this poor debate threatens to derail the real debate on the new constitution that is being drafted. The presidential system has no chance of being accepted in a referendum, not even within the AK Party’s constituency. It nevertheless harms the democratic prospects of the country without even being in place yet.