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November 14, 2012, Wednesday

Is Turkey seeking a 19th-century constitutional monarchy?

Since late President Turgut Özal's time in the early 1990s, Turkey has been debating, on and off, a transition to a presidential system from the current parliamentary regime.

For a long period Turkey was ruled by fragile coalition governments. Then leading politicians floated the idea of setting up a presidential system they believed was a better solution to bring stability, which they saw coalition governments could not install. In the second half of the 1990s during his time as president, Süleyman Demirel brought to the agenda the introduction of a presidential system.

Like Özal, however, as president he sought to empower himself with strong powers, raising questions over whether the two then-veteran politicians genuinely sought to bring stability to Turkey or whether they were pursuing their self-interest as presidents.

Anyway, at the time of both politicians, Turkey's tutelage system was very strong so that in the absence of removing military's influence in politics, the existing parliamentary regime didn't function properly let alone as a presidential system.

Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which has been in power since the 2002 November elections, the military's political power has been curbed to a certain extent and taboos have begun to be broken as the government introduced military and civil reforms to abide by the democratic criteria set forth by the European Union. But these good old days are also over as the Turkish-EU accession negotiations came to a standstill and that the AK Party has been in reform fatigue for the past couple of years.

The moment that Turkey stopped reforms, its democratic standards began to deteriorate. In a parallel move, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also began to give signs of authoritarian tendencies. In the midst of concerns that he has shifted from a reformist mindset to one that does not tolerate differing ideas -- as witnessed in serious restrictions imposed on freedom of expression -- his party recently submitted a proposal to a parliamentary commission rewriting a brand new civilian constitution, for the introduction of a presidential or a semi-presidential system.

Erdoğan, like the previous veteran politicians I mentioned above, is suspected of seeking to introduce the presidential system to empower his authority when and if he becomes president in the 2014 referendum to be held to replace President Abdullah Gül.

The question is whether Turkey has got an infrastructure to counterweigh the presidential system.

Michael Thuman, an experienced journalist based in İstanbul as the Turkey and Middle Eastern bureau chief of German weekly Die Zeit, chatting with me recently, likened the Erdoğan proposal for a Turkish presidential system to the 19th-century constitutional monarchy. This is because, he says, Turkey does not have, for example, a decentralized system where local authorities have powers while the AK Party suggested a one-chamber parliament instead of two, which will not ensure checks and balances.

“Hence, Turkey does not have an established system to counterweigh the strong powers the president will hold. Turkish opposition parties, in the meantime, have strong objections against a decentralized or a federal system out of a fear that Turkish unity as a state will diminish,” Thuman said.

A translation of a 19th-century constitutional monarchy into the 21st century will make Turkey into countries such as Russia, China or those in Central Asia. However, Thuman also states the difference between Turkey and nations like Russia, as he says the latter's system is fake while Turkish political parties are genuine.

“Although Turks are not revolutionaries, there is enough democratic memory in Turkey, which differs from the countries I mentioned,” Thuman says.

Can President Gül alone act as a counterweight to curb Erdoğan's alleged appetite for setting up a 19th-century-type constitutional monarchy? He can't, of course, but renowned for his democratic credentials, Gül stresses the importance of a consensus in producing a new constitution intended to replace the military authored charter in 1982, while stating his reservations against a presidential system.

Gül has also been activating mechanisms to balance Erdoğan's alleged authoritarian tendencies in addition to frequent stressing that Turkey should continue with the reforms, which it has halted for a long period, to adhere to EU's democratic criteria.

In the final analysis, Turkey's existing democratic credentials, though not strong enough, may prevent a presidential system being established that carries the danger of setting up an authoritarian regime in this country.

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