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November 19, 2012, Monday

Too much focus on presidential election is dangerous

We are living in very strange times. In the last general elections of June 2011 the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) got 50 percent of the vote and a comfortable majority in Parliament. Frankly speaking, I was expecting for its third period of incumbency a relaxed and self-confident AK Party that would decide to tackle the hardest political and economic problems, like the Kurdish issue and structural economic reform. Indeed, I was terribly mistaken. Now, we are facing an uncertain, disoriented AK Party. The Kurdish problem continues to poison society, deepening ideological and ethnic cleavages, while the process of securing European Union membership drags on.

How to explain this paradoxical situation? Many political commentators and academics think Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, willing to be the first president elected by popular vote, set the bar very high. He would like to be elected with a comfortable majority at the first round. I share this explanation but at the same time I think it is incomplete. First of all, this idea is perilous, for at least two reasons: First, a majority for Mr. Erdoğan at the first round is not guaranteed. Different polls indicate that the AK Party's electoral support is somewhat diminishing. This is not surprising. Economic growth is so low that unemployment has started to increase, and I expect that it will continue to do so given the international conditions, which include the recession in Europe and the fiscal difficulties in the US, and also given the domestic economic deadlock which prevents a possible increase in banking loans. Furthermore, the AK Party also risks losing a portion of its Kurdish electorate because of the Uludere tragedy and the recent hawkish politics towards the Kurdish problem.

This pessimistic view is probably not fully shared by AK Party headquarters. They might believe that Kurdish voters who are against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will still support the AK Party. On the other hand, the government hopes for a partial recovery in growth with 4 percent next year and 5 percent in 2014. Personally, I would not bet on these fortunate events. Regarding low growth I continuously try in this column to argue that the only way to push growth up without jeopardizing the budget balances is to insist on fiscal discipline but to implement, at the same time, the economic structural reforms. But it could be too late. I am afraid that we will witness in the coming months the return of old style populist politics in Turkey. Even in the event of a moderate loosening of economic policies, this strategy could be counter productive in regards to boosting electoral support.

In this context, can the adoption of a nationalistic hard line and the abandoning of democratic reforms lead Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supporters to vote for the AK Party? Moreover, can the increase of public welfare spending as well as the postponement of difficult economic reforms help the AK Party keep its electoral base intact? I don't believe either of these scenarios. I think that at least some of the AK Party officials should be aware of the risks emanating from this strategy. At this point we have to ask a second question: Why has the incontestable leader of the AK Party adopted such a risky strategy?

It is not easy to answer this question, but I can still give my personal interpretation. I think, given the fact that the election of the president by popular vote is an irreversible decision, Mr. Erdoğan considered only one option: the transformation of the current ambiguous parliamentary system that would be even more ambiguous and prone to instability with a president elected by popular vote, into a clear presidential or semi-presidential system. Indeed, in the Constitution, a product of the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, the president has extensive powers in the state bureaucracy, but his most critical prerogative is his ability to share the executive power with the prime minister. This prerogative will certainly be reinforced when the next president will be elected by popular vote.

Mr. Erdoğan might think this is an unsustainable institutional setup, and he will be able to change the regime if he is elected with substantial support in 2014. Then the AK Party majority can push to early parliamentary elections, hoping to get the majority (over 340 seats) allowing it to change the constitution on its own. Now, there is a second option that I defended in my column published on May 20 (“What should we do with a president elected by a general vote?”): A president elected by a general vote could play an important role in preventing military coups, modern or post modern ones, in solving political impasses with having, at the same time, no interference in the executive power. Also, do not forget, in Europe there are many presidents, such as those of Austria, Portugal, Finland and Bulgaria, who are elected by a general vote but who do not necessarily act in a presidential or semi-presidential system.

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