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January 02, 2013, Wednesday

Presidential system blues

It has become clear by now. This year, 2013, is the year we will be debating a presidential system and indirectly the political future of Prime Minister Erdoğan.

All else will be details which may support or complicate the passage of a constitutional amendment that would change Turkey's regime from a parliamentary to a presidential one. The government's response, the new opening to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)/Kurdish issue, the situation in Syria and Iraq, as well as Turkey's fragile accession negotiations with the EU, are all contemplated from a functional perspective.

Prominent pollster Ali Çarkoğlu gave an interesting interview this week cautioning the potential dangers ahead in relation to the role of the presidency. He argued that the constitutional amendment of 2007 should be reversed by a new amendment. The president should be re-elected by Parliament in order to avoid a crisis in the regime. This is, of course, not news to insiders in Ankara, but it is healthy to see the issue being put on the table publicly. Turkey must debate what electing a president by public vote actually means for the political order. Most analysts recognize that a publicly elected president will have a tense relationship with a prime minister.

We all know that the constitutional amendment of 2007 was not the product of a well-thought-out process that would focus on how governance can be improved in Turkey. It was a countermove against the deep state/military establishment that hindered the election of Abdullah Gül as president. Then, it was seen as a tactical move in the fight for democracy.

Ironically, that tactical move has been transformed into a fundamental challenge that Turkey is now grappling with. French Ambassador Bernard Émié expressed his surprise in 2008 that Turkey was not debating at all what sort of change it had made to its system with the constitutional amendment of 2007. He was right. Of course we did not debate it properly. Then, there were bigger fish to fry, but in essence we should have thought this through better.

It seems likely that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government will try to push through the amendment that calls for a presidential system in 2013. This is extremely risky given the current composition of Parliament. It would be unlikely to pass unless some Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputies switch to the AK Party or vote in favor of strong nationalist clauses in the constitution. Even in the latter scenario it is unclear how the MHP leadership would approach the issue of a presidential system. I have doubts about it supporting a presidential system, but there is still a lot of time ahead of us.

Needless to add, this scenario also must entertain the fact that an unknown number of AK Party deputies would not support a presidential system. Although many independent-minded deputies were purged from the party in 2011 and during the party's convention in 2012, there are still a good number of deputies who would be reluctant to vote in favor of a presidential system. Thanks to the secret ballot procedure they can cast their votes without pressure from party leadership. That said, there are ways to pressure deputies to vote in a particular direction during such important votes. If it comes to it, you can be assured that there will be immense pressure on deputies to vote parallel to their leaderships.

This new year will be eventful. It appears likely that the government will solely focus on pushing through the presidential system. I am afraid -- as Çarkoğlu noted -- that this will translate into an impasse on the Kurdish question, the constitution and many other urgent issues. Everything will be postponed to 2015. Sit tight.

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