Towards a semi-presidential system?

The process of making a new constitution has long allowed people from different backgrounds »»

The process of making a new constitution has long allowed people from different backgrounds to express themselves in the public sphere. It is no secret that it was the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that was seeking a mobilization of the people because it was aware that bargaining between political parties would put it in a difficult position, and therefore wanted to start the negotiations knowing that it had strong popular support.

The recent developments have fulfilled this expectation of the government. The constitutional reconciliation commission has held hundreds of meetings with a diverse set of social actors, and ordinary people have also had the opportunity to communicate their requests and views through activist organizations dedicated to the promotion of a new constitution.

However, something that the AK Party did not expect took place during this process, like all other social groups, the supporters of the AK Party were all interested in promoting fundamental rights and freedoms. Considering that a constitution is also relevant to the restructuring of a state and to government systems, including the presidential system that the prime minister wants, it is only natural that the civil society organizations and business actors that are supportive of the government would want to voice this. It appears that these circles expect the AK Party, which they see as a political decision making body, to promote changes to the regime that will move the regime towards these rights and freedoms. In these days where the articles of the draft constitution are being written, the discussions have moved towards whether Turkey should have a presidential system.

It is also natural that the shift in the discussions is at first attributed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambition to become president. One of the principles of his party restricts service as deputy to three consecutive terms. And in this case, Erdoğan can either run for president or take time-off for four years. Naturally, his ambition is to serve at the top of the state apparatus. But he also wants to preserve his powers and influence in his new service. On the other hand, regardless of Erdoğan’s wishes, there is something that needs to be resolved by this constitution: The new constitution, which came into affect after the Sept. 12 1980 coup, was drafted specifically in consideration of the presidents who had previously been military servicemen. Therefore, this constitution recognized broad and extensive powers and authorities for the head of state that were not usually found in a parliamentary system. The process of drafting a new constitution is evolving into the possibility of a presidency that will be elected by popular vote but have limited powers. But as might be expected, this is not something that the prime minister would prefer.

However, from a broader perspective, it should be noted that a semi-presidential system like the one employed in France would offer two specific advantages for the future of Turkey: First, it will enable the civilian administrations to have control over the security bureaucracy, and secondly this will facilitate the democratization of the regime. The parliamentary system in Turkey makes Parliament equal to the bureaucracy, and traditionally Parliament has little weight or leverage vis-à-vis the military and judiciary. The semi-presidential system would make the government responsible to Parliament and would further empower the executive branch vis-à-vis the bureaucracy. Secondly, a semi-presidential system includes a unique election system and a system for local administration reform. It is only when the central administration authority is offset by local administrations can a stable and participatory system be established. This may mean a more suitable ground for the resolution of the Kurdish issue.

At this point, a major concern is the possibility that the AK Party may ask for the introduction of a semi-presidential system in order to maximize the power of the executive branch only and avoid fulfilling the other requirements of such a model. However, it does seem hard for the government to convince even its own supporters in such a case. At a time of intense eagerness for rights and freedoms, it will not be easy for a constitution that does not honor these demands to be welcomed by the people. Another concern is that a presidential system could eventually lead to a single-man rule. But it should be admitted that it is impossible to imagine a stronger single-man rule than the one in effect right now in Turkey. There is a political actor that has secured absolute majority in Parliament and that has a strong leadership which ensures unity within the party. It is the same man who picks the deputies and makes the strategic decisions. In its current form, it is almost impossible for Parliament to check the government in a parliamentary system. Maybe the government, which will be redefined outside Parliament, will ensure the re-emergence of Parliament as an important actor in a semi-presidential system.