SEYFETTİN GÜRSEL

What should we do with a president elected by a general vote?

The debate regarding a presidential system of government came unexpectedly to the agenda for the new constitution.

At least I was not expecting it, since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) did not reach the 330-seat threshold necessary to enact constitution change in the June 2011 general elections. As the opposition parties are against the adoption of a presidential system, I thought this project would be postponed until the next electoral battle. According to rumors, the AK Party wanted to initiate public debate, hoping to generate support for the change among the electorate before the next elections, to be held in 2015. In the interim, Turkey will elect for its president by a general vote, in 2014, for the first time.

Let's start with the debate surrounding a presidential system of government and then return to this novelty, full of uncertainties, of electing the president. Basically, the opponents claim that within the Turkish context, the president of a presidential system would become a dictator and an authoritarian regime would follow. On the opposite side, the defenders mainly argue that a president elected by a majority of the voters would be strong enough to make difficult decisions, such as those needed to solve the Kurdish problem, and political instability would be avoided in case of a much-fractured national assembly (NA).

As long as the president is elected by free elections, I believe the fears of a dictatorship are unfounded. Do not forget that in a semi-presidential system, Parliament is more independent and more capable of refusing proposals for changes to the laws that could pave the way to an authoritarian regime. Admittedly, Vladimir Putin's Russia can be offered as a counter example, but I do not believe Russia has switched to an authoritarian regime yet. However, I can accept that personality as well as the state of civil society matter. Given the personality of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the undeclared, unchallenged candidate for the presidency at the moment, and the well-known weaknesses of Turkish civil society, one may be right to worry about authoritarian results. Anyway, I do not share this concern.

Regarding fears of possible political instability due to shaky coalition governments, it is simply a theoretical issue for a foreseeable future. It is true that Turkey suffered a lot from the political instability of the 1990s, but do not forget that voters punished the parties responsible for the mess and allowed the emergence of the AK Party as a hegemonic entity in the political system. The AK Party, even in the case of sizable losses of votes, would have still enough of a margin to win a majority in the NA. Can this situation continue in the long run? I cannot guarantee it, but I can say we should worry if one day an overly fractioned party system returns. So, I do not think the arguments of the opponents nor those of the defenders are convincing.

Having said that, we still have to find an answer to a serious question: What should we do about a president elected by a general vote? In 2007, the deceitful maneuvers of the bureaucratic tutelage regime aimed to prevent Mr. Gül from being elected president by Parliament and pushed the AK Party to organize early elections and, based on its electoral victory, pushed it to change the laws regarding the election of the president. However, it did not consider the consequences at all. Here we have a real problem. The Constitution, a product of the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, created a presidency with great prerogative for Gen. Kenan Evren and his successors, who had hoped to be a part of and perpetuate the tutelage bureaucracy. Actually, the president has extensive powers in the state bureaucracy, but the most critical prerogative is two-fold: He can have full control while governments are being formed and he can take to the Constitutional Court any law or decree and can bring any constitutional changes to a referendum.

Obviously, the current constitutional setup regarding executive power is ambiguous because there are two heads of the executive: the prime minister and the president. Add to this ambiguity popular support for the president, and I can bet on the unavoidability of a clash at the top of the state. So, what solution can we imagine? Basically, there are two: Give up with the idea of a president elected by a general vote and let his authority be controlled and assigned by a parliamentary regime. Personally, I do not like this solution because I consider a president elected by a general vote to be a strong bastion against military coups, modern or post-modern, in the future. Do not forget that President Fahri Korutürk in 1980 and President Süleyman Demirel in 1997 and 1998 acted rather as facilitators of the coups.

The second solution still involves a president elected by a general vote, but sees at the same time the ambiguities corrected by a withdrawal of the right to full control while governments form and by limiting his power. A president elected by a general vote could play an important role in solving impasses in the political system. So, the prerogative of the president to hold referendums should be kept while the ability to dissolve Parliament under specific conditions should be added.

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.

2012-05-20