Do we want a President Erdogan?

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

This feels weird. I find myself in agreement with the Marxist front in Turkey for the first time in my life. But even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Turkey is a country that is constantly increasing its beauty in the Middle East, like a lake that is becoming placid again in the wake of long storms. But will Prime Minister Erdoğan’s attempts to bring in a presidential system by a modification to the Constitution make the waters muddy again? Will the change in the constitution now accommodate ephemeral politics and transient personalities, open the door to evil?

A presidential system would endanger the tranquility, which Turkey is trying to achieve within its own borders because it would lead to local gubernatorial elections across the peninsula.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Economic growth has exceeded expectations in the last 5 years, Turkey is increasing in democratization, gradual steps are being taken toward peace with the PKK and the fact we have fully paid off our debt to the IMF are just a few of the present government’s successes. It would therefore seem a foregone for the Prime Minister to be re-elected in 2014.

But this is not possible according to the current AKP rules. The executive rules of the party, founded in 2001, contains an article not present in the Republic of Turkey's electoral rules: The same person cannot be elected Prime Minister for a third time in a row. Therefore, under the AKP’s own rules, Prime Minister Erdoğan cannot stand for election again.

One of the chief contributions of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was cumhuriyetçilik -- a parliamentary political system in which the Prime Minister is accountable to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, commonly known as the “Meclis.” The efficacy of this structure is an elected legislature that monitors the executive throughout the election cycle. Yes, Turkey has a president: but the title is largely honorary and ceremonial. The president cannot hold cabinet meetings, and the presidential office does not drive the daily business of the country. Day to day governance is an ongoing conversation between the Prime Minister, the Meclis (parliament), and the Turkish people. Therefore Erdoğan, a man with a deeply pragmatic and solution-oriented character, the position would mean all the projects he is working on now would be suspended for four years, and some of them would be reversed.

What is Erdoğan’s suggested solution?

In order to resolve this, Erdoğan is suggesting an amendment to the Constitution, which proposes a referendum on an American-type presidential system. Of course, some analysts who look at the American example and dream of democratization, improvement of human rights and a rise in prosperity espouse the presidential system with great enthusiasm. But would an American-style presidential system produce the same result for Turkey?

In America, the President of the United States can veto acts of Congress, and effectively rule the country by executive orders of questionable legality. For example, last year, President Obama after waiting for Congress to enact immigration reform, decided that he needed to lock down the Hispanic vote, and so he issued an executive order to quit enforcing the immigration laws.

Under Turkey’s system, popular sovereignty, not executive will, is the touchstone of public policy. In that sense, governance in Turkey is an enterprise far more responsive to popular will than in the United States.

Erdoğan’s desire for a presidential system is of course a source of excitement for those who support him. He has consistently proved how well he knows the Turkish people and shown his remarkable crisis management skills and immunity to pressure. But what about after Erdoğan?

New climate of instability in Turkey

Under this system, which increases the risks of one-man rule, Erdoğan’s successor might create a new climate of instability in Turkey, where the waters have only recently become still again, and we could lose all the progress of the last eight years in a mere eight months. It must be borne in mind that under the presidential system, and in stark contrast to the parliamentary system, members of the government are chosen and appointed by the president. The president has no need to heed the opinions of the members of the government. The president can veto all laws and can, under certain circumstances, neutralize the legislature. The danger lies not in moving to a presidential system and Tayyip Erdoğan becoming the president, but rather in the establishment of an administration devoid of any parliamentary, legal and public accountability.

A presidential system would endanger the tranquility, which Turkey is trying to achieve within its own borders because it would lead to local gubernatorial elections across the peninsula. Turkey is only now achieving peace with the PKK in the east, after three decades of bloodshed and disorder. If Turkey were to abandon the provincial system in favor of a confederacy of Turkish states, with locally elected governors, this would be a kiss of death to democracy in Turkey’s South East. Under the parliamentary system, governors are appointed to cities by democratically elected parties, which vote in Ankara, and central control is maintained. Under a presidential system, it would not be like an American election, in which loyal states elect governors who respect federal authority. No: the PKK and its supporters would force people in the region at gunpoint to vote for Leninist candidates with breakaway aspirations.

Is the PKK the only terrorist organization seeking to destabilize Turkey? No. This is the Middle East. This is Turkey, and we have a history riddled with coups and times of political instability and a post-republican recent history that has terrified many people. That recent history also contains the alleged terror organization Ergenekon, a parasite in the body politic that has sucked the blood of the people of Turkey since Ottoman times. If the struggle initiated against this terrifying organization during the Prime Ministry of Erdoğan is abandoned halfway with a change in the current system, then like a wild animal being suddenly released from its cage, that alleged terror organization will be more ferocious than before.

I am not alone in opposing a presidential system for Turkey. Here is the influential former president Süleyman Demirel:

“Presidential system was something I wanted years ago. But it is only the USA that can successfully run it.”

Prof. Necmi Yüzbaşıoğlu says:

“It is only the USA that can skillfully apply the presidential system. It is because they don’t have party discipline there. There is a federal system in the USA but we have a unitary system.”

The best system for Turkey, therefore is the parliamentary system with a legislature emerging from it. If the president and the parliamentary majority elected under the presidential system represent different parties, then government can be seriously obstructed, and it may be impossible to take decisions at all. Turkey needs a strong legislature, and that is possible with a parliamentary system. I too want to see Erdoğan become prime minister again; but I think it is sufficient to change the AKP's internal rules for that purpose. If Erdoğan, who is a very well-intentioned person, insists on a presidential system, we may be allowing ourselves to go further and fare worse.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.