Consensual Or Controversial? Presidential System And The New Constitution In Turkey

By Dr. Basak Alpan | 12 October 2010

Although Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan made it clear that the new constitution will only be drafted after the parliamentary elections of June 2011, the hot constitutional debate in the public opinion still continues, one the most controversial variants of which is about the introduction of a presidential system in Turkey. On the way to the referendum, Erdoğan’s statement in April that ‘Turkey could adopt a presidential system’ if the Turkish people extend their support to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2011 general elections already gave the signals of this association between the new constitution and AKP’s presidential system proposal.

The debate has exacerbated further when Erdoğan’s greeting speech after the 12 September referendum mainly granted the responsibility to draft the new constitution to Burhan Kuzu, an MP from AKP and the head of Constitutional Commission in the Parliament, who is known for his intensive references to the adoption of this system in Turkey. However, this debate is not so novel to the Turkish political landscape. As early as late 1980s and early 1990s, Turgut Özal, the then Prime Minister and later the President, suggested the adoption of presidential system in Turkey mainly to provide enormous powers to individuals and policy-makers rather than the Parliamentary for the smooth- and well-functioning of his harsh neo-liberal policies. This suggestion has been aired again by Erdoğan in April 2003 and has been criticised by his opponents that time on the grounds that he was looking for a legal aegeis for ‘his political concessions to the EU and the US in terms of Cyprus and Kurds and trying to create a crown in Ankara’, in Cüneyt Arcayürek’s words, a journalist from the daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet, who is well- known for his anti-AKP stance.


Along similar lines, the current opposition in the Turkish public opinion to this project is, very broadly speaking, two-fold. The first group generally sees this as a regime problem and claims that Erdoğan is trying to create a single-man administration and is paving the way to the transformation of Turkey into a federation which would primarily mean granting political autonomy to the Kurds, a condition favoured by the so-called ‘the Greater Middle East Project’ of the US. The hard-liners of Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main party in opposition and Nationalist Action Party are from this group. The second line of aggreviance rather culminates around the concepts of ‘representation’ and ‘participation’ and the argument that a presidential system would potentially undermine the equal representation of different sections of the society. Ümit Boyner, the chair of TÜSİAD (Association for Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen) and intellectuals like İsmet Berkan and Zafer Üskül were among the proponents of this argument. On the other hand, the proponents of the presidential system in Turkey argue that the introduction of presidental aspects to administration would remove ‘the barriers imposed by the judiciary on the executive actions’ as complained by Erdoğan and would sustain governmental stability.


“the debate on presidential system in the Turkish public opinion now (-re)introduced the new political puzzle of Turkish politics: you either need to choose stability in administration or you need to sustain equality in representation”


All in all, the debate on presidential system in the Turkish public opinion now (-re)introduced the new political puzzle of Turkish politics: you either need to choose stability in administration or you need to sustain equality in representation. Although Ömer Çelik, AKP Deputy Chairman, said that transition to presidential system is currently not on the party’s agenda, it seems that this issue will stigmatise the post-election process in Turkish politics and AKP will re-introduce the debate to the public opinion in the post-June 2011 period. The tendency on the part of AKP to dig intensely into the reasons why 42% of the society said ‘no’ to the constitution they had suggested could be read along those lines as 58% consent would not constitute an adequate platform for a desired presidential system. Therefore, it is not a prophecy to say that AKP’s June 2011 election rally will be more populist than ever to gain more consensus on the part of the electorates and other major parties such as CHP and MHP will align themselves vis-à-vis this strategy if they cannot devise any preferential alternative project to gain support. As Laclau reminds us of populism, this will be ‘the very core of the political’ in the near future of Turkish politics.


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