Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's expressed desire to create a more powerful presidency threatens to complicate efforts to re-write Turkey's military-era constitution in order to provide clearer guarantees of individual liberties, local analysts believe.
Since multi-party democracy was established in Turkey in the 1950s, parliament has been the center of political power, with the presidency largely symbolic and traditionally non-partisan. After declaring that last July’s election victory would be his last run for parliament, Erdoğan appears to have his eyes firmly fixed on the presidency. But he seems equally determined not to share the traditional presidential fate of political impotency. "A further step should be taken to get more successful results for our country; it could be either a presidential or a semi-presidential system,” said Erdoğan in June 6 remarks to the ATV news channel.
The suggestion that presidential powers should be enhanced is proving deeply contentious, with strong opposition coming from all main political parities. "He is talking about a huge change in the Turkish system without talking about checks and balances, not talking about making Turkey more democratic, just a strong leader," warned Yasmin Congar, the editor of Taraf (Partisan) newspaper, an outspoken past critic of the military’s political influences.
Government critics assert the prime minister has become increasingly authoritarian in his political style since his Justice and Development Party’s [AKP] landslide victory in 2011, the party’s third since 2002. The presidential system that Erdoğan himself appears to have in mind is "[m]ore like [the] system of the president in Russia, than in the United States; a lot of power concentrated in the hands of one individual," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahçeşehir University.
The chair of the Turkish parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, however, believes that country could benefit from a presidential system. "I believe when Turkey has had strong leadership, it has been more successful,” said Volkan Bozkir.
The nascent debate on executive power is coming at a time when the AKP government is coming under growing international criticism on civil rights-related issues. In June 7 remarks, for example, European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule noted that the EU has expressed “concerns” to the Turkish government “about the increasing detention of lawmakers, academics and students and the freedom of press.” According to Turkey's Human Rights Society, the number of jailed journalists has doubled since last year's elections and now stands at over 100. Several prominent columnists critical of the government also have been fired. Along with “self-censorship and self-policing by television channels,” the impression given is that “the media is . . .indirectly controlled by the government,” commented Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law and an expert on communications at Istanbul's Bilgi University.
Human rights groups also point to an increase in the imprisonment of students -- estimated at over 600 -- under Turkey's anti- terror laws. On June 7, two students were jailed for eight years under the laws after having unfurled a banner that demanded free education during a 2010 speech by Erdoğan.
Some of the prime minister's supporters are making the argument that a directly elected, more powerful president would be more democratic than the existing arrangement, in which the chief executive is selected by parliament and is seen as a figurehead. “The presidential system is appropriate for a more democratic structure," argued Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, speaking to journalists. "The idea of a president who holds ties with his party is very important."
The debate already is showing signs of turning ugly. Bozdag last month attacked critics of the presidential system for committing “a wrong against Turkey,” while critics say Erdoğan aims to become a modern-day sultan. The increasingly aggressive tenor of the discussion threatens to hijack wider efforts to re-write Turkey's constitution. The general consensus that the country needs a new, democratic constitution is rare in the deeply polarized world of Turkish politics.
Turks today blame many of the country’s woes on the military rule of the 1980s and its legacy, the 1983 constitution. "The present constitution is about controlling and restricting rights, rather than protecting them," commented Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chairperson Bozkir. All 26 members of the inter-party parliamentary committee tasked with drafting a new constitution agree with that view, and, so far, all claim a positive working environment among the group.
But fears are growing that if the prime minister continues press ahead with his strong-presidency idea in the face of considerable opposition, he may be tempted to introduce his own constitution and drop a commitment to a cross-party consensus. Erdoğan's AKP has enough parliamentary votes to pass a constitution and seek ratification in a referendum. But a heavy-handed approach could widen already substantial social gaps in the country.
Erdoğan's career has been characterized by re-writing Turkish political rules; notably, driving the army out of politics and introducing liberal reforms in his early years of power. But the question remains whether Turkey is transforming from authoritarianism to a strong liberal democracy or merely exchanging one kind of authoritarian rule for another. The fate of the country's new constitution may well go a long way to answering that question.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.