JOOST – Turkey’s presidential experiment

Turkey’s presidential experimentWhere were you on Oct. 21, 2007 and what did you do? I am sure most people would not be able to come up with an answer to this question.

If you are a Turkish citizen, the most probable answer is that you went to the ballot box that day and voted in favor of a set of electoral reforms that included electing the president by popular vote instead of by Parliament. Of all registered voters, 67 percent participated and 69 percent of those voted in favor of the proposed changes on that October day.

As the result indicates, it was not really a heavily contested election. I canand#39t remember any heated debates, big popular rallies in favor or against the package or the kind of societal initiatives we witnessed three years later with the 2010 referendumThe main opposition Republican Peopleand#39s Party (CHP) spoke out against the constitutional changes, with then-CHP leader Deniz Baykal accusing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of creating a andldquodegenerated parliamentary systemandrdquo When Parliament prepared the legislation in spring, then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer first tried to veto the bill over concerns the change could pit a president with a strong popular mandate against the prime minister and cause instability.

When that effort failed, Sezer later asked the Constitutional Court, unsuccessfully, to invalidate the parliamentary vote.Most Turks at the time interpreted these attempts to stop the introduction of a directly elected president as the bid of bad losers.

Most voters vividly remembered the crisis of April and early May of that year, when the CHP joined forces with the Constitutional Court and managed, via controversial procedural machinations, to block the election of President Abdullah Gul in Parliament. Angry and frustrated, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoIan called for early elections in July, which he won convincingly, got Gul elected to the presidency in August and introduced the Oct.

21 package to prevent any future manipulations.Looking back now, I have to admit that Baykal and Sezer — seen by many, including myself, as staunch Kemalist defenders of the status quo — definitely had a point that should have been discussed in more detail in the run-up to the referendum But then, many who may have shared Sezerand#39s concerns in 2007 believed that, before the first new-style president would be elected in 2014, the Constitution would be changed to bring it into line with the new situation and to prevent the ambiguity and tension Sezer was warning about.

Or, that all presidential candidates in 2014 would respect the limitations on the powers of the presidency laid down in the old constitution.We all know by now that, for reasons I wonand#39t go into here, the indispensable adjustment of the Constitution did not happen and the candidate who will, most probably, be elected this Sunday has made it abundantly clear he wants a fully presidential system without the current restrictions.

The result is that Turkey is entering an experimental, unpredictable period in which an overconfident and bullish president will start looking for the boundaries the present Constitution forces upon him and will push to get rid of them or, if possible, overrule them In the most likely scenario, that will pit President ErdoIan against a Constitutional Court that will be called upon, sooner rather than later, to interpret the existing Constitution and make it clear where ErdoIanand#39s ambitions contravene the text and the spirit of the present constitutional rules. I would not be surprised if that clash dominates Turkeyand#39s domestic agenda in the next couple of months.

To be honest, I hope it will. Till now, the race for the presidency has been dominated almost exclusively by the all-too-familiar, personalized fight between a united AKP front under the spell of its charismatic prime minister and an opposition which is deeply divided and insecure, despite some superficial consensus.

The real debate should be between two visions of Turkey: a fully presidential system dominated by one man and without proper checks and balances, or a system based on a pluralistic Parliament and an independent judiciary. The upcoming confrontation will make it clear to many Turks this is not a battle over abstract principles but about the core values of a truly democratic and inclusive country.

The outcome, for instance at the next parliamentary elections, might well be that the majority of those who will vote ErdoIan into the presidency ultimately are not in favor of the system he prefers.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman