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Just One More Election: Hurdles to Consolidating a Presidential System in Turkey

On August 28, 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected Turkey’s 12th President, with 52 percent of the vote. His elevation to the highest public office represents a clear break with previous holders of the position: he is the first president to be directly elected by popular vote. Erdoğan’s ascendancy to the presidency is a game changer in another way as well. Previously, Turkey’s presidency was perceived to be the epitome of political retirement; a reward for individuals, at times intended to bench political heavyweights from active politics. Not anymore. Erdoğan intends to be an “active president” and aspires to expand the powers of the presidency. The fate of Erdoğan’s plans, however, will largely rest upon the results of the June 2015 parliamentary elections.

Once in office, Turkish presidents—with the notable exceptions of Kemal Atatürk and Turgut Özal—had largely removed themselves from administering matters of government and remained at a noticeable distance from day to day governance. In fact, as prescribed by article 102 of the 1982 constitution (as amended in October 2007), the conditions of holding office stipulate that upon election, if the individual is “a member of a party, his/her relationship with his [/her] party shall be severed and his/her membership of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall cease.”

Retirement from active politics was not what Erdoğan had in mind when he announced his candidacy. Throughout the campaign he made his intentions of being an “active president,” stating that he will personally convene the governing cabinet. What is intended by this in substantive terms, remains to be seen as Erdoğan settles into his new position. Article 104 of Turkey’s Constitution, however, appears to intend for the presidency to help convene the government, and not rule through it.

For this reason, it is expected that, during the course of the next twelve months, Erdoğan will seek to have the constitution amended or re-written, so that the office will be provided with codified authority to allow him to continue his political mission. His stated goal of creating a “New Turkey” by the centenary of the republic (2023) has several aims: to ensure that Turkey becomes a top-ten global economy and industrial powerhouse; a regional power which sways global influence, and a model Muslim democracy, hitherto unseen.

However, creating the presidential system and achieving this mission may prove difficult for three reasons, all of which relate to electoral math of the upcoming parliamentary elections:

First, enacting constitutional change in Turkey is a difficult process. According to article 175 of the constitution, there are two alternative ways: at least three-fifths of parliamentarians have to vote in favor of the amendment (330 out of 550), so that the proposed constitutional amendment can be sent to a public referendum (which can then be adopted by a simple majority of voters) or a three-quarters parliamentary majority (367 out of 550) has to ratify the amendment, so that automatic adoption of the proposed amendment is allowed without recourse to a public referendum. Both of these avenues are presently closed to Erdoğan, as his former party in parliament, the AKP only has 312 seats.

In this case, the primary goal of the AKP for the next several months under newly confirmed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is likely to be securing at least 330 votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which can take place no later than June 2015. The AKP will either have to win enough seats itself to guarantee these votes or enter into a coalition with other parliamentarians. The latter scenario is most likely if Erdoğan is able to convince Kurdish parliamentarians to support his proposed amendments in return for resolving the Kurdish issue favorably. As of now, if the AKP (holding 312 seats) were to join forces with the HDP (holding 27 seats), the coalition would total 339 votes, which would be enough to pass constitutional change in parliament, allowing for a public referendum, which would require a simple majority approval by the voting electorate to become an amendment.

Second, maintaining the electoral dominance of the AKP without Erdoğan at the helm may be a tall order for Davutoğlu. It remains to be seen whether Davutoğlu himself will be able to convince voters that the AKP, under his leadership, is still the safest and most lucrative bet. Independent of Davutoğlu’s personal aura is the slowing Turkish economy, with increasingly anemic growth predictions (2.1 percent by the end of 2014). Under Erdoğan, the AKP’s electoral strength was largely a reward for delivering impressive growth rates, access to cheap capital, low inflation and increased consumer spending capability. Davutoğlu’s government may have very little time to set the country’s increasingly fragile looking economy on an even keel.

A poor showing at the polls, could doom Erdoğan’s political project. If the AKP receives fewer than 300 seats and Kurdish parliamentarians receive fewer seats than they currently hold, then constitutional changes are unlikely. It is also unlikely, that the alternative occurs—the AKP receives greater than 330 or 367 seats enabling them to be able to pass the required changes.

Finally, the position of former President Abdullah Gül, may be of critical importance. A co-founder of the AKP, Gul signaled his interest to return to active politics prior to the end of his presidency, presumably to succeed Erdoğan as Prime Minister—a goal which he failed to achieve. Individuals close to Gül have noted that he is not happy to have been sidelined and seemingly marginalized from the party. Gül may be considering two options: to bide his time until after the 2015 elections and evaluate whether he should challenge Davutoğlu for the chairmanship of the AKP, based on the party’s electoral performance, or, to establish a new political party himself. In either case, a political offensive by Gül could prove detrimental for the AKP’s unity, as he may be able to establish a voter constituency of his own.

Turkey’s domestic political future thus remains uncertain until after the next parliamentary elections. If the AKP under PM Davutoğlu is able to secure 330 seats, then it seems fairly certain that President Erdoğan will be able to promulgate a new constitution (after a public referendum), and Turkey’s system of government will be classified as semi-presidential. As with former President Turgut Özal, Erdoğan is interested in enacting far-reaching and visible changes that he has come to call the “New Turkey” in the shortest period of time. Unlike Özal, Erdoğan can (at present) rely upon Davutoğlu and the AKP to do his bidding. Ultimately, however, he would like to be in a position whereby he can rule from a position of strength that is provided in constitutional guarantees. To do this, he needs the AKP to win one more election.

Sinan Ciddi is visiting assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a a BPC Turkey Initiative contributor.

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