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Turkey's Road to the Executive Presidency

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made no secret of his plans for transforming his country’s constitution to enhance his powers as president.

The draft constitution currently being debated by the Turkish parliament would, among other changes, eliminate the position of prime minister while expanding the president’s power to select his cabinet, control the budget, and appoint judges. Provisions to increase the size of the parliament and hold parliamentary elections alongside presidential ones are also expected to enhance Erdoğan’s ability to act without effective parliamentary or judicial checks. In short, the proposed changes would, if passed, formalize Erdoğan’s almost complete control over the country’s political system.

The constitutional changes being debated would expand the president’s power to select his cabinet, control the budget, and appoint judges.

Erdoğan, having set his sights on this form of “executive” presidency, will most likely succeed in getting it one way or another. So far, at least, he appears committed to doing so through semi-legitimate means, passing a constitutional reform package through parliament and then approving it with a popular referendum early this spring.

Erdoğan’s already considerable popularity has risen following Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt. Yet even among voters and parliamentarians that generally support him, concerns over granting him further presidential powers remain. In an initial parliamentary vote Monday, the proposed constitutional reform package was introduced with 338 votes—a little more than the 330 needed, but fewer than the combined 355 seats held by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its current partner, the Nationalist Action Party. Notably, in violation of the provisions for a secret ballot, a number of AKP deputies publicly displayed their vote—a show of party loyalty that could also put added pressure on potential defectors. If party discipline holds when the final vote is cast in several weeks, the reform package, with any further amendments, will move to a referendum within 60 days. If, somehow, the reforms fall short of 330 votes, the AKP could vote again, call for new elections, or, more controversially, claim the authority to move on to a referendum in the absence of parliamentary approval. 

Whether Turkey’s ongoing political turmoil will bolster support for a new constitution remains to be seen. 

In either case, the pertinent question becomes whether the referendum could pass. Amidst diverse and sometimes unreliable polling, support for the executive presidency remains reliably below 50 percent. Yet Erdoğan has displayed a keen sense for the mood of his voters, and would be unlikely to hold a referendum if he weren’t confident about the outcome. While there has been credible, if not conclusive evidence raising the possibility that the AKP has previously engaged in some vote rigging, it has never been of the scale that would be necessary to guarantee victory if public support remains as low as it currently is.

Whether Turkey’s ongoing political turmoil—a two-front war against ISIS and the PKK, alongside a faltering economy—will bolster support for a new constitution remains to be seen. Erdoğan and his supporters have insisted that an executive presidency will bring stability, a variation on the argument that helped the AKP win over voters in the country’s November 2015 election. So far, at least, many of Erdoğan’s constituents seem to accept his assertions that Turkey’s economic and terror troubles are the result of foreign agitation, which only Erdoğan, in turn, can protect them from. Yet violence and economic adversity could also convince more skeptical voters that further political change would only exacerbate the country’s instability.

How would Erdoğan respond to a potential setback? He’s certainly shown a knack for playing the long game before, and he could simply decide to bide his time, relying on his considerable de facto powers until circumstances were more conducive. It would, in short, be foolish to bet against Erdoğan getting his way, but the fact that it is still not a foregone conclusion suggests that for now, at least, there is some life left in the Turkish political system.

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