x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Turkish prime minister plans US-style presidential system

Opposition suspects scheme to erect an Islamist regime over plans to make Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister, a head of state with executive powers.

MPs scuffle during a debate on changes to Turkey's constitution.
MPs scuffle during a debate on changes to Turkey's constitution.

ISTANBUL // As Turkey's parliament works through a set of wide-ranging constitutional amendments that could be enacted after a referendum this year, a possible change of much wider proportions has appeared on the political horizon: the introduction of a US-style presidential system, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister, as head of state with executive powers.

Not everyone is happy at the prospect. Critics say Mr Erdogan, who is reported to have had an eye on the presidential seat for some time, has bared his real ambition of becoming an all-powerful leader by proposing the switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Deniz Baykal, an opposition leader, said after Mr Erdogan talked about his plans recently: "He wants to become the ruler of the judiciary, the military, the bureaucracy, civil society. He thinks a presidential system will give him a chance to do that."

The debate touches upon the core reason behind political tensions that have plagued Ankara since Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in late 2002. The opposition as well as large parts of the judiciary and the military are concerned that the AKP has a hidden agenda to destroy democracy and erect an Islamist regime. The proposal to concentrate more power in the hands of Mr Erdogan strengthens that suspicion.

Mr Erdogan told a programme on the private ATV channel that "if our people allow it, this may come onto the agenda" after parliamentary elections due next year. In the same interview, he took care to mention that he had more than seven years' experience running the country as prime minister. Under the current system, Turkey's president has a largely ceremonial role, but that would change under the system Mr Erdogan seems to have in mind.

Ismet Berkan, the editor of the Radikal newspaper, wrote: "Whenever this issue comes up, people who are against a presidential system say they are concerned that it will lead to a dictatorship in our country," referring to discussions about the subject in the 1980s. As Mr Berkan predicted, Mr Erdogan soon faced accusations of trying to introduce a dictatorship. Mr Baykal, the leader of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, the biggest opposition party in Ankara, compared the CHP's resistance to Mr Erdogan's constitutional plans to the fight against Nazi Germany in the Second World War, implicitly portraying Mr Erdogan as a new Hitler.

The package includes almost 30 amendments to reorganise the constitutional court as well as a judicial body that hires and fires judges and prosecutors around the country. It also calls for stronger civilian oversight over the military. Mr Erdogan suffered a defeat during a second reading of the draft in parliament yesterday, when a key provision that would have made it harder for the judiciary to close political parties failed to get a majority and had to be dropped from the package. Mr Erdogan said AKP would continue to push the rest of the package through parliament.

The AKP says the changes are necessary for progress in Turkey's bid to join the European Union. But the CHP and leading members of the judiciary say the changes will destroy the separation of powers. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, Turkey's chief prosecutor, who led an unsuccessful attempt to shut down the AKP two years ago, has also publicly criticised the amendments, triggering speculation that a new trial against the ruling party could be in the offing.

While the draft amendments are making their way through parliament, even observers that often take Mr Erdogan's side in political disputes say his plans for the introduction of a presidential system are flawed. Nazli Ilicak, a former parliamentary deputy and a columnist with the pro-government Sabah newspaper, reminded her readers that the US federal system, with wide-ranging rights for the 50 states, creates an effective counterweight to the president's power, something that is completely lacking in centrally governed Turkey.

Ms Ilicak added that although the US president cannot always rely on his own party members in Congress when trying to get legislation through, decisions about parliamentary candidates in Turkey are entirely in the hands of party leaders like Mr Erdogan. Rare is the Turkish deputy that defies the party line. She said: "Tayyip Erdogan may be fitting clothes for himself, but in Turkey, where power turns into an authoritarian regime easily, I am concerned that in the end we will look more like a Latin American country than the USA."