Presidentialism Debates in Turkey

Presidentialism Debates in Turkey*

Abstract

With the adoption of the principle of popular presidential election in Turkey following the 2007 referendum, discussions on Turkey’s political system have heated up. When the extensive powers granted to the president by the 1982 Constitution are also taken into account, the breakaway from pure parliamentary system has become more evident. As debates on the need for shifting to presidentialism further intensify these days, we should first keep in mind that the Ottoman constitutional tradition started with a parliamentary practice and since we made the transition to a multi-party political system in 1946, we have been governed by a parliamentary system. In this context, when seeking the answer for the question whether Turkey should adopt presidentialism as a new model, it should first be discussed if that model would head the country towards a more democratic and stable direction and contribute to the rule of law. Because only in that case adopting a new system by breaking away from the current one would be meaningful.

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Presidentialism denotes a system that appears as a setting in which the legislative, executive and judicial organs are completely separate from each other and have equal political power, and is characterised as the strict separation of powers. Intertwinement of the legislative and the executive in the parliamentary system is replaced with the separation of powers with clear lines. Accordingly, the president, who completely controls the executive power, is elected by the public for a fixed term; and the legislative organ cannot unseat the president except for impeachment.[1] In return, the president cannot dissolve the parliament. It should be noted that, theoretically, this system provides for the complete independence of powers. And this state of independence provides for the compromise of the triad of the legislature, executive and the judiciary, as is the case in the US.[2] Creating various mechanisms of checks and balances, and securing the efficient operation thereof, make this compromise possible. Without doubt, separation of powers basically reflects the legal equality of powers. However, as the executive emerges politically superior to the legislature, the system is called “Presidentialism.”[3]

In presidentialism, contrary to the parliamentary system, the executive does not originate from the legislature. The president and the legislative organ are elected separately for fixed terms and they retain their independence from each other throughout their terms. Mutual independence of the president and the parliament results in their inability to interfere with each other’s areas of authority. Whereas the president is not involved in legislative activities, parliaments are not involved in executive activities.[4] This state of affairs forces these organs to mutually compromise on the application of a certain policy. Otherwise, the system ends up in a deadlock.[5]

Even if we set aside the fact that beginning from 1876, the Ottoman constitutional tradition started as a parliamentary practice, Turkey has been governed by a parliamentary system since we made the transition to a multi-party political system in 1946; therefore it should be admitted that such a constitutional tradition has been established.[6] On the other hand, following the referendum in 2007, the principle of popular presidential election has been adopted in Turkey. Together with the extensive powers granted to the president by the 1982 Constitution, this brings the question whether Turkey should adopt presidential system as a new model to the fore. But when seeking to answer this question, it should be firstly discussed whether this system would steer Turkey into a more democratic and stable direction. Because only in that case it is possible that breaking away from the current system would be meaningful.

What the proponents of presidentialism specifically underline is the achievement of governmental stability. While there are various reasons for instability, it is accepted that in parliamentary systems, this probability emerges due to the features of the system. After all, this system provides for mechanisms that enable the legislative and executive powers to bring down each other. In that case, in parliamentary systems, governments hold office for shorter periods of time and they have shorter lifespans compared to presidents’ cabinets.[7] In spite of this, popular election of president for a fixed term and president’s capacity to preserve his post regardless of parliament’s confidence provide for stability for the government to remain in power. Yet, this governmental stability should not be confused with the more comprehensive political stability, which we can define as the cooperation of basic political institutions.[8] In this way, particularly in cases where presidency and parliamentary majority are in the hands of different parties, increase in problems between the legislative and executive organs and deadlock of the system would emerge as factors triggering political instability. It is also argued for presidentialism that since a president controls the executive all by himself and acquires his legitimacy from the people, he can comfortably execute his policies. However, it should be noted that a popularly elected president does not have the absolute power in exercising his authority. In order to execute policies he plans to follow, the president requires the support of the congress all the time. This state of affairs forces the president to compromise, even if reluctantly. Moreover, this coercion is possible not only with an oppositional majority, but also where the majority in the congress is from the president’s party.[9] In comparison, a prime minister leading the majority party is not in a weaker position than a president. Indeed, a prime minister has a superior role as the first among equals in countries that have a tradition of disciplined parties. And even though he governs with a council of ministers, in a system organised according to classical parliamentarism, the execution of political programmes is in the hands of the prime minister. In other words, the idea that the independent president in presidentialism is in no way dependent upon the legislature is not correct.[10] On the other hand, in principle, the president will not leave his office before the end of his term. This enables him to exercise his powers comfortably. It is accepted that this is not the case for parliamentary system. That is because it is possible to prompt the fall of government and end its term through the interpellation mechanism. Parliament’s authority to interpellation may at first sight be deemed a method that is threatening over the government. When the government and the parliamentary majority are in agreement, however, interpellation is far from being a real threat.[11] Moreover, taking into consideration the high rate of government proposals in law-making, it is possible that we come across a quite powerful prime minister both in the legislative and executive organs. We cannot thus say that such a prime minister is less powerful than the president in the US system.

Upon the mentioning of president, one is inclined to think of a power centre that is empowered by the people and controlling the executive organ by itself.  However, the president does not have the combined authority of the two executive wings of parliamentary system, namely the president and the prime minister. As we tried to explain earlier, having the ‘executive’ power denotes different perceptions in practice, as the two systems’ institutions, operation and understanding they established throughout their historical processes are different. In other words, some of the executive powers in the parliamentary system may be absent from the powers of the executive of presidentialism. For instance, the actions included in the 1982 Constitution such as dissolving the parliament, appointing judges to the Constitutional Court and high judicial organs with no legislative approval or responsibility are not powers that a president can exercise alone or due to his capacity as the person holding the executive power. For this reason, a prime minister with a strong parliamentary majority should be deemed no less an important actor than a president. Indeed, a prime minister and his government with a parliamentary majority would be at least as successful as a president in providing for stability and maintaining an effective executive.

When the US example where presidentialism is successfully implemented is examined and Turkey’s political life and experience are taken into account, one can hardly conclude that this is a system fit for Turkey. Likewise, the fact that this system successfully operates in the US but could not equally succeed in Latin American countries shows the system’s peculiarity to the US. In addition to the mechanisms of checks and balances specific to the system, the established political and democratic culture, as well as the party and state structure also play an important role in the emergence of this situation. Especially, it is important for the operability of the system that, different from the Continental Europe, there are no sharp ideologies, the reconciliatory culture is established, and unlike a unitary state, political power is not concentrated in one layer of administration in the US. Indeed, authority areas of those holding power at any level of administration are limited and the president has to accept that there are many fields he cannot interfere in.[12] In this way the president is prevented from transforming into a dictator collecting all the power in his hands. Moreover, in the federal state system, authority of the president lies rather on foreign policy and national defence.[13]

On the other hand, the existence of a dominant two-party system and the weakness of party loyalty reduce the president’s impact and control over the legislature or any other power through the party. When a congressman or a senator votes against the president’s will, there is no way the president can punish them by expelling them from the party or in any other way. In other words, the president lacks the disciplinary and hierarchical status that would let him collect all the power in his hands through the party. The person elected as the head of state, in fact, is not a “party leader” as we perceive.[14] At the same time, there are civil society organisations that are able to direct the society and numerous lobbies in the US. Leaving aside the internalisation of these institutions, their power over administration as a whole is quite important. In this sense, it is not wrong to say that the US is governed by a massive “network” of trade unionists, senators, media, and local institutions.[15]

It is possible that the adoption of presidentialism in Turkey, where there is no similar substructure in general, may bring along certain drawbacks, taking into account the unitary structure of Turkey, its parliamentary tradition, the difference between ideologies, disciplined party structure and an unsettled democratic culture, and especially the possibility of the presidentialism turning into an authoritarian rule. It should be noted that both systems are democratic systems. Both systems can help establish and efficiently operate liberal, modern, pluralist governments based on the rule of law. However, we cannot talk about a preferable democratic system over the other, in societies where democratic culture and judicial independence have not yet been established. What is common in countries where either parliamentary or presidential system work successfully is the fact that they are characterised as state of law. Therefore, Turkey’s problem is not a problem of system but a problem of democracy and state of law.[16] For that reason, instead of making a change in the political system, efforts should be made towards stopping the concentration of powers in one centre, resolving probable systemic impasses, preventing the arbitrariness and personalisation of power, and encouraging the establishment of the state of law.

Assistant Professor Hamide Tacir, Kadir Has University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Tacir, H. (May, 2015), “Presidentialism Debates in Turkey”, Vol. IV, Issue 5, pp.46-51, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8857)

Bibliography

Göztepe, Ece, Türkiye’de Bir Rejim Sorunu Olarak Cumhurbaşkanlığı Seçimi-Karşılaştırmalı Bir Değerlendirme (Presidential Election as a Regime Problem in Turkey – A Comparative Assessment), Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2007, p.196ff.

Kalaycıoğlu, Ersin, Başkanlık Rejimi: Türkiye’nin Diktatörlük Tehdidiyle Sınavı (Presidential Regime: Turkey’s Test with the Threat of Dictatorship), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, Ankara, 2005, p.16ff.

Kuzu, Burhan, TBMM Bütçe Görüşmelerinde Başkanlık Sistemi (Presidentialism in TBMM’s Budget Meetings), Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005, p.148ff.

Özbudun, Ergun, Başkanlık Sistemi Tartışmaları (Presidentialism Debates), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005, p.108ff.

Soberg, Matthew, Shugart/Stephen Haggard, Institutions and Public Policy in Presidential Systems, in Presidents, Parliaments and Policy, Cambridge University Press, 2001,  p.64ff.

Tacir, Hamide, “Parlamenter Sistem ve Başkanlık Sistemi Karşılaştırması Işığında Türkiye’de Başkanlık Sistemi Tartışmaları” (Presidentialism Debates in Turkey in Light of Comparison between Parliamentary System and Presidentialism), Maltepe Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi Dergisi, 2011.

Teziç, Erdoğan, Anayasa Hukuku (Constitutional Law), İstanbul: Beta Yayıncılık, 1999, p.399.

Turan, İlter, Başkanlık Sistemi Sevdası: Zayıf Temelli Bir Özlem, Başkanlık Sistemi (Passion for Presidentialism: An Unsound Yearning), Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005.

Uygun, Oktay, Federal Devlet (Federal State), İstanbul: 12 Levha Yayıncılık, 2007.

Uygun, Oktay, Anayasa Değişikliklerinden Sonra Türkiye Nereye Gidiyor? (Where is Turkey Heading for after the Constitutional Amendments?), Okan Üniversitesi Panel, 13.10.2010.

Yazıcı, Serap, Başkanlık Sistemleri: Türkiye İçin Bir Değerlendirme (Presidential Systems: An Assessment for Turkey), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005, p.126ff.

Endnotes

*For author’s detailed article on the subject, see; “Parlamenter Sistem ve Başkanlık Sistemi Karşılaştırması Işığında Türkiye’de Başkanlık Sistemi Tartışmaları,” (Presidentialism Debates in Turkey in Light of Comparison between Parliamentary System and Presidentialism), Maltepe Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi Dergisi, 2011.

[1]Impeachment: A legislative investigation that could result in the criminal responsibility of the president.

[2]Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, Başkanlık Rejimi: Türkiye’nin Diktatörlük Tehdidiyle Sınavı (Presidential Regime: Turkey’s Test with the Threat of Dictatorship), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, Ankara, 2005, p.16.

[3]Erdoğan Teziç, Anayasa Hukuku (Constitutional Law), İstanbul: Beta Yayıncılık, 1999, p.421.

[4]Teziç, p. 425.

[5]Matthew Soberg Shugart/Stephen Haggard, Institıtions and Public Policy in Presidential Systems, in Presidents, Parliaments and Policy, Cambridge University Press, 2001,  p.64.

[6]Ergun Özbudun, Başkanlık Sistemi Tartışmaları (Presidentialism Debates), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005, p.111.

[7]Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, Başkanlık Rejimi: Türkiye’nin Diktatörlük Tehdidiyle Sınavı (Presidential Regime: Turkey’s Test with the Threat of Dictatorship), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, Ankara, 2005. Kalaycıoğlu, p. 23.

[8]İlter Turan,  Başkanlık Sistemi Sevdası: Zayıf Temelli Bir Özlem (Passion for Presidentialism: An Unsound Yearning), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005, p.120, Özbudun, p.107.

[9]Serap Yazıcı, Başkanlık Sistemleri: Türkiye İçin Bir Değerlendirme (Presidential Systems: An Assessment for Turkey), Başkanlık Sistemi, Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005, p.122.

[10]Ece Göztepe, Türkiye’de Bir Rejim Sorunu Olarak Cumhurbaşkanlığı Seçimi – Karşılaştırmalı Bir Değerlendirme (Presidential Election as a Regime Problem in Turkey-A Comparative Assessment), Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2007, p.96.

[11]Yazıcı, p.126; Burhan Kuzu, TBMM Bütçe Görüşmelerinde Başkanlık Sistemi (Presidentialism in TBMM’s Budget Meetings), Türkiye Barolar Birliği, 2005,  p.148.

[12]Turan, p.116.

[13]For details of federal state system, see; Oktay Uygun, Federal Devlet (Federal State), 12 Levha Yayıncılık, 2007.

[14]Oktay Uygun, Anayasa Değişikliklerinden Sonra Türkiye Nereye Gidiyor? (Where is Turkey Heading for after the Constitutional Amendments?), Okan Üniversitesi Panel, 13.10.2010.

[15]Uygun, p.165.

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