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Kaya Genç: Turkey’s Unofficial Referendum

August 8, 2014

On Sunday, Turkey will elect a president by direct popular vote for the first time, choosing between drastically different visions for their political system.

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Image from Flickr user Idil

By Kaya Genç

One humid summer day last month, at forty minutes before midnight, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared in a soccer stadium in Başakşehir, Istanbul. He was there to play in a special match organized to celebrate the stadium’s opening. The thirty-minute long event was broadcast live on state television with a sports announcer providing biographical details about the sixty-year-old politician as he warmed up by stretching his legs and kicking around soccer balls. The timing was carefully selected: millions of Turkish citizens watch television between iftar, the meal that ends the day’s fasting, and suhoor, the last meal consumed before fasting at the wee hours of the day. This was television’s prime time for the month of Ramadan: an ideal slot for the prime minister to advertise his candidacy to become Turkey’s next president, a position that on Sunday, for the first time in the country’s history, will be chosen through direct popular vote.

At the stadium that day, Erdoğan wore an orange-colored soccer jersey that carried the number 12. The jersey was as explicit an illustration of Erdoğan’s self-confident campaign as one could find that night. If elected, after all, Erdoğan will become Turkey’s twelfth president, possibly the most powerful one since the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The decision to have a democratically elected president was made after a referendum in 2007; now Erdoğan wants not only to be the first elected president, but also to give the position greater power.

Judging by the polls that have been appearing in national newspapers over the course of last month, Erdoğan’s rivals—Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Selahattin Demirtaş, a forty-one-year-old lawyer and socialist politician—have little chance of changing that outcome. Most analysts agree that Erdoğan will be easily elected to the top office, which might explain the lack of interest in the election from the international press even after they spent the last year and a half reporting from Turkey’s polarized political sphere. Over the last few months, the political conversation here has been calmer, with people curious to find out how Erdoğan will run country after the August elections, rather than if.

For Erdoğan, winning Sunday’s election is only the beginning of his plan to restructure Turkish politics. The decision to have a democratically elected president was made after a referendum in 2007; now Erdoğan wants not only to be the first elected president, but also to give the position greater power. Ultimately, this presidential election is a referendum on the current separation of powers in Turkey’s government. That the candidate pushing for such radical reform is Erdoğan, a man that over three terms as Prime Minister has remained popular but also gained a reputation for authoritarian tendencies, only adds to the vote’s significance.

The possibility that Turkey may be on its way to adopting a presidential system—one of the few in the world that, like the US, would be run by an elected president with executive powers alongside a legislative parliament—is only the latest development in a debate that has been at the heart of Turkish politics since the 19th century. Turkey’s parliamentarian system has its roots in 1876, the year in which Sultan Abdülhamid was forced to accept the first Ottoman constitution and open a legislative parliament that consisted of two chambers: the Heyet-î Ayan, whose members were appointed by the Sultan, and the Meclis-î Mebusan, which was similar to the British House of Commons and ultimately shut down by the sultan in 1878 after parliamentarians voiced their dissent against his war policies, marking the start of a thirty-year period when the country was ruled without a parliament.

What we talk about when we talk about the presidential system, or a president with increased executive powers, is inescapably Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s legacy.

The first national grand assembly of the modern Turkish state came into being in 1920, and it elected Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the country’s president on October 29, 1923. All the parliamentarians attending the voting session voted for Atatürk (he, on the other hand, voted for İsmet İnönü, perhaps to preemptively express his choice for who should succeed him). Atatürk was not only the first but also the strongest, and longest serving, president of the republic. He served four terms, until his death on November 10, 1938 and what we talk about when we talk about the presidential system, or a president with increased executive powers, is inescapably his legacy. Between 1923 and 1938, the year of his death, Atatürk’s powers as a president were virtually limitless.

Because of that, Atatürk’s often comes up when discussing Erdoğan’s proposal. In mid-July, journalist and broadcaster Mehmet Barlas interviewed Erdoğan on national television and, in between questions, recounted an anecdote about Celal Bayar, who served as prime minister between 1937 and 1938 under Atatürk’s rule. Bayar had visited the presidential palace in Çankaya to ask the founding father about their respective responsibilities. “I will appoint and retire the generals,” Atatürk had reportedly said, “I will appoint and retire the mayors. I will appoint and retire the police chiefs. You won’t interfere with any of those. I will decide on the country’s foreign policy and I will choose the ambassadors. You won’t interfere with those either. As for the rest, do as you like.”

Erdoğan smiled as he listened to the anecdote before commenting: “Not much was left to the prime minister then, was there?”

During Atatürk’s three terms, the presidency was not a ceremonial position like it is today; when prime ministers refused to go along with his policies, Atatürk forced them to resign from their posts, and picked alternative politicians who were okay with implementing his ideas. The powerful status of the presidency continued during the twelve-year reign of İnönü, modern Turkey’s second president. It only changed in 1950, when Turkey began electing members of parliament from different parties, thus putting an end to what had been single-party regime and allowing for a move away from the young republic’s authoritarian atmosphere. The powers of the presidential seat subsequently waned in the second half of the twentieth century, a time period marked by several coups. It became a ceremonial seat, albeit one with the power to send back bills to the parliament to be reevaluated if the president disagreed with them.

Today, Erdoğan argues, there is a conflict between the ceremonial (but not insignificant) role of the president and the executive role of the prime minister. He argues that increased powers can be allowed to the country’s highest office, but only after making sure that the person who inhabits it is democratically elected by the people.

In 2012, Erdoğan’s party, which had 325 seats from a total of 550 in the parliament, sent a draft bill about the presidential system to the constitution conciliation commission. The party was just five seats short of the majority required to put the newly designed constitution on a referendum. According to the proposal, the president would be elected directly by popular vote, and the president would be responsible to the people, rather than the parliament. His responsibilities would include preparing the budget and appointing ministers who would come from outside the parliament. (Many of these proposals were taken from a failed attempt to introduce a more robust presidential system in the 1980s.) The bill also included the introduction of an impeachment system, so that the president would face the prospect of losing his seat if found guilty of committing a crime. Not getting the support needed to put it the new constitution to a referendum, the draft proposal was shelved—until it became a point of discussion in this month’s presidential elections.

During his interview on national television, Erdoğan said he had no ambitions to become “like Putin”. If elected he would continue ruling the country according to article 104 of the constitution that specifies the role of the president, he said. But he admitted that things could potentially change next year. “If the party that I am a member of today gains enough power to change the constitution in the 2015 elections, then a new constitution will be prepared,” he said. If he is elected as president this month, and if the new leader of his party decides to press on with the proposal for the presidential system next year, then the establishment of a strong executive branch may become a reality. We will have to wait until next year to see whether it will, or if the presidential system will remain only Erdoğan’s fantasy.

The next year, then, will determine whether Erdoğan can further strengthen his grip on power or if his influence will slowly begin to recede.

In Turkish the president is called Reis-i Cumhur, “the leader of the people.” That’s a role that Erdoğan, with his loyal following among certain segments of the Turkish population, might be naturally suited for. But some fear that he has become too powerful, micromanaging aspects of social life, and lacking the will to listen to those who oppose his policies. Others say that due to his iconic status, Erdoğan’s party may face problems when he leaves it to ascend to the presidential seat—the current constitution demands that the president resign from his party before starting his term. The next year, then, will determine whether Erdoğan can further strengthen his grip on power or if his influence will slowly begin to recede. Either will be a defining event for Turkey since, regardless of one’s opinion of him, it’s clear that Erdoğan has been at the center of Turkish politics for over a decade.

During last month’s special match, Erdoğan’s team was losing the game before the prime minister scored three goals in succession. He left the game during half time in order to watch the second half from the stalls—but only after seeing to it that his team had taken the lead. As Erdoğan walked outside the pitch, almost all eyes were fixed on him. It was as if the players, and spectators, had a difficult time imagining what they would do once he left the game. But the match resumed and his team won, 9-4.

Kaya Genç is a novelist from Istanbul. He is curating a book on Istanbul for the American University in Cairo Press and working on his first English novel. He tweets @kayagenc and blogs at www.kayagenc.net.

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