President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dream of transforming Turkey into a powerful executive presidency is one step closer to reality.
Last Saturday, the ruling Justice and Development Party introduced a 21-article constitutional amendment to vastly strengthen the powers of the head of state.
With the support of right-wing Turkish nationalists, the parliament will probably promulgate the package for endorsement by a popular referendum by mid-2017.
Turkey’s proposed presidential system will abolish the role of prime minister while granting authority to the president to issue law, declare a state of emergency, dismiss parliament and to appoint ministers, public officials and half of the senior judges. He will usurp parliament’s existing right to audit ministers and will be able to extend the duration of his term in office until at least 2029.
This presidential model is distinctive and unprecedented.
Turkey has, at least superficially, copied the US by dispensing with the prime ministerial position. But in the US, the president is checkmated by a strict separation of powers, known as “divided government.”
Turkey’s president, on the other hand, has nearly unrestricted control in a country with a nascent media, judiciary and civil society movement, and a highly centralized state.
Consolidating the dominance of the presidency will exacerbate the ideological, ethnic and sectarian polarization plaguing Turkish society.
A 2015 survey by US think tank German Marshall Fund, three-quarters of respondents in Turkey do not want their children to play with the children of those who support a different political party. Furthermore, 83% do not want their daughter to marry someone voting for the party from which they feel distant, and 78% reject the idea of doing business with someone voting for the “other” party.
Unsurprisingly, the presidential debate is a highly contentious issue. In a late November survey by A&G, a Turkish polling company, 45.7% of participants backed a presidential system and 41.6% opposed it.
So divisive is the issue that Erdogan had to agree an alliance of convenience with a weakened pro-Turkish National Action Party to enable the Turkish parliament to pass the amendment against the stiff resistance from the secular-oriented social democratic Republican Peoples’ Party and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.
This comes at a time of a raging conflicts in neighboring Iraq and Syria, a febrile post-coup-attempt political environment and frequent bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul by ISIS or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey should, instead, focus on liberalizing politics and the economy to encourage domestic reconciliation and tranquility.
The country urgently needs economic reforms to regenerate its faltering credit-fueled, private, consumption-based growth strategy.
Its year-over-year third quarter growth rate declined by 1.8%, the first time it entered negative territory since 2009. The Turkish Lira has depreciated by almost 100% since April 2013, thereby intensifying the $230 billion debt burden held by the banks and corporate sector. One can safely assume that growth rates will be sluggish and personal incomes will be stagnant next year.
Broadly, the new presidential system will signal the widening gulf between Turkey and the European Union. A few weeks ago, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in a symbolic vote to suspend Turkey’s already moribund EU accession negotiations.
What was once a thriving bilateral relationship is today defined by confrontation and mutual suspicion.
Despite Ankara’s diplomatic entreaties to Moscow, Europe remains far more decisive to Turkey’s prosperity — given that the former provides three quarters of the latter’s Foreign Direct Investment and nearly half of its trade.
Erdogan will probably succeed to formalize his de-facto presidency into law, assuming the economy does not significantly deteriorate.
Yet, Turkey will find that stability will depend not on the installation of an executive presidency, but on the pursuit of an ambitious agenda of democratic and economic modernization to open the space for more Turkish citizens to become stakeholders in their country.
After all, Turkey has been down this path before. Its decades-old pioneering free market reforms spread wealth and opportunities to the once-neglected conservative segments of the population from which the current president hails. There is no reason why this feat cannot be repeated.
Fadi Hakura is a Turkey expert and associate fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy institute based in London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.