Turkish Pres. Erdogan cites Hitler in case for Presidential System

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday cited Hitler in support of his contention that a presidential system can coexist with a “unitary state,” i.e., with a non-federal government. The United States has a presidential system, but the presidency’s powers are limited because it is a federal system with enormous rights and prerogatives retained by the state. I suppose the context is that people are arguing to Erdogan that if he takes Turkey into a presidential system, it could break up the country because there would be regionalist responses to this concentration of power. He was trying to deflect this critique, and what his mind happened on was the example of fascist Germany!

Erdogan is neither a fascist nor a totalitarian, and there is no evidence he has lost faith in having regular elections. He has become increasingly authoritarian, however, and is now going around accusing his political rivals of treason. A decade ago, he stood for a certain amount of political pluralism, though he has relinquished most of the latter commitments in the past two years. He was just trying to bat down critics of his plan for a strong presidency by pointing to places where that system has not implied moving to a federal system. But the remark shows how tone deaf he has become, how insensitive to the impact of his remarks, and, indeed, how arrogant.

Erdogan is tired of being a ceremonial president. He wants a presidential system for his country, on the American or Brazilian model. Turkey, like most of the European Union with the exception of France, has a parliamentary system, where the prime minister comes out of parliament’s largest party and is the head of state. Parliamentary systems can provide checks to executive power– smaller parties often have inordinate power because they are swing votes on key issues. All the regions of the country are represented. A strong presidential system lacks these checks unless other checks and balances are built in, such as states’ rights federalism or constitutional prerogatives for parliament. Erdogan does not seem big on checks and balances any more.

Even with its current parliamentary system, Turkey’s state has authoritarian tendencies and lacks basic press and academic freedoms. While you can argue about the relative virtues of parliamentary versus presidential rule, there doesn’t seem any doubt that Erdogan wants the change for all the wrong reasons– to concentrate power in his hands.

He gave his enemies, and critics of the presidential system, lots of ammunition by invoking Hitler.

But beyond this immediate constitutional issue, it is worrisome for Turkey’s politics that Erdogan is developing Trumpmouth syndrome, and one worries that there is some sort of cognitive decline or disorder at work in his recent wild oscillations. This summer, in order to reverse the results of the parliamentary election, which gave a pro-Kurdish party 13% of seats and denied his Justice and Development Party an absolute majority, he cancelled the peace process and went to war with the guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (a group with a separatist and Marxist past that Turkey and the US list as a terrorist organization). The PKK may be partly to blame for the collapse of peace talks (it has been accused of massive human rights violations itself), but it seems clear that the impetus for the new conflict was Erdogan’s bid to undo the June elections and get a parliamentary majority. He just fell short. At 50 percent of seats gained on Nov. 1 in snap elections, his party has a mandate to rule without a coalition partner. But that isn’t enough to change the constitution.

These measures seem wild and unnecessary and wholly instrumental in a way that suggests a loss of moral compass. I don’t think the Erdogan of the early zeroes was an act, when he spoke for pluralism. I think something has gone wrong with him, whether the pride of long office or producing too much of one brain chemical and not enough of another.

In any case Erdogan was wrong that Hitler came to power in a presidential system; and he is also wrong that Hitlerism did not indict the unitary state; you will note that Germany is now a federal republic.

The Hitler remark is, however, important beyond its political context. It suggests there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Turkey’s Erdogan slams pro-Kurdish Demirtas for “provocation and treason”

12 Responses

  1. An excellent summing up of what is wrong with President’s Erdogan’s Turkey, and his desire for change for the wrong reasons. While he achieved great success in reining in the excesses of mainly military-dominated former governments and bringing Turkey closer to the real feelings of most Turks, it is clear that he has gone too far in his Islamization of the state. Another problem with him is that he is dreaming of reviving some of the glories of the Ottoman Empire by becoming too autocratic and subverting democracy in Turkey.

    The early policies of the AKP party, namely moderate Islam, zero tension with neighbors, reducing the power of the military, improving the judiciary and greater emphasis on democracy, were the policies that Turkey needed. As a moderate Muslim, Erdogan could have played a positive role in bringing the Middle Eastern countries together or at least preventing the sectarian conflict that is now ravaging the region. However, by supporting the insurgents and the terrorists in Syria in league with Saudi Arabia, and by clearly advocating a Sunni rather than a non-sectarian form of Islam he is doing a great deal of damage to Turkey and to the region, the same damage that Ayatollah Khomeini did with his Shiite revolution.

    After the barbaric executions in Saudi Arabia the region is set for greater sectarian tension. The present situation requires statesmanship and wisdom by the leaders of Iran, Turkey and other Middle Eastern states. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case.

  2. But “checks and balances” has never worked in the US, because it was designed as a first approximation suitable to the small government of the early federal era. Not only are there no checks at all upon the judicial branch (it was thought to be too few in number to misbehave), but also the other branches have no internal checks and are fundamentally unable to balance each other because their powers are completely different. The executive branch has always had all of the physical power (army, national guard, secret agencies, DOJ and marshals, etc.) as well as real control of the economic power (treasury, IRS, budget management, etc.). So the executive has gradually taken what it pleases. The judicial branch now rejects by subterfuge both constitutional rights and democracy itself, as in Citizens United. All branches are owned by the bribes of economic concentrations: if any branch represented the people, the conflicts between them would be immediate.

    The solution is to implement checks and balances within each branch (and add checks upon the judiciary). When factions control one of its components, the others check its power. That requires redundant control within each branch, just like the redundant processors in high-reliability control systems (aircraft autopilots, large memory systems, etc.). When one disagrees, the votes of the other two decide the action taken.

    But no system of checks and balances works when economic power controls all of the branches and their components. That can be eliminated only by amendments to the Constitution to restrict funding of mass media and elections to limited and registered individual contributions, there is no way to restore democracy. But without those essential tools of democracy, there is no public debate of such amendments.

    Economic dominance of mass media and elections ensures right wing tyranny and illusory foreign wars forever, because right wing tyrants must create foreign enemies to demand domestic power by posing as protectors and to accuse their opponents of disloyalty, as Aristotle warned millennia ago. It also ensures that humanitarianism and sanity in foreign and domestic policy are denounced forever as subversive of the interests of the rich.

    Sadly, there is no peaceful way to replace tyranny and recreate democracy. The structures of tyranny are immune to social, moral, and political education. No one can prefer the tragedies of revolution to the beauty of a peaceful democracy. But when democracy has been allowed to rot into tyranny, we owe a debt to the future.

    • Surprisingly, tyrannies have been peacefully replaced by democracy. It’s rare, but at least we have examples that might show us how to make it happen.

      I would expect that Juan Carlos steered Spain to democracy after Franco died because the king was a product of postwar European culture, and there were a lot of other affluent Spaniards who were sick of Falangism for the same reason. I know that Nelson Mandela used the threat of revolution to get the National Party to accept real elections, but he didn’t have to go too far down that road.

      The problem is that you need elites who think that they are either safer or more prosperous if they share power, and masses who have the discipline to apply the correct amount of coercive force to bring that about. Most elites these days think only about stealing everything and buying private islands as quickly as possible. And the masses lack ideologies that can get them to reason out the benefits of applying that pressure in the name of democracy instead of joining up with a new would-be elite to seize control. The speed with which bad parties rise to the top after the restoration of democracy is now breathtaking. I think that markets and the merchandizing of self-serving faith have undermined the value of civil society in the eyes of people worldwide.

      • Very good points, although the conclusion for the US is the same. There is no unstable balance of power among potential tyrants, no fear of uprising, nor concern for democracy among the sheeple. Just raw opportunism, selfishness, hypocrisy, and malice taught by the mass media. The soil in which democracy flourishes is now a desert, and the tree must finally fall, to be replaced by democracy elsewhere, and perhaps at length regenerated here. And the sooner the better, although not in our time.

        • Ah, but you may be wrong. There is a new powerbase in the US, represented by Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. And their interests are directly opposed to those of the short-sighted “private island” would-be tyrants.

  3. one worries that there is some sort of cognitive decline or disorder at work in his recent wild oscillations

    Jerry Seinfeld the other day asked Obama, how many world leaders are just completely out of their minds. Obama told him, a sizeable number, they stay in office too long, their feet hurt and the have trouble peeing… here at 14: link to comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com

  4. An excellent assessment overall of Erdogan drift toward authoritarian governance, and illuminating commentary on the Hitler reference, but it would have added credibility to
    also comment on the careful repudiation by the Erdogan presidency that Hitler was being invoked in a positive spirit. The claim being made, and seems consistent with the Erdogan outlook, is that bad results can come regardless of the political system.

  5. Dear Professor,

    I understand the intellectually aloof style that is necessary in your field. However, Erdogan doesn’t want a US Presidential system.

    The man is the sole decider in the country. The prosecutors are his paid men. There is absolutely zero independence for the judiciary. Corruption cases cannot be brought against him or his cronies. His son if law is the Energy minister.

    Turkey looks more like Azerbaijan or Tukmenistan than anything. Iran has more contention for power than Turkey does.

    We all know elections are better for dictators than outright one party dictatorships. They are more stable.

    Ultimately Erdogan doesn’t want anything like a US presidential system. That would take too much power away from him.

    So why don’t we call a spade a spade for once?

  6. You’d think Erdogan’s own party, the AKP, would kick him out at this point: he’s acting so crazy and unstable that it’s bad for the party.

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