Turkish Democracy in Trouble, but not Because of Presidential System

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey’s historic referendum on Sunday will move the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Many observers are sounding a death knell for Turkish democracy as a result, but the move to presidentialism in and of itself isn’t the problem.

Interestingly, Erdogan won with a similar demographic profile to that of the 2016 US presidential election. Erdogan’s constitutional change largely triumphed on the basis of rural and provincial voters but was rejected by the big cities. Turkey’s equivalent of the Red States drove the change.

Turkey is in essence moving from a British parliamentary system to a French presidential one.

In a parliamentary system, there is no strong separation of powers, since the prime minister represents the executive but he is elected by and functions within the legislature.

In a presidential system, the is a separation of powers and parliament is not so beholden to the executive.

Although some political scientists have argued that parliamentary systems are more stable than presidential ones, others have complained that his generalization is skewed (most presidents were in Latin America, e.g.).

The 18-point referendum even has a few areas where it is more democratic. The age at which candidates can serve in parliament was lowered from 25 to 18!

The real problem with Turkish democracy is not that it is parliamentary or presidential. It is that it isn’t functioning very well and that the executive is grabbing extra-constitutional powers.

The July 15, 2016, failed coup, gave Erdogan the pretext to declare a state of emergency suspending civil liberties. (National states of emergency have always struck me as fairly stupid. The nation never needs its rights more than when there is an emergency). He has by decree just fired over 100,000 people from government jobs, has fired large numbers of university professors, has dissolved entire universities. In most instances there has been no judicial procedure.

There apparently hasn’t ever been any real freedom of the press in Turkey. This sad state of affairs was revealed with the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when it became obvious that the press was afraid to cover them or to offer a point of view on the protests differing from that of the government.

Since the failed coup, things have of course gotten dramatically worse, with many journalists jailed or chased out of the country. But these steps were taken in a parliamentary system, after all.

Then there is a tyranny of the majority. Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t believe in minority rights and Turkey has no Connecticut Compromise. Erdogan’s center-right, religiously-inflected Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to have the reliable support of a bare simple majority of the population. But he is typically also supported by the rightwing nationalist party, the MHP. Between the two of them he typically has had about 2/3s of parliament behind him.

As long as that configuration remained stable (and it has been true since 2002), Erdogan and other AKP leaders have had virtually no checks, even in a parliamentary system.

Actually, in this referendum Erdogan’s typical coalition broke down slightly, so that he was not able to get 2/3s but only a simple majority. The larger cities all defected (Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir), even though Ankara and Istanbul had in the past been strongholds of AKP. So Erdogan won his referendum almost entirely on the basis of the rural Sunni Turkish vote. Rural Kurds in the southwest (many of whom had been in his parliamentary majority) also defected.

So Turkey’s system has been changed by provincial Turkish Sunnis, over the objection of urban people and of rural Kurds and Alevis.

Map-d2017. h/t Hurriyet

There are, of course, anti-democratic implications of some of these changes. Under the old system, the president was symbolic and could not remain head of a political party, so that Erdogan faced the possibility of losing control of the AKP. Now he can be president and party head at the same time (as the US president is). In essence, Erdogan has gained a potential political longevity under the new system that was not assured to him under the old. Since Erdogan’s actual aim is to move Turkey to a dictatorship Lite, what some call “illiberal democracy,” his new shot at remaining in power for a decade or more gives him plenty of time to implement that project. (I say this as someone who argued since the early 2000s that the AKP and Erdogan should be given a chance to build a pluralist society. You could say I was always wrong. Or you could say Erdogan abruptly changed on me. Either way, I haven’t come to this conclusion glibly).

He also can now shape the judiciary unilaterally, which bodes ill for the future. He will almost certainly pack the courts with, if not fundamentalists, then very conservative judges who lean toward religion.

In that sense, sure. Turkey’s brief experiment with pluralistic democracy is definitively over with. But probably it has been dead for a while, and some at the funeral were too polite to say so.


Related video:

Turkey referendum: Erdogan wins vote to expand presidential powers – BBC News

14 Responses

    • There was almost certainly some electoral fraud (“No” votes found dumped on a building site close to the Syrian border, for example) and there was a pattern of AKP loyalists threatening No voters, with little or no police interference. If Erdogan had realised it would be so close, there would probably have been more vote-rigging.

  1. Curious.: president Assad took similar powers for himself and we have never heard the last of it. I suppose its okay for a NATO member just as its okay for the Saudi royal family to be dictators. Erdogan will be alright as long as he continues to make his air bases available for NATO planes. However, if he steps out of line I suspect he will go the same way as Gadaffi or Saddam Husein.

    • Uh, note that this is not the original Dictator Assad, this is Sonny Assad. So on top of dictatorship, you have inherited rule, stretching over half a century. And calling the powers of that regime “similar” is either a joke, or fantastic gullibility by someone who wants to believe in socialism’s inevitability so badly that he will count any tyrant with a Swiss bank account as a socialist as long as he’s anti-American.

  2. Juan,

    Would love to see a longer discussion of Turkey’s “red-state, blue-state” split (to use a US analogy.) I’ve read about the split between the big urban areas and the provinces of Anatolia. Are we talking about class, religion, a combination – or something else?


    • It actually is similar, I don’t know why these colors were chosen but the yes/blue camp would be the right wing erdogan supporters (closer to american red in comparison) and the no/red would be a combination of seculars, kemalists and kurds so mainly leftists (and some anti-tayyip center-right and right wingers). Turkey is actually very similar to the us when compared to the red/blue state distribution where coastal cities are blue inner cities are red.

  3. I disliked Erdogen from the start as a secular socialist type, but I will say his is a cautionary tale of allowing people to stay in power too long. The human psyche starts to get a bit crazy after years of having millions hang on your every decision. Erdogen started from a position of moderation for an Islamist (still believes in the One True Sky Wizard’s Great Eye watching everything but he wasn’t throwing gays off buildings or beheading peaceful Shia clerics like some Arab Sunni factions/regimes I could mention). Sadly he stayed long enough to see himself become the villain as that great political philosopher Batman once remarked. He should have been retired by his colleagues somewhere around 2007-11 and would have been well remembered by Turks if he had. The tragedy of political life is that there is always something left to do.

    • One of my favorite quotes is from DeGaulle who said that grave yards are filled with the bodies of “indispensable men.” Erdogan has decided that he is one of those and his country can’t survive without him. There is almost never a good outcome when a country is headed by someone with that view.

  4. I am sure there was fraud but the big chunk of the votes come from Anatolia. He has been good to them in the long run. Their life has not changed much but have improved under Erdogan. Another point is the opposition is weak. A strong man, even a corrupt one is ok. for them and corruption has always been there with or without Erdogan. This was expected result. What is more interesting is what will happen from now on? How he will use these new powers and that will determine his fate. Sometimes you dig your own grave at the end.

  5. Erdogan said (in mid-nineties) that “.. democracy is a streetcar we’ll ride until it gets us to the stop we want.. “. So why is this a surprise? (The stop he wanted to reach was exactly this, presidente vitalicio, caudillo, f├╝hrer, reis, mehdi- yes they call him that, too!)

  6. Just a point re colour symbolism in the political system. Americans associate red with the political right, blue with the left. In Europe, and presumably Turkey, red is the leftist colour. Britin’s tories are blue. Red is the colour of revolution, socialism, Marxism etc. The peopl’es flag is deepest red
    It shrouded oft our martyred dead
    And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
    Their hearts’ b lood died itd every fold
    So hold the scarlet banner high
    Beneath its shade we’ll live or die
    Though Cowards shrink and traitors sneer
    We’ll keep the red flag flying here British Labour Party Anthem

  7. I keep wondering about all the Turks arrested and/or fired since the half-baked coup attempt.

    Where are the 45,000 jailed since the coup?

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