Presidential elections, which will take place next month, will be an important turning point in the history of Turkish democracy. For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, the president of the country will be elected directly by the people instead of by Parliament. Although it has not been named as such yet, in practice the system will be a semi-presidential one in which both executive body actors are elected by popular elections. This will bring a new dynamism to politics and significantly alter decision-making mechanisms in the executive body.
The first such change will take place during the presidential elections in which the electorate will witness a new type of campaign by presidential candidates. Electorates will have a chance to evaluate candidates, judge their skills and experience and vote in accordance with their preferences. In fact, for the first time the people will have a chance to connect with the president of the republic. However, the elections will not be the only novelty that this system will bring. After the elections, there will be more discussion in regard to the nature of the system, such as the division of labor between the two different branches of the executive body and the accountability of the prime minister.
Despite the continuous adoption of the parliamentary system in Turkey (except for periods of interruptions resulting from military coups), the system has brought significant problems and generated dangerous crises that risked not only the functioning of the political system but also the overall quality of democracy as well. Political instability in the 1970s as a result of coalition governments brought Turkey to the brink of a civil war and helped non-political bodies, including the military, to gain more power and influence in the political system. Later in the 1970s, the failure of Parliament to elect a president and unstable coalition governments offered an opportunity for the military to once more intervene in politics. The 1980 military intervention eradicated the infrastructure of the political system and formed institutions that would secure privileged status for the military in the political system, including the National Security Council.
Throughout the 1980s, Turkey experienced the trauma of constant military intervention in all walks of life. Society in the first elections after the junta voted for a political party that was openly opposed by the military junta. Society did not want a military-sponsored political party in government, but it was also concerned about political deadlock and street politics that cost the lives of so many and traumatized a whole generation. The one-party government of Turgut Ozal’s ANAP opened Turkey to the world by liberalizing the economy and changing the political landscape in the country.
However, with the coalition governments of the 1990s, Turkey once more found itself in the middle of a period of political crises. The constant change of governments, the failure of some governments to receive votes of confidence in Parliament and continuous early elections created an increasingly vulnerable economy and fragile political system. The outcome of this lost decade of politics was yet another military intervention in 1997. The military engineered coalition governments after this period that did not bring any good for Turkey, which experienced the worst economic crisis in its history in 2001.
When the electorate voted in November 2002, they were in one sense responding to military tutelage and the government that it engineered after its intervention in politics. Since 2002, in elections the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has claimed electoral victories and formed single-party governments. During this period of AK Party rule, Turkey once more experienced high economic growth and passed political reforms that were unthinkable during the coalition governments of the 1990s. Although the AK Party is projected to win the 2015 elections at this point, there is concern among large segments of society of a return to the political paralysis of the 1990s. Many who want to avoid another lost decade and another tutelage regime support change in the political system.
However, changes in this system and presidential elections will only be a first step in preventing deadlock in the political system. The system necessitates a new civilian constitution as well as some form of retuning in order to regulate relations between the president, the government and Parliament. In the history of semi-presidentialism, we see different types of gridlock mostly because of the conflict between the president and the government. However, we also see that these types of problems have been overcome by the adoption of rules and norms that clarify the division of labor and coordination between the president and the prime minister. For instance, in cases of foreign and security policy, it is important to have a system and set of norms that regulates the coordination of decision-making between different branches of government. Especially, under current circumstances, in which Turkey faces the threat of two failed states along its borders, it is important to formulate these different regulations.
The newly elected president will be a person who gets more than 50 percent of the vote and will have rights and responsibilities. Even if he does not want to use this power and authority, the system and public opinion will hold him accountable in crisis situations. Eventually, he will have to be in charge and cannot act as if it is a parliamentary system. Because of that, regardless of the election’s outcome, the opposition and the government need to work together to provide a set of rules and norms to regulate coordination between the president, government and Parliament, which will be vital for the future of democratic stability in Turkey.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on July 4, 2014.