What we, at Sigma, call #TurkeysNewJourney is already shaping out to be a perilous one.
We have completely transformed our political and governmental system, which has been in place for 73 years -not 95, as it is generally referred to, since it was 1945 when Turkey finally switched to a multi-party democratic system. The excitement around this new system is surprisingly low-key, even for the winners of the recent elections. The international response has also been mostly muted. Perhaps the best way to gauge the anticipation of the world towards the new Turkey, a G-20 country mind you, is to survey the countries who have heeded the call and participated in the inauguration ceremony: not one single G20 country attended, except maybe for Russia who sent their ex-President Medvedev. It is not hard to see that Turkey’s peers are not comfortable with the new system just as the approximately 50% of its own population. A change of such magnitude should have required at least 2/3 majority of the public. Even simple constitutional amendments in the parliament used to require this minimum, but a complete overhaul of a country’s governing system including all of its three branches, somehow, didn’t need to meet this criterion.
Anyway, what is done is done. AKP has been vehement about enlightening the public about what the new presidential system would bring to Turkey. The arguments were many in number, but let us go through 13 of them which have been the main talking points in favor of the new system.
The era of coalition governments will be over: Theoretically, yes. Since the government will be appointed by the President who is elected by the public, there won’t be any need for agreements between the political parties to form one. Whether that’s a good thing is another question. Turkey is going through an unprecedented polarization among its population, and perhaps, a government giving voice to different segments of people would not be such a bad idea, at the moment. Politics is not a clear-cut game. We do need disagreements, and we do need dissent within the government for a healthy pursuit of government policy.
Economic stability will be sustained: The USD/TRY exchange rate was at another all-time high as of this writing, so enough said! Governing the economic policy must be the task of independent institutions. This is how it is even under countries with immense presidential powers such as the USA. It is said this new system will increase harmony between institutions, which, I agree, is important. But what we are really talking about is not harmony among institutions such as the Ministry of Treasury and the Central Bank, but rather absolute obedience to policies dictated by the President and his team. The recent Presidential decree that eradicated the 5-year set term for CB governor who is now subject to removal by the president at his discretion is a good indicator of that.
President will be responsible to the people: It is said that in the new system President will be supervised by the Parliament, and thus, will be held accountable by the people who choose the members of the parliament. Again, theoretically this should make sense. Greater power brings with it, a greater responsibility. It’s great if this holds up. But the problem is that, for this provision to work, the Parliament must possess a political free will. And that will never happen unless we see a Parliament and a President from opposite sides of the political aisle.
Jurisdiction will be under the control of civil authority: With the abolishment of all military courts including the High Military Court and the High Administrative Court, judicial powers will be handed to civil authorities, which is how it should be in a civic society. Not a top priority for the current state of the country, but it is a democratic practice, nevertheless.
President may be brought before the court: The Parliament does have the potential authority to open an inquiry, a debate, an investigation, and even a hearing against the President. But again, this decree can work if -and only if, the President is impartial and at equal distance to every political group within the Parliament. A parliament with a majority stemming from the same political party of the president will never undertake such an ordeal. At the risk of sounding too cynical, I must stress I would love to see the day that a democratic process of such calibre is put into practice in Turkey.
The Parliament shall exercise its supervisory powers: In the old system, the President used to be immune to all inquiries and accusations unless they called for treason. The new system will allow the Parliament to impeach presidents for their acts in office, and even try them during their term. Again, what we have here is a dog chasing its own tail, which never ends up agreeably. And the insult to injury is that, the law is set up in such a way that the deputies themselves do not take this responsibility on their shoulders, but they delegate it to the Constitutional Court. This point is a Catch-22 in that the Constitutional Court cannot take this action on their own, so it’s another non-starter. And even if the deputies did draw up the case and took it to court, the constitution of the Constitutional Court itself is nothing short of a parody, which we will talk about next.
Constitutional Court will be composed of civil members: The number of members of the CC has been lowered from 17 to 15. All members will be chosen from within civil courts, not military ones -which is great. What is not so great is that of the 15 members, only 3 of them will be appointed by the Parliament while the President will choose 12. So, to make it clear: The president will single-handedly, and without any oversight, appoint 12 of the 15 members of the CC which is, incidentally, the only authority that can impeach him.
Bureaucratic tutelage will be removed from the High Council of Prosecutors and Judges: The number of judges in HCPJ have now been lowered from 22 to 13. In the old system 16 members were appointed from within the judicial system, and 4 were appointed by the president -which was actually a pretty decent system. You had the highest civil court members chosen by the prosecutors and judges from within. It was a rare example of an independent judiciary in Turkey. In the new system, the Parliament will appoint 7 and the President will appoint 4 judges (the remaining two members will be the Minister of Justice and his/her undersecretary), which on the surface, looks like a democratic practice. But the fact is, it is a direct bout on the independence of the judicial system. It doesn’t matter where the appointees come from -the president, or the parliament, this is a direct intervention by the legislative and executive branches on the judiciary.
The Parliament will be more effective and independent: Since the government will not include any members of the Parliament, the two organs will work separately -which is a good thing. Or, it would be if the two organs weren’t connected to the same brain at the top. Still, this is a sound practice, in theory.
Separation of powers will be ensured: The new system does put in place, certain measures that the three arms of the system work independently. The Parliament’s authority to start motions of censure and votes of confidence are now lifted. This will theoretically lift the parliament’s potential to hold the government hostage. And Turkey has seen plenty of such motives in the past. It is a change that we can all welcome. This separation, unfortunately, does not extend all the way to the judiciary as noted above.
A more proactive foreign policy: This point is hardly anything more than a well-intended wish. There is nothing in the new system that encourages the government or the parliament to act more sensible when it comes to foreign policy. It actually gives the President the authority to implement a State of Emergency without Parliamentary approval, as well as the power to wage wars.
The era of no-government is over: Although there has never been an era of no-government in Turkey, maybe except the immediate aftermaths of military coups, it is progressive that the Parliament does not get to vote on the validity of the government. What is troubling about the set-up of the new governmental system is that the businessmen and businesswomen who are appointed to the government are not required to actively cease their for-profit activities. And with no Parliamentary oversight on the government, we will have to rely on the President to prevent the members of his government from deriving personal benefits as a result of their executive actions.
Duality in the execution bodies will be over: The new system eliminated the position of the Prime Minister who used to be the head of the executive branch. The president in the old sense, was also seen as an executive authority in that he had the power to question government’s actions, although that power was mostly symbolic since the president could not actively do anything about it in the end. To state “there is no need for a Prime Minister any more” as a positive, does not really mean anything in this context.
In the end, most of these new rules would make democratic sense (except the ones concerning the judiciary, which are utterly authoritarian), if we didn’t all know the end-game. The practical reality is we have a super-powered President, a de-potentiated Parliament, and an embedded judiciary system. Oh, also a government who will control the finances of every citizen in the country through the President’s son-in-law who is now the Minister of Treasury and Finance.