May 17, 2007


The Grand National Assembly fails to elect a new president

On May 1, 2007, the Turkish Constitutional Court (TCC) ruled to annul the first round of presidential elections on grounds that a necessary quorum was not present. According to the interpretation of the high court, the 1982 Turkish Constitution requires the attendance of 367 (2/3 of total number of 550 seats) legislators in the electoral session. Hence, since there were only 357 deputies present in the parliament at the time of the election, the first round was invalidated. The ruling AK Party has responded to the TCC ruling by introducing a number of constitutional amendments that would change the way the president of the Republic is elected. Under the current system, the president is elected by a two-thirds majority of the total number of members (550) within the parliament. If no candidate can achieve to obtain the 2/3 majority in the first two rounds, then a third ballot is held and the candidate who receives the absolute majority of the total number of members is elected president. If an absolute majority is not obtained in the third round, then, a fourth round is held between the two contenders who received the greatest number of votes in the previous round. If an absolute majority is still not found in the fourth round, then the parliament must be dissolved and new general elections need to be held with a hope that the new parliament would be able to elect the president. Since the promulgation of the 1982 Constitution, Turkish Parliament has successfully elected three Presidents without a need to dissolve itself and call for early elections. This is the first time under the 1982 Constitution that a parliament has ever failed to elect a president. Although constitutionally, the electoral process needs to be exhausted as prescribed in Article 102, with the withdrawal of the only candidate Mr. Abdullah Gul, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, the parliament was left with no choice but to dissolve itself and call for early elections on Jul 22, 2007.

In a vindictive mode, the ruling AK Party has proposed to amend the constitution before the elections and change the way the President of the Republic is elected. According to the proposed amendment, the president will be directly elected by the public for a 5-year term with a two-round system. A candidate who obtains the absolute majority of the valid votes in the first round will be elected as president. Following the French model, if no candidate can obtain the absolute majority, the runoff election is to be held on the second Sunday following the first round between the two candidates who received the most votes in the first ballot. The candidate who receives the simple majority of valid votes in the second round will be elected the President of the Republic for a five-year term with a chance to be re-elected. A second major amendment proposed by the AK Party also sets to eliminate the controversy over the required quorum of 367 for certain parliamentary sessions including the presidential elections. If the proposed amendment passes, the parliament will be able to convene with a quorum of one-third of the total number of deputies in the house (184).

Yet, the desire of the AK Party to put two ballot boxes, one for the parliament, and one for the president, in front of the people on Jul 22 election day seems a remote possibility considering the long and thorny constitutional process that the amendment has to go through before it finally becomes a binding legislation. According to the constitution, the amendment bill needs to be approved and signed by the President of the Republic before coming into force. It is highly likely that the incumbent President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who will remain in the office until a new president is elected, will veto the amendment bill and return it to the parliament for reconsideration. If the parliament adopts the draft law referred by the President by a two-thirds majority, the President may submit the law to referendum. Under the law, the President has fifteen days to examine the submitted draft law. Once the readopted law comes back to the President he has another fifteen days to examine it. Yet, if the President still objects the bill, he can submit it to referendum or the general public vote. In the case of constitutional amendments proposed by the AK Party, the President is expected to object the changes and submit them to the public vote. The entire process is estimated to take at least another 5-6 weeks, until the President finally decides to submit the amendment bill to the referendum. Under the law, the referendum need to be held on the first Sunday after the 120 days following the promulgation of the law pertaining to the constitutional amendment in the Official Gazette (One of the objectives of the AK Party is also to reduce this 120-day period to 40 days by amending the relevant legislation). If the package is enacted by the second week of May at the latest, and if the President Sezer vetoes it twice, the earliest date for the referendum will be in October 2007, unless the 120-day period is simultaneously reduced. In the referendum, more than half of the valid votes will be required to consider the proposed amendments approved by people. And only after this long and thorny process is complete, the new President of the Republic can be directly elected by the Turkish people. Under these circumstances, the Presidential Palace will not be able to welcome its new occupant until the end of the year.

Yet another possibility is that if AK Party wins the majority of seats in the parliament on July 22 and if the President separately approves the changes to Article 96 of the Constitution that reduces the necessary quorum to 184, then the AK Party may find it possible to send its own candidate to Çankaya Palace under the existing system while the amendment for the popular election of the president is still waiting for approval in a popular referendum. Considering the fact that the AK Party has simultaneously proposed to reduce the minimum number of legislators who need to be present to hold elections in the parliament from 367 to 184, it may be speculated that this is in fact a back-up plan for AK Party leaders who do not really believe they would be able to pass the amendment bill on time and bring two ballot boxes in front the of people as they often argue in the media.

Does Turkey need a popularly elected president?

Turkey is a parliamentary regime. The President is the symbolic head of the state and government. Compared to presidential systems, his role and function is considerably limited. The authority and responsibility to shape domestic and foreign policy of the nation belongs to the government and the Prime Minister, in particular. In Turkey, only the members of the parliament are directly elected. The government and the President are elected by the members of the parliament, in turn. The electoral system is based on proportional representation (PR) with a 10 percent national threshold. In other words, parties need to receive at least ten percent of the valid votes nationally in order to qualify for representation in the parliament.

The recent constitutional changes proposed by the AK Party are not just simple amendments. They aim to potentially change Turkey’s parliamentary regime and turn it into a semi-presidential or presidential system. The amendment that introduces the idea of popularly elected president is clearly inspired by the French model. Yet, the amendment only proposes to change the way the President of the Republic is elected. It does not propose any changes in duties and powers of the president described in the 1982 Constitution. The so-called constitutional reform was rushed by the events of the last couple weeks and clearly not well elaborated and thought-through. The candidates under the existing law cannot represent parties. Once they declare their candidacy they need to severe their ties to their parties. There is no legal framework that regulates the way presidential campaigns are financed or organized. According to the constitution, the office of the president must be apolitical and neutral. Moreover, it has no power to formulate or execute the national policy. Hence, it is a big wonder what these candidates will stand for or promise to the people during their campaigns.

Moreover, according to the proposed amendment the president will be elected with an absolute majority of valid votes in the first round or a simple majority in the second round. In either case, a presidential candidate will possibly receive at least 20-25 million votes to be elected. In the last general election, Mr. Erdoğan’s AK Party got only 10.8 million votes, and controlled the 66 percent of the parliament. The greatest danger that awaits Turkey is that whether a president who received 25 million votes will easily subdue himself to the will of a government which received only half of what he personally got. What if this president directly confronts the parliament and the government? Turkey does not have the necessary constitutional checks and balances to resolve such crises, yet. What if the president and the government or the parliamentary majority each represents different political camps or ideologies? This will possibly lead to emergence of a bicephalous administration in the country. Turkey has already suffered from many political crises between the incumbent secularist President Sezer and Mr. Erdoğan’s Islamist AK Party within the last 4-5 years. Thus, under the proposed system such constitutional crises will only deepen.

Another problem is that the proposed electoral system for presidential elections introduces majoritarian elements into Turkish politics which everyday becomes more divided and polarized along with ideological, religious, sectarian and ethnic faults. In deeply divided and fragmented societies such as Turkey, majoritarian (winner-take-all) systems only deepen the cleavages and further institutionalize these differences. The proposed system will also rigidify the political process and sharply define the winners and losers. This will further divide the society along ideological lines and make political accommodations more difficult. The huge demonstrations held in various Turkish cities that drew millions last several weeks show that Turkish politics and society is already increasingly polarized and divided. Although it is often refuted by Turkish politicians, there are now two Turkeys. In such an environment, presidential elections will only politicize the office of the president. The first ten presidents of Turkey were the presidents of the republic but the 11th one will be the president of either the Islamists or the Secularists. He will not be the president of the nation. What the country needs is not further polarization or fragmentation but unity and consensus. Thus, the idea of a popularly-elected president will potentially hurt the Turkish democracy. A wrongdoing cannot be undone by another wrongdoing. The hastily-drafted amendment package will further destabilize Turkey’s unstable economy and political system.

If the amendment passes, it would also put Turkey in a unique position among the EU members and candidate nations. Apart from the examples of France and the Greek Cypriot Administration, there are no other countries in the Union ruled by semi-presidential or presidential regimes. The EU can be seen as a community of parliamentary systems. In this respect, Turkey will stand out as another odd case of “presidentialism” within the Union. And, perhaps, the proposed amendments will also affect the country’s bid for full membership negatively and create further complications in its relations with Brussels down the road. Yet, more importantly, the proposed system will cause the Turkish politics to lose its flexibility and make it more prone to political crises. Presidential systems lead to personalization of power and ideological polarization among the people. As the examples of many Latin American nations have demonstrated, these are the most essential ingredients for the rise of authoritarianism. In a country such as Turkey which lacks strong democratic institutions, culture and the tradition of political tolerance, the proposed amendments may soon add Turkey’s name to the long list of nations whose experiment in presidential systems resulted in a political catastrophe. Furthermore, under these circumstances, the Turkish generals who staged a post-modern coup d’état in 1997 and issued a strong-worded warning to the government on their website several weeks ago may be more willing to resort to traditional means and take direct control of the government in order to restore the constitutional order and “protect the unchangeable characteristics of the Republic of Turkey”.

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