Last weekend, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held an extraordinary congress whose aim was to accomplish just one thing: Elect Binali Yildirim, a close friend of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the chairmanship of the party, thus making him the country’s new prime minister.
Former party chief and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned in early May, reportedly after being critical of efforts to change the country’s governmental system from parliamentary to presidential. Former President Abdullah Gul and former parliament speaker Bulent Arinc, both also “old friends” of the current president, were swept aside in a similar manner. They have joined a new group of AKP dissidents who mildly complain but who never rebel against the current state of affairs in the country, and that is: There is one, and only one, person who decides all important government matters in Turkey.
The new prime minister, Yildirim, was candid in his remarks to the congress, saying, “AKP’s leader was and remains our esteemed president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
According to Yildirim, the most important task now is to legalize the “de facto situation” and introduce a presidential system through a constitutional change approved in a referendum.
But it is not so much about the system itself. It is about Erdogan becoming -- officially and legally -- the ultimate person ruling over all powers of government in Turkey.
First, A One-Party Government
After decades of less effective coalition governments based on parliamentary mathematics, Turkey’s government has been run by a single party that has consecutively won elections with absolute majorities for the last 13 years. Obviously, it has been more effective than previous governments, but there was a problem: Gradually, it became a one-man rule. That one man has been running the government for all of this period and is planning to stay -- and nobody knows for how long.
In early May, when Erdogan basically forced out the prime minister -- his old friend and “brother” Ahmet Davutoglu -- it was a clear signal that Turkey had already entered the era of an “executive presidential system,” with Erdogan himself at the top of it.
Erdogan has been campaigning for this change in the Turkish government system for the last decade. But to formalize that shift, he needs to change the Turkish Constitution, and that require a two-thirds' approval in a referendum. Erdogan’s party, however, consistently had 50 percent or more of the popular vote, albeit in a slow and consistent decline. Being elected and reelected over the course of 13 years was reason to be proud of, but not enough to create a much higher, personal position and to climb to that new peak and undisputed position himself.
Turkey’s constitution requires a parliamentary system in which the president is only a formal position uniting all parties and segments of the society.
Meanwhile, the public has never shown much enthusiasm for making the switch to a presidential system, especially after thinking about the potential candidate: Erdogan.
But Erdogan, being Erdogan, could not wait.
Ministers who leave the government, and journalists and business executives who were once on good terms with the president have all said that there is almost no single important decision made in any branch of the government -- in parliament, on issues of the military and security, as well as in the justice system -- that is not made without Erdogan’s approval, even when he was prime minister (2002-14).
A referendum on constitutional changes in 2007 required the president to be elected by direct vote instead of being elected by parliament, as it was before. Also, the president could be reelected only once.
In 2012, a new law on the election and the authority of the president enlarged the president's powers. Unlike the past "neutral position," the president would chair the meetings of the cabinet of ministers and "influence" its decisions -- even in the presence of the prime minister.
Erdogan was elected president in 2014.
“Our respected president” -- as they call Erdogan in the vast apparatus of government as well as big business and the media -- refers to his subordinates as “my minister,” “my commander,” and “my citizen.”
A De Facto One-Man System
Since then, in contrast to tradition and quite in opposition to the constitution, the president has the right to talk about everything in the country's political, economic, social, and cultural lives and to ask his subordinates to carry them out. He can even remain the leader of his political party and campaign for that party in elections. He can pick up the telephone and order the change of an ambassador, cancel a big construction plan, direct military operations against Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq, or just instruct a TV executive to fire a talk show moderator. He can intervene and change the daily agenda of parliament. And, as seen in the latest episode around the sacking of the prime minister, he can simply get rid of the head of the government against his will without even informing parliament and start looking himself for candidates to fill that position: a premiership that is only tasked to execute the president’s wishes and decisions.
On paper, there was a prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. But all key speeches and decisions on domestic, security, foreign relations, and economic issues were not made by the head of the government, as was the norm until 2014.
“We have already entered the period of a one-man rule,” says Tarhan Erdem, a prominent opinion polls expert and analyst. "Now it is time for the creation of new political parties,” adding, “If one-man rule continues without emerging new political parties, there would be no more hope from politics and people would turn to find other ways.”
In fact, it would be nice for Erdogan to formalize everything with a referendum to legally switch to a “presidential system.” And as Prime Minister Yildirim announced last week, he has been tasked to speed up all preparations for “making legal this de facto situation.”
It will come, seemingly sometime soon. But even without that referendum, Turkey is now practically being led by one man, the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In Geographical Context
From Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Middle East and northern Africa, we could categorize all governments into two groups:
(1) Those with changes in ruling individuals, groups, and political parties. These changes are made through elections -- fair and free to some extent, or not, depending on the country and tradition; and
(2) Those with one individual (interestingly, always one man!) at the top with all powers and authorities concentrated in his hands; one man who even changes laws and the constitution just to accommodate his life-long rule and possibly turns it over to his son or daughter;
This is not about ideology, political programs, or any individual’s or political party’s policy preferences. It is merely about whether or not the leader and ruling elite is ready to accept to step aside and leave the government to newcomers -- not only on paper, but in practice.
Turkey was a country proudly on the first team until the 2002 parliamentary election that brought the ruling AKP -- and more importantly its leader, Erdogan -- to power. Until then, there were widely fair and free elections, a free media, a powerful parliament, and a government headed by a prime minister, usually based on coalitions of two or more political parties.
These governments were not always as effective and functioning or as democratic as people wanted. But the government was never a one-man shop. It was led by a prime minister and the presidency was a formal, nonpartisan position.
Since 2002, without waiting for changes to the country’s constitution, Erdogan has moved his country from the first team to the second team, along with the republics of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran, and the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Syria.