So-called “Sultan”

The New York Review of Books published an article by Christopher de Bellaigue in the December 17 issue titled “The Sultan of Turkey“, unfortunately very much in line with the  shallow analysis of Turkey and its politics that appears in the Western media. Normally in a journal like the NYRB, the language and analysis of this article should not have passed the editorial controls. I sent a letter to the editors addressing the “executive presidency” points in the article. I quote the article below:

Mr. de Ballaigue’s article is missing or, at best, glossing over some of the critical contextual information regarding the AKP and Mr. Erdogan.

The current constitution gives the president of the republic quite broad powers to shape the executive branch and the judiciary without any political or legal accountability (the only possible charge against a president is treason). All the high-level civilian and military bureaucrats are appointed with the approval of the president; some proposed by the government for approval, some directly appointed by the president. This set up originated in the 1960 coup by the military as means of more direct control over the elected officials, and then was stregthened further after the 1980 coup. The expectation of the generals was that the president will be chosen among the bureaucratic elite since the the parliament that elects the president could be “influenced” by the institutions of the republic. So, they shaped the presidency as the apex of the bureaucratic guardians. As with many social engineering attempts, the unexpected happened: the AKP achieved the parliamentary power to elect a president in 2007. The blatant intervention by the military and high judiciary was countered by the politicians with a change to the constitution to elect the president directly by popular vote. This was a rather hasty change that did not touch the existing powers of the president.

Mr. Erdogan has been calling for a presidential system for more than a decade. In Turkey’s first presidential election campaign in 2014, Mr. Erdogan repeatedly stated that he will not be like the previous presidents if elected and will use the powers granted by the constitution to the fullest. He won in the first round by 52% of the national vote. This gives him the legitimacy to use the presidential powers the previous presidents were either reluctant (like civilians Ozal and Demirel) or preferred to orchestrate with bureaucratic allies (like ex-constitutional judge Sezer). I should also note that Mr. Erdogan was the first prime minister and now the first president who did not come from one of the elite schools and did not have any experience in the government bureaucracy. He was a small scale businessman and rose through the ranks of a grassroots political organization.

The tragedy of the opposition in Turkey is that they do not have the foresight to seize upon the “executive president” idea to shape a new constitution with democratic checks and balances, not like the current one where “check and balances” are provided by a self-reproducing unelected bureaucracy.

I should add that there is another aspect to the failing public discussion on the presidential system: The rather simplistic and problematic arguments put forward by many of the supporting commentators (Etyen Mahcupyan drew attention to this in a series of articles.)

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