June 21, 2013, 2:30 p.m.
Katherine Krueger and Ayesha Chugh Introduction The year 2013 has been a decisive period for Turkish democracy. This March, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government brokered a historic ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and the Turkish military, marking a critical first step in the reconciliation process between Turkish Kurds and the state.[i] Subsequently, on May 28 a series of anti-government protests broke out, originating in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. These two historic events undoubtedly affect the political calculus of another major event of 2013: Turkey’s constitutional reform process and the potential switch to a presidential system. Before the Taksim Square protests thrust Turkey into the international spotlight, the constitutional reform process had reached a stalemate within Turkey’s Constitution Reconciliation Commission (CRC). These protests are unlikely to challenge the constitutional deadlock overnight. However, they threaten to erode Prime Minister Erdoğan’s legitimacy, and weaken the chances of Turkey adopting the presidential system that the AKP advocates. Background: The AKP Presidential System Proposal In November 2012, Erdoğan’s AKP officially announced its goal of introducing a “Turkified version of the U.S. executive system.” [ii] This is not the first time the AKP has advocated a strengthened executive branch; the office of the presidency was previously bolstered by a 2007 amendment declaring the position would be elected by popular vote and have slightly more power to influence the legislative process.[iii] The presidency that Erdoğan envisions will be substantially more powerful and independent than the 2007 amendment dictated. Instead of playing a primarily ceremonial role, this proposal gives the president power to dissolve Parliament and appoint and dismiss ministers, ambassadors, and senior officials without parliamentary approval.[iv] Nevertheless, the AKP and others in favor of the proposal argue that this system will be more stable and efficient, ridding Turkey of the fragile coalitions and political bickering that plagued their parliamentary system in the past.[v] Critics, however, see the plan as a ‘power-grab’ by Erdoğan, who intends to run for president if it passes. Public opinion polls are also dubious of the plan.[vi] The AKP holds 326 out of 550 parliamentary seats, denying them the supermajority required to amend the constitution unilaterally. Thus the AKP must win the support of at least one more party to rewrite Turkey’s military-penned 1982 constitution. This process is facilitated through the Constitution Reconciliation Commission (CRC), made up of three members from each of the four parties that currently hold seats in parliament. The commission has been working on a draft of the new constitution since May 2012, but disagreement over the presidential system issue has hindered progress.[vii] Recently the AKP came closer to finding an ally on presidentialism through a tentative partnership with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which may accept the AKP proposal in exchange for more comprehensive protections for Kurdish rights.[viii] Nevertheless, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) continue to staunchly oppose the plan, and the BDP itself is divided on the issue. The CRC has agreed to continue their negotiations until July 1, at which point the composition of the commission may be changed, or disbanded altogether. [ix] Shifting Political Dynamics The likelihood of adopting presidentialism in Turkey is intrinsically linked to the fate of Erdoğan’s AKP— a subject of attention since the Taksim Square protests began in late May. The wave of protests may adversely affect Erdoğan’s reputation, yet he still remains an exceptionally popular leader. Anti-government protesters in Taksim Square and other cities across Turkey represent a fairly diverse cross-section of interests; yet these sentiments aren’t indicative of the country as a whole. [x] During the AKP’s eleven-year rule, Turkey has experienced massive economic growth, raising the standard of living for millions. Between 2002 and 2011, the Turkish economy grew by an average of 7.5 percent per year and per capita incomes increased from 2,800 USD to 10,000 USD.[xi] Furthermore, Erdoğan’s AKP championed a number of democratic reforms during this period, actively pursuing European Union (EU) membership, loosening certain restrictions on civil liberties and weakening the Turkish military’s stranglehold over national politics.[xii] This progress, paired with Erdoğan’s open embrace of religion in a country with a history of strictly enforced secularism has won him admirers—particularly in more conservative rural regions of Turkey. A recent Pew Poll listed a 62 percent positive approval rating of the Prime Minister. [xiii] Another survey conducted by Turkey’s MetroPOLL indicates a more ominous 11 percent drop in AKP popularity in the wake of the protests, yet it finds that if elections were held today, Erdoğan ’s party would still receive 35.3 percent of the vote-- lower, but still decisively ahead of the CHP opposition by 22.7 percent. [xiv] These numbers suggest that the fallout from these protests is unlikely to force Erdoğan from power. Nevertheless, Erdoğan and the AKP’s popularity have declined since the last electoral cycle, before the protests began. According to a Gallup poll, the approval rating of Turkey’s leadership averaged 48 percent in 2012, down from 57 percent in 2011.[xv] In contrast, in 2007 approval ratings peaked at over 70 percent. This drop can be understood in relation to Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies — such as alarming crackdowns on press freedom— and a more religiously conservative social agenda, viewed by many as a threat to Turkey’s secular heritage.[xvi] The MetroPOLL survey indicates that even amongst AKP supporters, 49.9 percent of Turkish citizens feel that the government is becoming “more oppressive/authoritarian.”[xvii] Sustained protests will most likely speed up this trend, suggesting a future where Erdoğan is no longer perceived as the infallible voice of the AKP— and leaving space for other political actors to have greater impact on Turkish politics. For instance, President Abdullah Gül’s public reaction to the recent protests has been more diplomatic than Erdoğan’s aggressive response, winning him praise from the Turkish press.[xviii] With his rising political popularity, Gül may use his political clout decisively against the AKP presidential system plan, of which he has already expressed doubt about to the Turkish press.[xix] This move could force Erdoğan to seek out another option allowing him to remain in power, such as removing the prime ministerial term limit, which is imposed by internal AKP rules, rather than the Constitution. [xx] Alternately, if protests continue they may become an issue around which the historically fragmented and disorganized opposition parties can rally, increasing their influence on the 2014 electoral cycle. Conclusion: A Presidential Future? The Taksim Square protests are more likely to spark future acts of dissent and debate than irreparably damage Erdoğan’s national standing. Accordingly, these events will not seal the fate of the AKP presidential proposal in the long-term The political fallout from the protests, however, may still challenge Erdoğan’s plan. The intractability of the current debate reduces the likelihood that the CRC will agree on a new constitution by July 1. Moreover, it is unclear whether Erdoğan’s damaged reputation will affect the tentative cooperation of the BDP on the presidential system proposal. Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey’s southeast haven’t experienced widespread protests akin to those that took place in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and elsewhere, but Kurdish city-dwellers participated vocally in the demonstrations; the BDP even set up a tent in Gezi Park.[xxi] The Kurdish population and the BDP are both deeply divided over their relationship with Erdoğan, the presidential system proposal, and the tentative peace process. Erdoğan losing the tentative support of the BDP will most likely prevent the presidential system from passing through the CRC. If this occurs, Erdoğan may then attempt to change the Constitution and implement his system by referendum, an option which he has used successfully to pass previous amendments.[xxii] In spite of the Prime Minister’s popularity, national support for a presidential system is relatively low. In a February 2013 poll conducted by Kadir Has University, only 21.2 percent of respondents favored a switch to a presidential system, while a larger June 3, 2013 poll puts that figure at 30.9 percent. [xxiii] In tandem with this climate of public opinion, sustained protests may have a noticeable impact on public support for a referendum. Lastly, considering Turkey’s historical pattern of weak and fractious governments, the introduction of a presidential system may have some advantages. It could offer greater political stability by reducing instances of coalition dissolution, although critics note this may compromise small-party representation and increase political polarization. Moreover, the current proposal offers few checks and balances for the executive branch and weakens the separation of powers, further concerning the plan’s opponents.[xxiv] The implications of such a major shift in the Turkish governing system are vast and wide-reaching, both for Turkish citizens and the region as a whole. Ultimately, time will reveal the effects of this spring’s events on the bid for presidentialism. Yet the outcome will surely resonate into the 2014 election cycle and beyond.