Toward a New Type of Presidency

As PM Erdoğan emerged as a front runner in the upcoming presidential race in August 2014, opposition parties continue to resist any meaningful debate about the country's political system.

Nowadays, the upcoming presidential race remains at the top of Turkey’s political agenda. Up until the March 30 local elections, questions about the presidency revolved around whether or not Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would seek nomination. As election day ended with a landslide victory for the ruling AK Party in what most observers interpreted as an unequivocal green light to Mr. Erdoğan, commentators instantly shifted their focus on the AK Party frontman’s presidential style. While the public debate seems to largely take place with reference to Mr. Erdoğan’s person, what we really need is to ignore the man himself for a moment and keep a cool head in thinking about Turkey’s historic experiences.

Thus far, the country tested out two types of presidency in terms of the president’s election, his position within the political system and the extent of his mandate.
The initial form of presidency, which remained intact from the Republic’s foundation in 1923 until the 1960 military coup, featured the leader of the most popular political party as president. As such, the presidential palace was inherently a political office. From 1923 until his death in 1938, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in his capacity as chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), served as the nation’s first president. İsmet İnönü, who had previously served as prime minister, replaced Atatürk as president and remained in office until the Democratic Party (DP), led by Celal Bayar who would consequently serve as Turkey’s third president, won the 1950 elections. A decade later, President Bayar was ousted by a military coup. During this period, the president represented a direct representative of the people and appointed his prime minister of choice in his capacity as leader of the largest political party.

The 1961 Constitution, which emerged out of the military coup, introduced another type of presidency that survives to this day.Seeking to severely restrict the people’s influence over government, the country’s new constitution established a series of institutions with de facto control over government affairs and, in the same spirit, reshaped presidential elections and the president’s mandate. Simply put, the military junta cut the presidential palace’s ties to the people while preventing the general public from influencing the nation’s politics. Under the new rules, the president was cut off from political parties as well while the term limit was set at seven years. The president, no longer relying on his popular support to remain in office, was not accountable to the people.In the same spirit, the one-term limit allowed the chief public officer to ignore issues raised by the Parliament. Instead, the president could conveniently focus on acting as a guardian of the state and living up to the tutelage regime’s expectations.

Another important point was that Gen.Cemal Gürsel and Gen. Kenan Evren oversaw the drafting of, respectively, the constitutions of 1961 and 1982, as the leading candidates for the presidency. As such, a series of junta members and former military men served as type-III presidents for 29 years until Turgut Özal’s election in 1989. Although the line of soldier-presidents ended that year, Özal’s successors, Süleyman Demirel and Ahmet Necdet Sezer, proved equally articulate in performing their tasks as their pre-1989 predecessors.

It was such historic circumstances that created severe political turmoil when the AK Party nominated Abdullah Gül for president in 2007. The 2007 constitutional referendum effectively put an end to type-II presidency and ushered in a new era.

[Daily Sabah, April 28, 2014]

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