By Hasan S. Özertem & Habibe Özdal
Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the first publicly held presidential elections in the first round, albeit with a narrow margin of 1.7 per cent. In the aftermath of the elections, Erdogan and the AK Party have chosen to delay the debates on the shift of power as it relates to the government and to the leadership of the party. Yet just before leaving office, Erdogan has determined his successor as Ahmet Davutoglu. Even though Erdogan is leaving the office of the Prime Ministry, it is argued in different circles that he will try to use the powers vested in him by the constitution to their limits and will not avoid acting as a proprietor of executive power. In this sense, until the general elections in June 2015, blurred lines between the use of power of the prime minister and the president may be observed. Some have even begun to term this interim period as the de facto presidential system.
Even though there are loopholes in the constitution that grant the president certain executive powers such as the authority to be head of the council of ministers, the conventional path of politics in Turkey evolved in such a way that former presidents of the Republic chose not to directly intervene into the policymaking processes of governments. Yet Erdogan intends to change this tradition. Just before the presidential elections, Erdogan exclaimed that “new Turkey” needs an active, not passive, president. In fact, compared with former presidents who were elected by the parliament, the new president has the advantage of possessing greater legitimacy as he is now elected by the people. Erdogan may use this to justify his intervention in daily politics. Nevertheless, the constitution also exerts certain restraints on the president by laying out that “The President-elect, if a member of a party, shall sever his relations with his party, and his status as a member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly shall cease.” Considering these limitations, the newly elected president must also act delicately to avoid violating the law. Still, Erdogan will enjoy the advantage of the AK Party’s majority in the parliament until June 2015, and this will most definitely give him room to maneuver within the aforementioned limits.
Limits of power and debates on a new presidential system
These limitations also raise questions as to the “sustainability” of the de facto system in the upcoming period. For this reason, Erdogan and his team have been looking at the possibility of establishing a new constitution that would grant the president further executive powers or at least amending the related articles of the old constitution to this end. In fact, a parliamentary initiative aimed at rewriting the 1982 Constitution convened after the 2011 elections with the participation of four parties, namely, the AK Party, the National Action Party, the Republican People’s Party and the Peace and Democracy Party. Yet, the parties failed to reach a consensus on a new constitution that would leave behind the most important legacy of the 1980 military coup.
For the time being, the AK Party does not have the parliamentary majority of 330 seats  necessary to realize its desired change. Thus, the elections of 2015 will be a critical juncture for Erdogan’s political career, the importance of which has been stressed by Erdogan himself on multiple occasions. If the AK Party achieves this majority or succeeds in forming a coalition that will at least amend the constitution, then the arguments regarding Turkey’s transformation to a presidential system will commence. If not, the blurred lines will continue to cause problems in the regime and the management of these problems will depend wholly upon the harmony between the prime minister and the president.
Under these circumstances, sustaining the balance between the executive, legislative and judiciary powers along with the protection of civilian rights are sine qua non for Turkish democracy. During this process, undermining this balance will lead Turkey to move towards an authoritarian regime. Moreover, the same challenges will be faced if the parliamentary system is changed to a presidential one.
Put simply, the degree to which the integrity of checks and balances are sustained, or formed, in line with the principles of accountability and transparency determine the character of a regime, regardless of in which country these processes may occur. In this sense, the formulation of a framework for Turkey’s possible presidential system will be critical. There are a wide variety of presidential and semi-presidential systems in the world and with this in mind, experience shows that presidential power can be checked by a strong legislative and robust civil society. Yet, in some cases, the transcendental character of presidential regimes lessens possibilities to balance the power of presidents. Thus, the choices of the people and policymakers in establishing these parameters after the 2015 elections will set the trajectory of the Turkish political system. In other words, if the AK Party achieves the majority required to change the constitution, this would pave the way for new debates on the merits of different presidential system models. If this majority is not attained, the AK Party’s ability to affect change under the parliamentary system will continue to have certain limitations, the limits of which Erdogan will test if he insists on using executive power as an active president. It can also be noted here that some canonical names within the AK Party such as Abdullah Gul have made laudatory statements on the suitability of the parliamentary system for Turkish democracy. Thus, any attempt to push the boundaries of the parliamentary system after the 2015 elections will conflict with the institutional traditions of Turkish politics, and keeping the non-monolithic character of the AK Party in mind, this may lead to certain intraparty debates throughout 2015.
Conservative politics and rational voter behavior
These uncertainties of Turkish politics take on a different dimension when considering that it is a pro-Islamist party that dominates the political arena and that the opposition continuously fails to present an alternative to the Turkish people. Looking at the political environment, the AK Party has excelled at attracting conservative sections of society with its Islamist tone. The main sources of this success are resultant of the political traumas of Turkey’s republican history, during which the demands of conservative people were ignored and their life styles oppressed. However, it is mainly the economic performance of the AK Party governments has helped the party to acquire the votes of 40-50 per cent of the society. In this way, even though the ruling party employs an Islamist tone to acquire votes, it is possible to say that the voting behavior of the electorate has rationalist tendencies, as economic development most definitely factors into their decisions.
In other words, it is safe to say that the AK Party’s constituency as a whole is not in support of establishing an Islamist state. Looking at the society, while conservatives tend to opt for piety in their private lives, they prefer a secular system in the public sphere. Surveys made in the last decade indicate that the share of people who desire a theocratic state has never exceeded 10 per cent.
Thus, the concern that Erdogan might pursue the restoration of the Islamic caliphate is baseless when considering the current dynamics of Turkish society and politics. The AK Party’s popularity is not based on expectations to create an Islamic state. Rather, as a mass-based party, it is its performance in the economic sphere in combination with its conservative tone that can be attributed to its rising popularity. Additionally, on closer look, the establishment of a caliphate requires the obtainment of the approval of other Muslim states. Today, there are several declarations of caliphates, but these attempts have remained local, and are therefore intrinsically at conflict with the universal character of this charge. Nevertheless, over the past decade the AK Party has tried to establish strong relations in the Middle East, and it was also relatively successful in this endeavor up until the Arab uprisings. From where we stand it is possible to argue that the AK Party is facing grave problems in its foreign policy due to Turkey’s mishandling of the ongoing civil war in Syria, the deteriorating state of affairs in Libya and regime change in Egypt. Thus, one of the main challenges of the new prime minister, and probably Erdogan, will be to find viable ways of pursuing damage control and revitalization of relations with countries in the region. Following a radically-toned policy will cost the AK Party and Erdogan’s popularity in the region as well as in Turkish domestic politics.
The future of Turkey-Russia relations
As for the effects of the power shift in Turkish politics on Turkey-Russia relations, it can be easily said that the developments will not adversely affect bilateral relations. Since newly-elect President Erdogan has already played a tremendous role in shaping the current nature of bilateral relations, it seems that “continuity” will be the main theme of the upcoming period when it comes to the Ankara-Moscow line. It was only in the 2000s that the zero-sum mentality which determined Turkey-Russia relations for decades finally made an about-turn. Thanks to Erdogan’s government and Putin’s administration, both sides set out to redefine the nature of bilateral relations. Booming energy trade and increasing economic relations have also helped to shine the spot light on the gains of cooperation, as opposed to the bitterness of rivalry.
Nevertheless, bilateral relations have been seriously tested during this same decade in which relations were redefined. Given that Turkey and Russia share a geography in which current conflicts represent a direct challenge to their regional orders, conjectural developments have also challenged the quickly accelerating relations. However, Turkey and Russia are capable of putting aside their differences in various areas, whether there will be disagreements regarding the Arab uprisings and Syria or related to the crisis in Ukraine. The fact remains that Ankara and Moscow continue to upgrade their political collaboration by focusing on the areas of cooperation where both sides can win. Moreover, different positions on different crises do not undermine bilateral cooperation, particularly in the areas of economic and cultural relations. This also shows that what we call “compartmentalization” has been successful and still brings predictability to the future of Turkey-Russia relations. Therefore, shared pragmatism and consideration of what the other deems a valuable asset for regional stability and global order will keep the relationship strong and dynamic. Yet, it should be kept in mind that the crisis in Ukraine and the deepening dispute between the West and Russia have the potential to test the limits of Turkey-Russia relations as an independent variable.
To conclude, the future of Turkish politics is not immune to new debates on systemic change as Erdogan desires to resume his activism in the Presidential Palace. The institutional restraints of the existing system will force him to act delicately while he tries to push the boundaries of his office further than any of his predecessors have done before. Under these circumstances, the decision of the Turkish people has the potential to be a game changer in the June 2015 elections. The period until then will be a test drive of the model imagined by Erdogan. If the AK Party continues to dominate Turkish politics, we will see one form or another of a strong presidential office in the coming year. All these uncertainties signal significant challenges in domestic terms. Yet, Erdogan’s choice of Ahmet Davutoglu as the prime minister indicates a continuation of the same trend in foreign policy, albeit with small modifications. In this sense, we will not witness dramatic shifts in bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia as the current status quo in the region will be maintained.
Hasan Selim Özertem,Researcher at Ankara based think-tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK); Habibe Özdal, Researcher at Ankara based think-tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK)
This op-ed was initially published at RIAC on August 28, 2014