Turkey is officially beginning the process of drafting a new constitution. The Constitutional Conciliation Commission, formed in the aftermath of the June 2011 elections, is planning to present a final draft by the end of 2012. This week, sub-committees will begin drafting individual articles, starting with general rights and freedoms.
However, an unexpected debate on the merits of presidential system, introduced by the ministers of the governing Justice and Development Party (JDP), is clouding the discussion on the constitution-building process. Last week, deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdağ initiated the debate on the presidential system, arguing that it was more efficient in terms checks and balances and true separation of powers.
Since Bozdağ’s statements, commentators on all sides of the spectrum have engaged in debate on the topic. Some are raising fears that this institutional proposal is designed solely to serve the interest of the Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan, who would likely be elected as president if such institutional change occurs. Some are debating whether the presidential system would also bring with it federalism and therefore would end Turkey’s unitary central government and provide more autonomy to the Kurdish region. According to some commentators, this would partly resolve the “Kurdish problem”, but Bozdağ has argued that Turkey should maintain its unitary status. Some are considering the benefits of the stability that the presidential system would provide whereas others are questioning whether it would entail more authoritative rule by one man. It is also interesting to see that propoentns are pointing to United States as a successful example of presidentialism and ignoring the performance of presidentialism elsewhere such as in Latin America or Africa.
Turkey has had periodic debates about parliamentarianism vs. presidentialism before. This time, however, the discussion seems to be more serious in light of the active program of constitutional reform. The debate has captured the attention of the public, even though nobody knows for certain what the proponents of presidential system have exactly in mind. What is certain is that the next few days will be crucial for shaping the debate. Turkey’s Constitutional Court is expected to soon give its ruling as to whether the current president is supposed to serve 5 years or 7 years. Turkey had a constitutional referendum on electoral reform in October 2007 when there was a political crisis and the parliament could not elect a president for the new term. Thus the 2007 referendum changed the election and duration of the president’s term. Formerly, the President was elected by the members of the Turkish Parliament to serve for 7 years but in the aftermath of the 2007 referendum, a constitutional amendment which received an overwhelming support (68%) requires future presidents to be elected by the citizens through a public vote for a 5 year term.
The current president Abdullah Gul was elected in August 2007 by the Turkish Parliament before the referendum. However, the referendum was a clear response to the deadlock his presidential bid caused. Thus it is not clear whether he will be serving 5 or 7 years; the question is now before the Constitutional Court. If the Constitutional Court rules that the current president will serve 5 years, we should expect to see the end of further debate about the merits of presidential system because there will be an immediate need for the public to elect a new president in less than couple of months. However, if the Constitutional Court rules that the current president’s term is 7 years the discussion on the presidential system and how it will be incorporated to the new constitution will gain momentum. Thus, Turkey is holding its breath for the Constitutional Court’s ruling, while waiting to see if a system change is on the horizon for the country.