Analysis

Turkey's Erdogan Is One Step Away From Becoming an All-powerful President

After emasculating the media and courts, Erdogan is taking his final move toward an authoritarian regime – neutering the parliament.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they listen to him through a giant screen in Istanbul's Taksim Square, Turkey, August 10, 2016.
OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS

The Turkish parliament approved with uncustomary swiftness amendments to end parliamentary democracy in Turkey. The constitutional amendments will need to pass by a majority of at least 330 of the 550 members of parliament in the first stage. Small changes in the draft are likely to be presented for approval by Turkish President Recip Tayyep Erdogan, after which the amendments will be put to a national referendum, probably in March.

Erdogan has made it clear that if the amendments are not passed, he will call for early elections. He expects such elections will deliver him a majority that will allow him to pass the amendments without a referendum. Thus, after 14 consecutive years of reigning as prime minister and president, he will fulfill his dream of becoming an all-powerful president.

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In the wake of Erdogan’s planned constitutional overhaul, Turkey will cease being a parliamentary democracy. Rather, a presidential regime will prevail, empowering the president to run the state and not just represent it. The amendments, among other things, eliminate the position of prime minister, put deputy presidents in place of some of the ministers, allow Erdogan to declare a state of emergency, do away with parliamentary queries and no-confidence votes and make it theoretically possible to oust the president. However, such a request would require the signatures of 400 parliamentarians – the parliament’s size will grow from 550 to 600 members – before the request would go to the constitutional court, most of whose members will be appointed by the president.

Erdogan can also serve as chairman of the party in addition to being president, and will thus be able to control the composition of his party’s parliament members and set the legislation agenda, not to mention his authority to veto laws. The president will also be able to dissolve parliament in time of need, thus completing the process of blurring the lines between the legislative, executive and judicial authorities. Appointing judges is in the hands of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. The president appoints half of the 12-member board and the parliament, most of whom are Erdogan supporters, appoints the other half.

Erdogan speaks in Istanbul, December 20, 2016.
STR/AP

“It is impossible to criticize the decisions of the people who voted for the president, and therefore there is no place for criticizing the president,” a spokesman for Erdogan said about the excessive authorities the new constitution will invest in Erdogan. “The will of the people” from now on will be the justification for every whim.

Erdogan already practically rules as an executive president, on the model of the American president. However, in contrast to the system of checks and balances customary in the United States, the new Turkish constitution will provide the president not only broad authority but also put a weak system of checks on him and give him control of mechanisms that in other presidential regimes are supposed to put a brake on aberrations by the president, or to force him to account for his actions.

Erdogan is creating a legal envelope for himself, which will allow him to enact any law he wants to and implement any policy he strives for, and to present it as legal. Thus, for example, he will be able to propose legislation to bypass the constitution – which defines Turkey as a secular state – without needing to amend the constitution itself.

Turkish Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz already informed the nation that starting next year students will no longer learn Darwin’s theory of evolution, “which is only a theory like the Big Bang, which should be learned outside school walls.” The minister also intends “to dilute” the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who shaped the foundations of the new Turkish republic, including the secular principle of separation of religion and state.

However, it appears there are aspects of Atatürk’s legacy that Erdogan actually does want to preserve. Turkey is a one-party state, as it was in the time of Atatürk, who prevented the establishment of rival parties to the Republican People’s Party.

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While there are dozens of registered parties, the political fabric that Erdogan created during his rule makes it seem that the rest of the parties, including those that entered parliament, are there for show. And thus, after Erdogan silenced the media and chased the army away from politics, neither will a parliament in Turkey remain that can stop his gallop toward an authoritarian regime along the model of many Arab states.

However, with a multitude of authorities also come responsibilities. After emasculating the parliament, press and the other democratic institutions of their power, Erdogan will not be able to share responsibility with parliament or to blame his political rivals. An economic crisis, military defeat or losses in the international arena will all be from now on his sole responsibility. Every newly elected president will have those authorities. In other words, if another president gets elected who does not enjoy solid support in parliament like Erdogan does, he will be silenced. It is a short journey from there to anarchy.

However, this future does not currently worry Erdogan or the parliament, which enjoy public support, especially when they face no political rival who can pose a challenge to them. The failed coup attempt has been exploited so far very well and without mercy against Erdogan’s opponents, whether or not they participated in the coup.