Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already established himself as the most important politician of his generation. He has won two elections in a row with sizable majorities and presided over a period of remarkable economic growth and political change in the decade since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. Erdogan, whose charisma is apparent even to non-Turkish-speaking audiences and who has an innate sense of the Turkish public, now has a chance to move beyond his current lofty status to a truly historic figure. Indeed, Prime Minister Erdogan has the opportunity to become the most significant Turkish statesman since Mustafa Kemal—who literally became the “father of the Turks” when the Turkish Grand National Assembly bestowed him the name “Ataturk” in November 1934. Yet the Turkish leader is about to let a potential legacy as a transformative figure slip from his grasp.
Prime Minister Erdogan has a problem. By agreement within the Justice and Development Party no leader can serve as head of government for more than two consecutive terms, meaning that Erdogan is barred from running again in 2014. He quite correctly believes that he has more work to do—among a range of ambitious initiatives he would like to preside over turning Turkey into a regional energy hub; consolidating Ankara’s new-found regional influence; and overseeing further transformation of Turkey’s political system. Consequently, Erdogan has let it be known, though not in so many words, that he would like to be Turkey’s next president just not in the way that powers of the presidency are currently configured. The powers of the Turkish presidency are not “largely symbolic” as observers often erroneously indicate. Under the 1982 constitution, the president can call parliament into session, promulgate laws, resubmit draft legislation to parliament, accredit representatives to Turkey and receive those of foreign countries, call new elections for the Grand National Assembly, issue decrees with the force of law, appoint rectors of universities, name members to the State Supervisory Council, Higher Education Board, and various parts of the judiciary. As important as these powers and prerogatives may be, however, the Turkish presidency is an apolitical post whose incumbent is expected to avoid the day-to-day rough and tumble of the Turkish political arena, and refrain from trying to drive political events. The Cankaya Palace’s current resident, President Abdullah Gul, has perfected the role of above-the-fray-endowed-with-gravitas-elder-statesman that is suited to the Turkish presidency. As successful as Gul has been, Prime Minister Erdogan clearly wants something quite different and has thus spent a lot of time recently on the issue of constitutional change.
There are few Turks who would deny that their country needs a new constitution. The current document dates back to November 1982 and was written at the behest of the military junta that took over the country on September 12, 1980. Despite the extensive amending that the AKP has overseen since 2003, the constitution is a relic of a Turkey that no longer exists. As Turkish society has outgrown the drab conformism that Kemalism demanded and has become more complex, differentiated, and dynamic, Turkey needs a constitution that both befits and furthers its goal of becoming a consolidated democracy. As a result, Erdogan and the AKP—in conjunction with other political groups—began drafting a new constitution in October 2011 with this aim in mind.
Yet sixteen months into the process, one has to wonder whether a new constitution is being written for Turkey or for Prime Minister Erdogan. During this time it has become clear that Erdogan wants to revamp the presidency to suit his desire to play a more active role in politics after he is termed out as prime minister. In the abstract this is not such a bad thing. There are successful democracies that feature a presidential system. At the same time, however, social science research indicates that presidential systems are more prone to the accumulation of executive power and authoritarianism than parliamentary systems. It is unclear whether Erdogan’s opponents are familiar with these data, but they nevertheless fear what an empowered Erdogan presidency might mean for the country. Much of what has reportedly been proposed does not differ too much from current presidential powers, though in an important change the executive would have far greater ability to shape the judiciary than previously thereby weakening the balance of power—a hallmark of any democratic system. The prime minister and the AKP have been adamant that the new constitution will strengthen and deepen Turkish democracy, but their record over the last five years suggests that the opposition’s fears are not unfounded. After all, Turkey is a country where journalists are routinely jailed on dodgy grounds, an alleged conspiracy of something called the “deep state” to overthrow the government in 2007 has morphed into a conspiracy of its own against peaceful critics of the AKP, the machinery of the state has been used against private business concerns because their owners disagree with the government, and freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure. Spokesmen for the AKP will offer a variety of explanations for these deficiencies, from “it’s the law” and the “context is missing,” to “it’s purely fabricated,” but they do not wash under the weight of the evidence. Under these circumstances, opponents of the AKP worry that Erdogan—or any future president, for that matter—will pursue unchecked an agenda contrary to the public will.
Speaking of which, a recent survey that Kadir Has University conducted found that 65.8 percent of the Turkish public indicated that they wanted to keep the current parliamentary system. If Turkey did make the switch to a presidential system, 34.3 percent would support an Erdogan presidency. To be sure, this is only one poll and 34.3 percent support is actually quite strong in comparison to other potential candidates, but there is a sense that Prime Minister Erdogan is not master of the Turkish political domain on the constitution and the presidency. Even as senior AKP leaders have indicated the party’s willingness to be flexible on a presidential system, some of the prime minister’s recent moves suggest that he is willing to go to significant lengths to secure support for a new constitution with enhanced presidential powers. The peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the overtures to the Kurd-based Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which Erdogan accused not too long ago of being in cahoots with the terrorists of the PKK, and the sudden release of BDP politicians from prison may be good for Turkey overall, but it also smacks of political cynicism. Erdogan also showed up at the hospital bed of retired General Ergin Saygun to wish him well. Saygun was Deputy Chief of Staff until 2009 and was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for plotting a coup against the prime minister’s government. In addition, after presiding over the decimation of the senior Turkish command, the prime minister has now publicly complained that there are too many generals imprisoned. Erdogan’s sudden concern for the well-being of the commanders suggests he is looking for additional constituencies in the coming domestic battles over the constitution.
It does not have to be this way, however. Erdogan could set aside personal ambition for what is in the best long-term interest of Turkey and allow the country’s political factions to fight out a new constitution regardless of what the prime minister wants. It does not seem that he can do that, however, which means that Erdogan will always be one of Turkey’s most consequential politicians, but he will miss the chance to be a great statesman.