Current opinion



Presidential system


By Bernard Kennedy



Dissatisfied with the performances of public administrations, public opinion often looks favourably on the idea of placing authority in the hands of directly-elected individuals. Roman dictators or US institutions like state governor and president are archetypal examples. But the idea of entrusting more power and responsibility to recognisable figures, personally responsible to the general public, as opposed to collective institutions, is not rare in modern Europe either, although it is tempered in some regions and countries by past experiences of “charismatic leadership” or “one-man rule”.


Strong, directly-elected mayors have been a feature of some continental European countries and in recent years they have been introduced in the UK. The recent attempts to devise a workable and understandable constitution for the EU - with its opaque and indecisive network of national institutions, political party alliances and bureaucracy – focused, among other things, on creating a figure or figures that might take clearer responsibility and be held more clearly accountable. The proposed Constitution eventually envisaged replacing the rotating presidency of the EU Council with a president to be elected for a 2.5-year period by the member states. This may be regarded as a small step in the direction of attempting to increase democratic answerability by choosing a clear  leader – a known public figure about whom opinions can be formed and opinion polls taken.


In national politics, particularly since the demise of mass ideologies, it has long been standard practice for voters to elect individuals, rather than parties. Although technically designed to fill parliamentary seats, contested by political parties and individuals, general election campaigns in Europe are in effect fought between the ideas, images and personalities of individual leaders in  almost the same way that US presidential elections are contested. The pact between rulers and ruled is a personal one, and the electors, even if they cannot “change the system” very much, have the satisfaction of being able to punish or reward those at the helm.


Presidential powers


In Turkey, the individual head of the executive involved in a pact with the general public is the prime minister, not the president. The repeated calls which various politicians have issued for a switch to a “presidential system” do not stem directly from the desire to link government and people in a more personal way. One motive has been personal ambition: it is hardly a coincidence that former prime minister and president Turgut Özal and current prime minister and would-be president Recep Tayyip Erdođan, together with their followers, have been the most prominent advocates of a switch to a presidential regime. However, there are also two factors which detract from the status of the prime minister as an eminently powerful and accountable figure, and so perhaps encourage proponents of the presidential model.


First there is the “double-headed” nature of the executive. The frequency with which President Sezer has vetoed legislation and government appointments appears to circumscribe the powers and responsibilities of Premier Erdođan and thereby limit his ability to act as the repository of public satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It may sometimes suit the prime minister, in his relations with the public, to plead that he does not enjoy complete competence. But he and his followers do not view this as a normal situation.


The powers of the president were considerably enhanced by the authors of the 1982 Constitution, which makes the president much more than a figure-head or rubber stamp for legislation passed by Parliament. He or she may summon Parliament to meet, deliver the opening address to Parliament every October, chair the Council of Ministers and call a general elections if Parliament fails to approve a government within a given period. He or she can refer acts of Parliament to the Constitutional Court for a binding assessment of their constitutionality. On a once-only basis, he or she can return laws to Parliament for reconsideration, and put constitutional amendments to a referendum - even if they are approved by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The appointment and dismissal of government ministers are subject to presidential approval.


Like most heads of state, the president has normal responsibilities for the choice of prime minister-elect after a general election, the signing of government laws and decrees, the mobilisation of the armed forces, the ratification of international treaties and the pardoning of outstanding prison sentences. Often the president routinely approves the wishes of the government or parliamentary majority. But these responsibilities also confer some political leverage, as in the case of the signing of government decrees concerning public appointments. The appointment of some officials - the members of the Higher Education Council, university rectors, Constitutional Court members and many other top judicial officials – fall more closely under the authority of the President. The President shares responsibility for these appointments with the respective bodies, but not necessarily with the government of the day.


The veto record


It is no secret that the increase in the powers of the president in 1982 was tailored to meet the needs of the then military head of state Kenan Evren, who subsequently became president of the Republic until 1989. Evren had something more closely resembling a “presidential system” in mind, whereas the academics who drafted the Constitution apparently sought to retain the key elements of the long-standing “parliamentary system”. The outcome is a somewhat hybrid system, which is nevertheless more parliamentary than presidential in many respects: the government is formed by the prime minister not the president; the government is in principle formed from within Parliament; it is Parliament which elects the president, Parliament cannot be dissolved by the president and the president does not initiate legislation.


In practice, Sezer has used his powers to return legislation to Parliament for further consideration nearly 50 times. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, Sezer has reportedly issued 39 such “vetoes” compared to a total of over 600 laws passed.  In a reported 19 cases, Parliament has re-approved the laws in question without alteration, obliging Sezer to put them into effect. In the 2004-5 session of Parliament alone, 14 out of a total of 166 laws are reckoned to have been vetoed, of which nine were re-adopted by Parliament without change. Parliament may yet re-approve more of the vetoed laws, particularly the recent banking law which is a precondition for IMF credit.


Sezer’s veto failed to block the constitutional amendment which permitted Erdogan’s election to Parliament in March 2003. He has also been obliged to promulgate laws envisaging an amnesty for tax offenders, an increase in the role of municipalities, changes in the tobacco market, lower penalties for unauthorised educational institutions, and restructuring of the Scientific and Technical Research Council (TUBITAK), the broadcasting watchdog (RTUK) and the tax revenues department. However, a constitutional amendment to permit the sale of forest land, a framework law for public administration and legal amendments relaxing the limits on foreign media ownership were all “successfully” vetoed by Sezer. He has taken at least nine AKP laws to the Constitutional Court and refused to sign hundreds of decrees, mostly involving appointments.


Arguing for stability


A normal government response to the double-headed nature of executive power would be to amend the constitution so as to limit the powers of the president, insofar as parliamentary balances and referendum expectations permit. This has been discussed but has not sparked as much debate as the opposite strategy of a “presidential system”. At one level, the idea of gathering together executive power not in the hands of the prime minister but in those of the president parallels Premier Erdođan’s imputed ambitions to become president in 2007. At another level, it relates to the second of the factors referred to above – namely, the impression that the presidential system would lead to an improvement in political stability.


The argument runs like this: A government headed by a prime minister who owes his position to his parliamentary majority may be overthrown by parliament in the event of a change in the parliamentary arithmetic or a disagreement between coalition partners. Such a government may also opt for  an early election. Recent Turkish political history offers several examples of such situations. By contrast, a presidential administration merely surpervised by Parliament, and appointed by a president directly elected for a fixed term in office, is almost certain to complete its term and carry out its political programme.


As an additional benefit, it can be argued that the introduction of a “presidential system” would permit the election of a more representative parliament, since it would no longer be necessary to try to ensure stability via the election system. Currently, parties receiving less than 10% of the popular vote are undemocratically excluded from Parliament in an effort to ensure a ruling parliamentary majority.


More stability can imply less participation – less democracy A switch to a presidential system would certainly represent a drastic reversal of Turkey’s political traditions. However, the debate seems unlikely to go away – especially, perhaps, if faith in Turkey-EU ties weakens, which could add to concerns about domestic political stability and increase interest in transatlantic paradigms.



(DIPLOMAT  -  August 2005  -  Ankara)