This weekend Turkish citizens will vote in a historic presidential election. For the first time in the history of Turkish democracy a president will be elected directly by the Turkish citizens instead of by members of Parliament. For the first time, Turkish citizens will have a chance to determine who should occupy the highest office of the Turkish state for the next five years. However, the first election of this kind will not only elect an individual to the presidency. The decision of the opposition parties to nominate a political outsider and the debates that have emerged regarding the style of presidency that the main contenders are going to adopt, turned the presidential election also an election between two systems of government for the country. In this sense it will be a pseudo-referendum between a system with a powerful and active presidency and a system that is a parliamentary system with a ceremonial and passive presidency.
Two major contenders in the presidential election from the very beginning openly stated the type of president they will be if they win the election and made this a campaign issue throughout their campaigns. Prime Minister Erdoğan's emphasis on a presidency that will use all executive powers granted to the president in the Constitution whenever it is necessary indicates a system in which the president will be a major actor in the policymaking process. In recent interviews, Erdoğan has said repeatedly that the presidency should not be an office for resting but it should make the occupier of that seat work tirelessly. On the other hand, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, from the very beginning kept stressing that he will be a traditional president who will use minimum of executive powers as president and would avoid engaging in day to day activities. Although, it is hard to imagine how a president that acquires more than 50 percent of the popular vote, which will most probably be a higher number of votes than a prime minister, could avoid involving himself in the policy process and how he could win re-election by being only ceremonial president, for now Mr. İhsanoğlu insists on offering this as his most significant campaign promise.
The Turkish electorate will vote for the president and the presidential system during the elections, but the aftermath of the elections will bring new debates regardless of who wins. There will also be debates regarding the functioning of the new system. The relative strength of the two bodies of executive power, the division of labor, the norms and rules of coordination and cooperation and the functioning of the decision-making mechanism in domestic and foreign policy will be decided in the coming months. The outcome of this process may lead to a system that resembles other existing systems in the world, or it may lead to a separate Turkish system that will develop throughout time and create its own structure. A more challenging debate may also start about the opposition political parties in Turkey. If, as all major polls indicate, Erdoğan wins the election, there will be hard days ahead for opposition party leaders. They will have to explain the reason of their failure. This situation will also raise new debates regarding the necessity for a stronger opposition party that can become a viable alternative to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the coming elections.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.