The conflicting political powerholders in Turkey proves the AK Party right in its will for a referendum to further democratize the country with a new constitution and presidential system
Nobody in Turkey has ever liked the current system of government. The introduction of an elected president to the mix not only complicated an already confusing situation, it also created a multitude of executive powerholders. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and senior Justice and Development Party (AK Party) leaders have criticized the current system in the past. They maintain that it is necessary to reform the 1982 Constitution and introduce a presidential system to address pressing problems.
Opposition parties, including the Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are not big fans of the current system, either. To fix the problems, they claim, Turkey needs to go back to the original version to strengthen the parliamentary system by letting the legislative branch, not the people, select the president. When Abdullah Gül decided to run for president in 2007, the military had nearly ousted the democratically elected government. When the government ignored the military's threats, the Constitutional Court stepped in to create a deadlock and push for early elections. In response, the AK Party called for a constitutional referendum to introduce direct presidential elections. In other words, the current system emerged out of a confrontation between elected representatives and extra-parliamentary forces trying to impose their terms on politicians, which is why the AK Party leadership will not want to restore the old order.
The AK Party, however, is not in a position to single-handedly amend the Constitution. Even though the party regained its majority in Parliament, it was not able to win enough seats to change the rules on its own. At this point, the AK Party controls 317 seats of the 330 necessary to call for a referendum, hence the AK Party leadership's ongoing efforts to strike a deal with the opposition.
The AK Party's dependence on the opposition for constitutional reform, however, had a negative influence on the process. Most recently, the CHP leadership, citing the ruling party's call for a presidential system, walked out of all-party negotiations, which left the AK Party with a few options.
The first option involves calling off the negotiations and settle for a version of the original system that has been destabilized by the multitude of powerholders. Provided that no political party would be able to govern properly under the old system, the electorate might punish them in the next election cycle.
The second option involves presenting a draft constitution to Parliament. Unable to call for a referendum, the AK Party leadership would be able to tell voters that they pushed for constitutional reform but failed to secure the opposition's support. At this point, it would appear that many senior figures are warming to this strategy.
The third option, however, would involve early elections if Parliament refuses to call for a referendum. Unable to distance itself from the PKK, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has been steadily losing electoral support. Going through a messy leadership race, it remains unclear whether the MHP could pass the 10 percent national election threshold to stay in Parliament. If everything goes well, certain AK Party members think, they could win up to 400 seats in an early election. Neither Erdoğan nor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, however, are willing to support this proposal, which brings up the fourth and final option of working with the MHP leadership.Moving forward, it will be important to closely follow MHP Chairman Devlet Bahçeli's moves. Although he recently said his remarks about the necessity of holding a referendum were misinterpreted, it was noteworthy that Bahçeli said he was "opposed to a version of presidentialism that might slide into totalitarianism." The carefully worded statement indicates that the MHP leadership might be open to a presidential system with strong checks and balances.
AK Party leaders, however, disagree with Bahçeli's assessment. Most senior members seem to believe that Bahçeli, who finds himself under attack by opposition from his party, spends a lot of time talking about constitutional reform "to win some time and regain support." According to a senior AK Party official, Bahçeli, who made a number of contradictory statements after the June 2015 election, is "largely unpredictable." It is important to recall, though, that Bahçeli's unpredictability paved the way for early elections and helped the AK Party regain its majority in Parliament. An MHP official who recently attended a closed meeting of the party's leadership said that Bahçeli was "primarily concerned with the implications of presidentialism for Turkey after Erdoğan leaves office."
In light of the above, it is possible to rule out early elections. But Turkey might still hold a referendum to decide whether a new constitution and presidential system are what is necessary.