Highlighting that a presidential system does not necessarily pave the way to a federal structure, Chairman of Parliament's Constitution Committee Professor Şentop, said the AK Party's constitutional proposal might be welcomed by the opposition
With representatives from the four parties that have seats in Parliament, the future of the constitutional conciliation committee became uncertain when the CHP, the main opposition party, withdrew from the negotiations. The committee's aim is to replace the 1982 coup Constitution with a civil one.
Daily Sabah spoke with Prof. Dr. Mustafa Şentop, the chairman of the Constitution Committee in Parliament, about discussions for a new constitution, the opposition attitude towards it and the presidential system proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Stressing that the presidential system does not foresee any federal structure, Şentop stated that a unitary structure is a must for Turkey.
Şentop said that the proposed presidential system is based on the presidential system of the U.S., while maintaining the unitary structure of the state and the unicameral Parliament. Şentop added that this system would include checks and balances, stating that concerns about authoritarianism are unjustified.
DS: The CHP decided to withdrew from the committee due to discussions about the presidential system. How do you evaluate this action?
I worked as a member of the constitutional conciliation committee during the 24th term, and we were able to agree on 60 articles. However, we were not able to write a new constitution. We had serious concerns over whether we would be able to write a new constitution in this term. Unfortunately, we can see that we were right to be concerned.
The CHP is completely irreconcilable; they see themselves as the privileged party of Turkey and want to make a new constitution according to their will, while they only got 25 percent of the total votes. This is the real issue; the presidential discussions are only the excuse offered to public opinion.
The CHP is proposing a parliamentary system, but not the one we have today; they foresee a change. They want the president to be elected by Parliament, and for the president to have symbolic authority, as foreseen by the 1961 Constitution. Today the president is elected by the people and has more authority. Therefore, when the CHP wants a change in the system, it is just, whereas when the AK Party wants a change, it is unjust. This is one of the impositions by the CHP.
Another reason given for their withdrawal is disagreement on the first three unchangeable articles of the Constitution. However, there is no major divergence in this matter, whereas they make it seem so.
To clarify, the first article, which defines the state's regime as a republic, was already agreed on unanimously during previous sessions. Nobody opposes this, including the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Again there is no opposition regarding the general features of the Republic, which comprises the second article. There are, however, some expressions, which were added by the generals who enacted the coup in 1980, which we believe is not right.
DS: What are those expressions?
Let's read the second article together: "The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law, within the notions of public peace, national solidarity and justice, respecting human rights, loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk and based on the fundamental tenets set forth in the preamble." For example, it says "respecting human rights." It was expressed as "based on human right" in the 1961 Constitution; thus, in the 1982 Constitution, there is a certain distance implied to human rights. Another example is "notions of public peace." What does it actually mean? We are writing a constitution, not a literary work such as fiction. There are many of these kinds of expressions in the Constitution, which were added by five generals and were previously not included.
Again there is no opposition to the third article, which is about the official language, flag, national anthem and the capital. The issue here is that the CHP are fabricating opposition as an excuse to withdraw from the committee.
DS: What does the road map from here look like? Will the AK Party present its own constitutional proposal to the public?
This committee was one of the ways to make a new constitution; this was the preferred way. It seems the CHP does not want to be part of this way. We have to evaluate whether to continue with the three remaining parties. The HDP shares similar statements as the CHP, yet these statements are not everything. Maybe it can be done with only two parties. We have to evaluate the courses of action we can take. If none of these happen, the AK Party can prepare a draft of the new constitution by themselves.
DS: However, for the new constitution to be ratified, the approval of at least 330 deputies is needed. Do you believe that you can achieve this approval rate?
As you know, the procedure for making and voting on a constitution is different than passing laws. First and foremost, a new constitution may be ratified through a secret ballot in Parliament. We believe that if we come to Parliament with our own draft, it may be ratified. While many say that there will be a loss in AK Party's ballot count, we believe otherwise. There may be support for our constitution proposal from the opposition. A new constitution is important. If Turkey cannot make a new constitution, it is possible that Turkey will face more issues. Therefore, we believe that the constitution has a power transcending these calculations.
DS: What are necessities in the constitution?
Two basic principles could be stated. First, the approach to basic rights and freedoms should change. Turkey has to normalize the constitution and make it other than a document representing a particular government. The main source of government is the public. Second, there is a significant need for a change in the system.
For the first time, we have the chance to make a constitution that bases itself on the people. This will mean the state is for the people. As we say, the new constitution should transform the understanding of "people are for the state" to the "state is for the people."
DS: Is the presidential debate a debate about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? What are your thoughts on this subject?
There is something interesting I would like to say. I borrowed a book from Parliament's library, published in 1982. In its preface, the author states, "The presidential system is the most discussed subject in the last decade." There were significant discussions about the presidential system in the years between 1972 and 1982. The presidential debates are not something novel or personal, as some suggest. There are discussions about the presidential system, as the parliamentary system in Turkey is not working well enough. These discussions can easily be traced to the early 1970s.
In the National Order Party's party program, the presidential system is clearly suggested. Back in the 1970s, both Necmettin Erbakan and Süleyman Demirel suggested a semi-presidential system. There were even some politicians in the CHP at that time that supported a semi-presidential system.
Therefore the discussions about the presidential system are not particular to the AK Party or to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This is an issue that has been discussed for 40 or 50 years.
DS: The opposition claims that Erdoğan wants the presidential system for himself. What is your opinion?
We have said that the reason for suggesting a presidential system is due to the inefficiency of the parliamentary system in Turkey, and it has been discussed by many politicians. In this context, if Erdoğan had been the first politician to suggest it, than that would have been correct.
Another point is that Erdoğan did not start talking about a presidential system after becoming the president, like Süleyman Demirel. Officially, our proposal was drafted in November 2012, while Erdoğan was prime minister. When we look at 2004, 1990s and even the 1980s, once again, we can see him advocating for the presidential system. Both the National Salvation Party and National Order Party advocated for a presidential system, and Erdoğan emerged from their political tradition. You can see that Sezai Karakoç and Necip Fazıl Kısakürek also suggested a presidential system. Therefore it is definitely not a personal goal.
DS: What is the presidential system that the AK Party actually proposes?
We have a concrete and official document about the presidency. It is based on the presidential system of the U.S., as that is the most suitable model for presidential theory. There aren't many differences between both systems, except Turkey would remain a unitary state and maintain its unicameral Parliament. The differences are mostly technical details.
DS: There are claims that the Turkish presidential system would cause authoritarian governance, as it lacks checks and balances. What is your response?
First, the presidential system is a little different than the parliamentary system. There is only one ground for legitimacy, which is the parliamentary election. The government gains its legitimacy through Parliament. Therefore, a government should be accountable to Parliament. However, in the presidential system, there are two grounds for legitimacy. While Parliament gains its legitimacy from the people, so too does the government and the president. Therefore, there is a complete division of power.
There are two instruments that would comprise checks and balances for the presidential system. The first is the way in which laws are proposed and passed. The president does not have the right to either propose or pass laws. Parliament will be able to check the president's authority by making and passing laws.
The second is the budget. In the current system, the government both proposes and submits it to Parliament. As the government constitutes the majority in Parliament, it means the budget will be ratified. So this offers only an illusion of check. However, in the presidential system, the budget is prepared and ratified by Parliament; with the president having no power over the budget.
Another example of checks and balances is the interdependence of Parliament and the president in appointing officials. The president can choose between three candidates suggested by Parliament. Through these measures, we can achieve a balance between the president and Parliament.
DS: What is your response to the allegations that Turkey will become a federation, if it transitions into the presidential system?
There is no direct correlation between unitary-federative structures and presidential systems. There are some countries that have a presidential system and a federative structure, while there are also some that have a parliamentary system but are federal. The U.S. is a federal state and has a presidential system, while Germany is a federal state with a parliamentary system. Therefore, it is possible to have a unitary state and also have a presidential system. When talking about federal and unitary states, there is also a historical background.
Federal and unitary structures should be evaluated according to whether the executive, legislative and judiciary are uniform. For example, in the U.S., every state has its own laws, while in the Ottoman Empire the legislation was uniform. Every law and amendment was made in Istanbul. This was also valid for the executive and judiciary. There is no history of federalism in Turkey. A unitary structure is a must for Turkey.
DS: What about the criticism that the presidential system is presented as a panacea, debasing the discussions about the presidential system?
The presidential system is a form of government. It is possible to say that the imposition of the parliamentary system causes many obstructions to resolving many issues in Turkey. When transitioned into the presidential system, Turkey will have a better chance to resolve most of the issues. Yes, it definitely will not resolve each and every issue; it is just a possibility that will strengthen Turkey's hand in resolving many matters.
DS: What will happen if the presidential system cannot be achieved with the new constitution: a referendum or an election?
We see the writing of a new constitution and changing the government system as a historical obligation. Sometimes historical obligations shape politics. There are many examples of this around the world. We believe that Turkey will ultimately make a new constitution and transition into the presidential system. The methods will present themselves.