With the constitutional amendment package accepted in the April 16 referendum, Turkey has started to transition into a presidential system. Daily Sabah spoke with Mehmet Uçum, senior advisor to the president, who is one of the brains behind the constitutional amendment package, about what the package entails. Indicating that all changes in the political model occurred during times of war and after coups in Turkey, Uçum asserted that democratic approval of the package with 51.4 percent of the votes is a success not only for Turkey, but also for the history of world political transformations.
Underscoring that the presidential system requires a complete overhaul in Turkey, Uçum claimed that all political parties, their rhetoric and their presidential candidates would become more inclusive as a result of the change. Uçum added that this change would also normalize political rhetoric in Turkey and guarantee pluralist governments and pluralist democracy.
Daily Sabah: First of all, how do you evaluate the result of the referendum? Was it what you expected?
Mehmet Uçum: I believe the result is absolutely important; after all, we have proposed a political model that the people don't have any experience in and don't have any other system they can compare with in practice. In this sense, it's all about trust; thus, 51.4 percent shows trust in the leader and the idea itself. Considering world history in terms of these kinds of changes, you will see that these changes usually don't occur as a routine of democracy; great transformations happen after wars, coups or revolutions when there is pressure for change. These obviously lack the popular support of the majority. For instance, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 were cadre revolutions and lacked popular support. Similarly, the 1876 constitution of the Ottoman Empire was implemented by the sultan and as a result of cadre practices. The foundation of the republic is not that different in this sense. Thus, 51.4 percent is substantial support and an amazing result. Maybe for the first time a political change of this proportion was realized with democratic routines.
DS: There are analyses that suggest "no" was more prominent in urban areas, while "yes" was more prominent in rural areas. Do you agree with these analyses?
MU: It would be a mistake to make such distinctions as Turkey's urbanization rate is 85 percent. Defining Anatolian cities that have substantial "yes" votes as rural isn't right. There is strong urban support for both "yes" as well as "no." There are only slight differences in the percentage of votes in larger cities all over Turkey, which is around 3-5 percent at most. It's not fair to discount 48-49 percent of the voters in cities who voted "yes." On the other hand, it's a mistake to analyze the result on a city basis; the country as a whole must be analyzed. Otherwise, it's an attempt to manipulate the people.
DS: Will the political parties go through reforms? How will this process affect them?
This isn't just legislative reform; on the contrary, it entails a complete overhaul of the political system. I believe with the new system the people have more authority over state institutions. The people now can elect who is to be in both the government and Parliament; thus, they're relieved of the duty of electing members of Parliament, which in turn forms the government. Now, the people don't have to vote a set list of candidates for Parliament; they can vote for those they like and want to represent them. All political parties must mind that the central administration of the party will be weaker, while the local administration and local representatives will be much more powerful. Those who don't have any ties with the local populace won't stand a chance of being elected. They have to prioritize the will of local party administrations. Otherwise, a party might gain the presidency while simultaneously being a minority in Parliament.
DS: Won't having the president's party being a minority in Parliament cause a system crisis?
I don't believe so, as the president won't be able to question the legitimacy of the people's will. We have to understand the political duties that we have to accomplish in such situations; if people choose a party for the presidency and another for Parliament, it means that they want these parties to cooperate with each other. People never vote for conflict; therefore, it can only be cooperation they desire. If political actors understand this desire, there'll never be a system crisis. Let's assume that these elected officials try to create conflict; there are certain democratic measures that encourage these officials to compromise and cooperate. Renewal of elections is also a democratic measure that may be implemented in extraordinary situations. In this case, both the president and Parliament will simultaneously go to an election, and the people will punish, so to speak, those who got the people's message wrong. The new system has these kinds of democratic measures that can be implemented at times of deadlocks and conflicts between elected officials.
DS: With the new system, political parties and election laws have to be overhauled as well. While working on the new system of government, did you prepare any draft laws to accommodate the change?
As far as I know, there weren't any drafts; yet, we have set certain principles through our observation of democratic countries that have a presidential system. Thus, we have analyzed how this model will change the political party system. In this sense, the mission of Parliament will see a change; the primary mission of the current Parliament is to achieve fair representation and stable administration. The latter principle is there to have a stable government, so does the 10 percent threshold. We have seen during the middle-to-late 1990s that this threshold didn't work, as Parliament was still fragmented. Now, we have taken this burden off the shoulders of the people and given them the authority to directly elect the government in the first or run-off ballot.
With this change, the only mission of Parliament will be to represent the whole society fairly; therefore, there won't be a 10 percent threshold. It will endorse pluralism, as any political movement, even those that only garnered 1 percent of the total votes, will be able to represent themselves in Parliament. Moreover, the threshold for passing laws may be lowered to ensure the stability of the decision-making process. Thus, it's a must to have reform that will assure diversification and pluralism.
DS: One of the most reiterated allegations about the new system is that Parliament will become irrelevant. However, you assert that Parliament will be more powerful than before. How will this be realized?
Parliament will definitely become more powerful and will have a stronger hand against the government. In the parliamentary system, the government has the authority to prepare draft laws and propose them to Parliament. Similarly, the government dominates parliamentary commissions and can implement statutory decrees after the right is granted by Parliament. The government has the monopoly with regard to implementing laws; even though Parliament is there, only laws backed by the government can be passed. In this situation, we can't talk about the independence of Parliament. However, the presidential system, which was approved, foresees the removal of the government's authority to prepare and propose laws, along with implementing statutory decrees. The government is only allowed to prepare and propose the budget. Similarly, unless they are invited, none of the government's officials will be allowed to participate in parliamentary commissions. Thus, the entire lawmaking process will be conducted by deputies. These deputies won't be dependent on the bureaucracy while preparing laws and will only rely on the demands of their constituents. In this respect, deputies will have greater authority. On a similar note, parliamentary commissions will increase in number and become much more powerful.
As local initiatives will become more prominent than the central party administration, they won't be dependent on the center; even if candidates don't receive adequate support from their party's central administration, they will be able to become candidates as a result of local support and dynamics. In this sense, deputies will become empowered in every aspect, which will provide them stronger and more direct ties with their constituents. People will no longer vote candidates just because of their party affiliations; they will focus on the personality and promises of individual candidates. The only aim of political parties will be to listen and realize the demands of their own supporters. All of these developments will normalize politics in Turkey.
DS: How will the new system affect the policy-making process in Turkey?
MU: The new system requires all political initiatives to be reformed. According to this system, a candidate who garners a simple majority of votes will become president and form the government. Considering people's diversity, one has to appeal to all segments and groups that form society. Political parties will have to find a reasonable presidential candidate who can appeal to people from every walk of life. Thus, a candidate supported by a very specific group won't have any chance of becoming president.
DS: So, both the government and the opposition will have to make more inclusive policies.
That'll be the case. An inclusive political rhetoric and a candidate appealing to a larger segment of society are inevitable. This will definitely normalize politics in Turkey. Another part of this is about cooperating in elections. People may not elect a president in the first round of an election that leads to a runoff ballot between candidates receiving the highest votes. This will encourage supporters of candidates eliminated in the first round to back one of the candidates on the runoff ballot; thus, cooperation will be achieved. As they will have to normalize their discourses to converge on a particular candidate, this will guarantee a pluralist government.
DS: It is claimed that the presidential system will exacerbate political polarization. However, you are saying the opposite by asserting that it will normalize politics and society.
Politics will be normalized on all platforms. I believe that our society isn't polarized in terms of sociology. Yes, there are different opinions, but we see people with different views peacefully coexisting in any given space. Although they discuss with each other, they don't resort to conflict. Polarization connotes conflict. Some allege that there is this kind of conflict in our society; however, there is none. Different segments of society might compete with each other, but it can't be deemed a conflict. I believe the new system will remove polarization in political representation, making it comply with society.
DS: How do you evaluate "yes" votes surpassing the AK Party's previous votes in southeastern Anatolia?
It shows that people of eastern and southeastern Anatolia believe in change. The interesting part is that those who opposed this change deem themselves as progressive, while so-called conservatives embrace change. Those who voted "yes" are those who suffered most because of the old system: Kurdish citizens, pious citizens and minorities… They know that if the old system was maintained, some might have reverted the system back to its original codes that would unleash suffering for people. Therefore, people in the said regions knew well that the old system had to go. Our Kurdish citizens are able to express themselves because of President Erdoğan's initiative. If it were left to the old state mechanisms, the Kurdish problem in terms of assimilation and denial would persist. Realizing this, our citizens in these regions voted for change.
Considering the results, is a new accession process for the Kurdish problem possible?
I believe no problem should be described over a certain identity or region, not any longer. In the past, Kurdish problem meant denial and assimilation, while religious people faced pressure and women wearing headscarf weren't allow expressing themselves. However, these identity groups are free of their previous issues now. Similarly, Alevis' issues about recognition and their presence in the public sphere have been resolved. Therefore, all identities in Turkey are focused on only one thing: improvement of democracy. Turkey has certain red lines about territorial integrity and politics; it won't allow any separatist movements or political movements which rely on violence. Laying these as the foundation, I believe all the different movements and groups will contribute to the reconstruction of Turkey. Now it is time to improve and deepen Turkey's democracy.
The latest attack to our republic was the fascistic coup attempt of July 15. The people thwarted this attempt while protecting the leader, republic and democracy. The second republic, so to speak, is about complementing the republic with a powerful democratic state. Permanent resolution of all issues, including political equality and fair distribution of income, of identity groups relies on the further democratization of Turkey.
How will be the domestic policies shaped in the following years? Will the ruling party and the opposition continue to employ harsh discourses to consolidate their own voter base, or will be there a new discourse?
This is an important but challenging transformation. The opposition is currently trying to prevent the change through other means, as they were unsuccessful in the referendum. These are the last attempts. After the decision of Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) is published in the Official Gazette, the legal procedure will be complete. So, they might continue to use this discourse until it's published. They may try appealing some courts, but I don't believe they will be able to get results. They can't prevent the system from being implemented.
After a time from its implementation, I believe there will be a normalization process. However, if they resort to anti-democratic methods and try to revolt, the people and the democratic mechanisms will do take countermeasures. Those who try to achieve anything through revolts will lose. They won't be regarded as legitimate in the eyes of the people.
There are harmonization laws that are to be implemented. Moreover, new constitutional amendments might be proposed. In this respect, the opposition has to accept change and should contribute to the process by advocating the demands and needs of its voter base. If they are concerned about certain issues, they should propose laws to resolve them. In short, I believe only those who are constructive will have an effect on the future of the country.
You have mentioned about harmonization laws. They will be discussed by the parliament starting from early May. What are the most important ones?
There are two categories: technical harmonization laws and political harmonization laws. The former foresees the implementation of all the technical reforms, including unity of terminology in laws and the correspondence between the amendment and the existing laws. Political harmonization laws, on the other hand, include election laws, political parties law, reforms about civil servants, appointment of high-ranking administrators. Setting the legal framework of government's authorities is also a part of this. In this respect, a congruity must be sought between parties as these are about how the political system will function. It seems that AK Party and MHP can work together; however, participation and constructive criticisms of CHP and other parties are equally important. If they continue to fight against it, they will become irrelevant in the days to follow.
The parliament has to realize these laws within 6 months after YSK announces the official results. If it's not possible, additional time might be demanded. I believe significant progress will be made by the end of the year.
You're coming from a leftist background and you're currently one of the senior advisors to the president. Is your background an advantage or disadvantage? Do you feel that you're being oppressed in any way?
Yes, I have leftist background. I have worked together with Erdoğan on many occasions in the past years. He truly is a reformist and believes in democracy. In this respect, I believe he reflects our society very well. Being a true politician requires this. Considering this, my background is not an issue for either the president or my colleagues. I have never been oppressed because of my lifestyle or my preferences.
I believe in a left-wing politics that is based on locality. The true left-wing politics in Turkey is Anatolian leftism. I think that class-based leftism is no longer valid; it was valid in 19th and 20th centuries. What is valid today is a leftism that is based on the society. It has two main characteristics, the first being the consolidation of the relations between the people and the state; therefore, making the state's legislative, executive and the judiciary to function in the way the people desire. We can define it as a people's state. I believe sovereignty of a state relies on its people and this is why I have advocated for the presidential system. The new system allows people to directly elect the members of the parliament and the president; thus, people are at the center of the political system. Moreover, the new system is based on mutual trust between the state and the people, unlike the past system which distrusted the people.
The second characteristic is social policies which include fair distribution of wealth, social aids, welfare, social security and free healthcare. In this regard, AK Party has made important progress. These developments overlap with my understanding of leftism. I'm aware that we're talking about democracy under the conditions of capitalism. Yet, there is one aspect of Turkey which amazes me: economy in Turkey is a capitalist one, but it doesn't have control over the state. We have a state which collaborates with the capital, but isn't subdued by it. Especially after the relations with IMF and the World Bank was normalized, Turkey started to become increasingly democratic. Considering all these, I believe this is the place I have to be. Moreover, the true leftism should be standing with AK Party and support the transformation.
I believe AK Party is a democratic embodiment of the society; every idea is allowed to be represented within the party. There are only two prerequisites: being a democrat and a public-minded person. As long as you comply with these two prerequisites, you can be whatever you want: liberal, conservative, leftist or rightist. If we are to talk about oppression, I can only say that I'm being "oppressed" by those leftists who are elitists, Western imitators, and disconnected from the public. Nevertheless, I don't care much about their harassments.