Recep Tayyip Erdogan, twenty-first century Sultan

Turkey's new presidential system officially came into force on Monday, giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan powers that no democratically elected leader of Turkey has ever had. The inauguration was preceded by another mass purge of the civil service. By Aram Ekin Duran

By Aram Ekin Duran

On Monday 9 July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took his oath of office in parliament. With that, Turkey officially moved from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The day before, Erdogan had issued a decree dismissing more than 18,600 civil servants, including almost 9,000 police officers, around 6,000 members of the armed forces and 199 academics. This is likely to have been his last decree before the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt in July 2016 is lifted. It is anticipated this will happen soon, in line with Erdoganʹs election promise.

Just 13 years have passed since Turkish officials started EU accession negotiations. At the time, it seemed that democracy, freedom of expression and social harmony were growing.

Now, however, Turkey is preparing to endow its increasingly Islamist, nationalist and authoritarian president with an unprecedented amount of power. The abolition of parliamentary control gives Erdogan sole power over the executive branch of government. And, through his power to appoint important judges, he will also control the judiciary.

Ersin Kalaycioglu, a senior scholar at Sabanci University's Istanbul Policy Centre, said the potential consequences remained unclear. "So far, the new system has only been discussed with us in broad lines," Kalaycioglu said. "This means that neither the public nor political scientists know the exact details."

Presidential system catering to autocratic tendencies

Erdogan has repeatedly stressed that other democracies also have presidential systems. However, Turkey's differs considerably from the presidential and semi-presidential systems of government found in the U.S. and France. In the United States, for example, the president does not have the power to dissolve Congress. Erdogan, on the other hand, can dissolve parliament and call elections. In France, parliament appoints the members of the Constitutional Court. In Turkey, on the other hand, the president makes the decisions concerning the highest court in the land.

Inauguration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Turkish parliament in Ankara on 09.07.2018 (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Carte blanche to rule: on 09.07.2018, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once again sworn in as president, yet now he holds more executive power than any previous Turkish head of state. Erdogan took his oath of office at a ceremony in the Ankara parliament. With the constitutional amendments in force, he assumes leadership of the government; the office of Prime Minister has been abolished. The president is also able in part to circumvent parliament by issuing decrees

Ersin Kalaycioglu points out that Turkey's presidential system caters to autocratic tendencies. "Both the U.S. and French systems are characterised by a strong civil society," he said. "We don't have that."

Erdogan will now also be able to regularly issue presidential decrees. He had previously only been allowed to do so under the rules of the ongoing state of emergency in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup. Now the president will be able to overrule the judiciary at any time.

The oversight of an independent and impartial judiciary will therefore be effectively impossible. The political scientist Dogu Ergil shares Kalaycioglu's fears. He believes that the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary have been abolished.

Danger of ultra-nationalism

There is also the question of whether Erdogan's alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the elections on 24 June will increase domestic tensions. Many fear that the hostile stances taken by the MHP, especially toward Kurds, and the party's rejection of certain established democratic values could create an even more nationalist atmosphere in Turkey. Erdogan needs the MHP in order to have a parliamentary majority. This could prove the biggest obstacle to finding a peaceful solution to conflict with Kurdish groups and to Turkey's efforts to meet EU requirements.

Symbolic image showing the flags of Turkey and the European Union (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Poor prospects for EU accession talks with Turkey: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently confirmed his country's desire to join the EU and declared that accession would remain a strategic goal. In practice, however, discussions on this issue have been on ice for some time because of Turkeyʹs domestic political situation. In its most recent report on the country's readiness to join the EU, published in April, the EU Commission issued Turkey with its worst assessment to date. It confirmed serious setbacks in the rule of law, freedom of expression, not to mention independence of the Turkish judiciary

Turkey officially applied for EU membership in 1999, and negotiations began on 3 October 2005. However, little progress has been made over the past 13 years. Negotiations were basically halted after the state of emergency was declared two years ago. The Dutch politician Kati Piri, the European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur, favours an official suspension of accession negotiations.

While Turkey's EU accession process is in danger of being indefinitely suspended, its relations with the United States are also increasingly difficult. Fethullah Gulen, accused by Erdogan of being the mastermind behind the attempted coup in 2016, lives in the United States. The U.S. is working with a Kurdish militia group in Syria that Erdogan regards as a terrorist organisation. And Turkey is planning to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia despite NATO opposition. All this has led to the current diplomatic impasse.

Dogu Ergil pointed to recent opinion polls that show the United States even less popular in Turkey than it is in Iran. He said increasingly hostile attitudes toward the U.S. and EU were spreading in Turkey – even independently of Erdogan's policies.

Aram Ekin Duran

© Deutsche Welle 2018