Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Prime Minister and the chief theoretician of neo-Ottomanism, announced that he’s stepping down as PM after less than two years in office. It has been reported that his departure is due to a rift with the current President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over the creation of a stronger Presidency. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt noted that a “rift in AKP party [Justice and Development] might well lead to much wider and much more dangerous conflict in Turkey’s society as a whole.”
Much of the hysteria over Davutoglu’s departure is about Erdogan’s executive ambitions and Turkish democracy having been placed on life support. However, these concerns are misplaced.The bitter truth is Turkey’s democracy would be flat lining without #Davutoglu and #Erdogan. First, democratization and democratic backsliding are bigger than any one or two people. Second, strong presidencies do not doom democratic transitions. Turkey can change the powers of the presidency and remain a democracy provided adequate curbs are put into place.
In a classic work, Juan Linz argued that there are inherent features of presidential systems (systems where “the president is always the chief executive and elected by popular vote” and both the president and legislature have fixed terms) that make them less likely to make the successful transition to mature, liberal democracy.
Presidents and legislatures compete over legitimacy but do not have a democratic means of resolving the conflict; fixed terms allow presidents to be more rigid whereas the possibility of parliaments being dissolved at any time compels them to compromise with elements within the assembly itself; presidential systems have a zero-sum or “winner-take-all” quality that is non-existent in parliamentary systems; presidents take the mantle of representing the entire nation, allowing them to ignore or override the legislature; and presidents are less accountable to political parties than prime ministers, allowing them to govern as populists bent on radically altering the institutional status quo. Because the hurdles to removing presidents from office are much higher than removing prime ministers, challengers are left with having to wait for an election or accept a deteriorating democracy.
Many fear that Erdogan’s attempts to change the constitution would eliminate any semblance of democracy in Turkey. However, research in the past decade has suggested that the factors that contribute to presidentialism are also responsible for democratic backsliding. One of the key variables is whether a state has a “military legacy,” or was ever a military dictatorship. Turkey has been no stranger to military coups. Although Erdogan made moves to return the military to the barracks with the Ergenekon trial, the armed forces have regained some of their influence as a result of the feud with the Gulenists.
Most would agree that given Turkey’s dire international and domestic straits, now is not the time for Ankara to join the growing club of the world’s autocracies. Turkey finds itself in one of its most precarious positions since the founding of the Kemalist republic in the early 1920s. By all appearances, #Erdogan and Davutoglu’s neo-Ottoman ideal – to project Turkish influence across the region and reassert Ankara’s status – has died on the battlefields of Syria.
However, the collapse of any sort of Westphalian state in Syria has made Turkey the hub of one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since the Second World War. It has been facing terrorist attacks from the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists. And while Erdogan seems receptive to putting the 2008 Mavi Marmara incident with Israel to bed the relationship with Jerusalem (once one of Turkey’s strongest) remains tense. At home, Erdogan has been locked in a battle with his erstwhile allies, the Gulenists, resulting in the effective shutdown of a free press. (This is not to mention persistent allegations concerning the President’s financial malfeasance.)
The AKP lost its majority in last June’s elections for the first time since coming to power in 2003. Rather than forming a coalition with the Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party), the center-left CHP (Republican People’s Party), or the small, nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), Erdogan and Co. choose none of the above. They slow-walked the coalition talks, clamped down on the free press, and exploited a collapse in the peace process with the Kurds to secure a victory in subsequent elections last November. While the AKP recovered its majority, it did not secure enough seats to change the Turkish constitution.
Even if Erdogan prevails, this does not necessarily spell the death-knell of democracy in Turkey. A presidency completely immune to pressure from institutions such as the parliament, press or judiciary is undesirable. However, a strong presidency is not incompatible with liberal democracy. One key factor protecting democracy is GDP per capita. While social scientists debate the causal role and importance of growth, many agree that $5,000 in per capita GDP is the magic number for democratic consolidation. According to the World Bank, Turkey’s per capita GDP has been over $10,000 a year since 1996.
Mature liberal democracy can be saved in Turkey, provided proper constitutional provisions are put into place, starting with:
- Checks and balances on the executive and between the branches of government;
- Clear delineation of responsibilities and prerogatives between the executive and legislative branches;
- Provisions against unlimited reelection in order to prevent abuses of power and shortening presidential terms in order to limit opportunities for abuse of power;
- Allowing the incumbent executive or a majority of the assembly to call early presidential elections;
- Protections for an independent press and judiciary;
Anyone interested in the future stability of the Middle East has a stake in Ankara’s remaining a member of the community of democracies. However, Davutoglu’s departure is not a cause for alarm. Erdogan’s ambition to create a strong presidency is not necessarily a threat provided proper checks are put into place. Successful and unsuccessful democratic transitions hinge on more than one — or two — people.