BACKGROUND: Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has yet to fully digest the effects of the leadership change that took place in August. After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president, he was succeeded as party leader and Prime Minister by Ahmet Davutoğlu. The AKP is now going through a period of adaptation to these new circumstances, and the party organization will not have fully digested the change at its helm until after the next general election, which is slated for June 2015.
President Erdoğan made clear repeatedly during the election campaign that he was not going to be a figurehead president. He assured that he was going to be a “sweating” president who works hard for the people that elected him.
Erdoğan has in every way lived up to these promises since he was elected president on August 10. Even though the Turkish system is a parliamentary system, vesting power with the Prime Minister who is the leader of the executive, this has de facto changed with a popularly elected President; the fact that Erdoğan has kept underlining is that he has been chosen by the people. That invests him with a power and legitimacy not foreseen by the present constitutional arrangements which restrict the role of the President. Thus there is a mismatch between the constitutional and political realities. The latter has, together with Erdoğan’s forceful personality, worked to in practice neuter the letter of the constitution regarding the role of the President.
Davutoğlu was chosen by Erdoğan personally as his successor as party leader and Prime Minister because he was judged to be a person that would be adapt to this order of things. In fact, Davutoğlu was not universally seen as successful among the AKP delegates that elected him party leader, nor is his standing particularly strong among the AKP deputies in parliament. For all intents and purposes, Davutoğlu is meant to be a transitional leader; from Erdoğan’s perspective, the main objective is to attain the majority necessary to change the Constitution after the general elections in 2015. To do this, the AKP needs to get 330 seats in parliament. Erdoğan probably calculates that this goal is within the AKP’s reach. But he may have miscalculated. Significant political upheavals during the period leading up to the election cannot be ruled out.
In this process, the function of Ahmet Davutoğlu is to fulfill the role of caretaker Prime Minister. Under present conditions, with President Erdoğan continuing to call all the shots in the party, deciding over every detail, it is not possible for anyone else to establish authority and control over it. The political dynamics of the period up to the general elections next year are to a very large extent going to be shaped by Erdoğan’s determination to constitutionally enshrine the presidential system he has already to all intents and purposes put in place.
IMPLICATIONS: Erdoğan has so far been able to put his stamp on the party whose formal leadership he has left in the hands of his caretaker Davutoğlu, and set in motion developments toward the fulfillment of his constitutional designs. Yet beyond the surface, misgivings over the future and disappointments and frustrations simmer within the ruling party. These misgivings and frustrations are in fact pronounced among a significant number of the AKP members of parliament. The AKP’s group in parliament is in fact in a state of disarray after Erdoğan’s departure.
Around seventy AKP parliamentarians are going to succumb to internal party by-laws that limit re-election to three consecutive elections. A significant number of these parliamentarians also happen to be senior representatives of the party; they are now in the process of being politically discarded, and they are in a state of extreme unhappiness. Meanwhile, the atmosphere among those parliamentarians who do not face the prospect of terminated political careers in the parliament is not upbeat either; those who are not happy to count themselves part of the core group of parliamentarians that enjoy Erdoğan’s favor look toward the future with anxiety. They do not know what that future holds for them, and given Erdoğan’s mercurial personality and his track record, they indeed have every reason to fear the worst, which in their case would amount to being politically discarded.
If Erdoğan’s plan works, the constitution is going to be amended after the general elections in 2015, enshrining the presidential system. Under this system, Erdoğan is going to proceed to shape Turkey according to his own vision during his presidential term, which will last until 2019. And if everything continues according to plan, Erdoğan will then be re-elected and rule Turkey past its centennial, in 2023. There can be no doubt that Erdoğan, who sees himself as the re-founder of the Turkish republic, or as the founder of a new, decidedly different republic than the one that its first president Kemal Atatürk had envisioned, endeavors to become historical in this sense. But Erdoğan’s self-aggrandizing vision will likely run into obstacles; the normal nature of Turkish politics is, at some point, bound to assert itself, to the detriment of Erdoğan’s ambition to be its exclusive executioner.
At present, it may be that Erdoğan has succeeded in neutering the constitution, instituting a de facto presidential system, and in subordinating the ruling party to his personal designs; in the long run, however, this is not an order that will prove lasting in its present form. Forceful as he is, Erdoğan can nonetheless not dispense with the constitutional amendment that codifies what he has in practice put in place. If the goal that he covets eludes him – as a result of the AKP failing to get the necessary number of parliamentary seats in the next general election – Erdoğan can look forward to eventually being circumscribed in his role as president.
Prime Minister Davutoğlu may have been personally selected by President Erdoğan because he was expected to play a subservient role; and indeed, Davutoğlu is certainly going to continue to play that role in the period until the 2015 general election. But things are nonetheless destined to look somewhat different after that. It is in fact increasingly unlikely that the AKP is going to attain the majority that Erdoğan covets in order to be able to amend the constitution. The economy is slowing down, and most importantly, troubles are mounting internally, with growing unrest among the Kurdish population of the country. As the peace process between the AKP government and the Kurdish movement threatens to be derailed, the AKP faces the prospect – as a consequence of this – of losing crucial support among the Kurds.
CONCLUSIONS: Thus, the question is whether Erdoğan is going to be able to permanently sustain a de facto presidential system with an amenable prime minister. That is questionable. The Turkish political system is parliamentarian; what works for now – the neutering of the role of the constitutionally designated executive, the government – is not going to work indefinitely. Sooner or later, the dynamics of the political system are going to assert themselves; the prime minister, even Davutoğlu if he retains the post after the 2015 general election, is at some point eventually set to reclaim power.
It will also eventually prove increasingly difficult for President Erdoğan to usurp more power without having a constitutional mandate for it. The system is bound to withstand and react to this usurpation. Although Erdoğan now enjoys practically unlimited power, this is in all likelihood a transitional period; the systemic forces are going to unavoidably assert themselves. And Turkey and the ruling AKP are to a large extent going to be shaped by the contest between presidential power and the parliamentarian systemic forces. The latter are bound to eventually prevail.
(Image Attribution: AK Parti)