Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Referendum Victory Opens the Way for Erdogan's Presidency

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 15 of the Turkey Analyst)

The popular approval of the constitutional amendments opens the way to the presidency for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Further, it is now likely that Erdoğan will seek to introduce a presidential system. That prospect is sure to stoke the fears that Turkey is moving toward authoritarianism. Yet the introduction of a presidential system could in fact also facilitate a resolution of the Kurdish problem.



BACKGROUND: ”The tutelage of the coup regime is over”, declared Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his victory speech after the September 12 referendum. With the constitutional amendments proposed by the AKP government approved by a wide margin (58 percent to 42 percent), Erdoğan has indeed by now succeeded in fully establishing his government’s authority over the long recalcitrant state establishment.

The military high command has been on the political defensive since it lost the decisive battle over the presidency in 2007, and it was recently brought to its knees on its own turf as well. Not flinching from making use of the power that the constitution bestows on them, President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan challenged the standard operating procedures of the high command in the promotion process of commanders. They “interfered” in the internal affairs of the military, turning the tables on it, by vetoing the general that had been selected by the collegiate of the high command to accede to the commandership of the army, on the grounds that he had been implicated in an alleged scheme to subvert the government. The elevation of a number of other generals who had similarly been implicated in alleged plots against the government were vetoed. A short crisis ensued when the outgoing chief of the General staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ first refused to abide by the law, but he was ultimately forced to yield to civilian authority. He was then subjected to a final humiliation when the government withheld him the state medal of honor, which has customarily been awarded to outgoing chiefs of the General staff.

The crucial amendments in the constitutional package are those who are designed to solve the AKP’s problem with the high judiciary, which to all intents and purposes had become the last vestige of the old system of state tutelage over the executive. Only the high courts were still in the position of being able to throw up hurdles in the way of the AKP government.  The changes that have now been adopted will alter the composition of the Constitutional court and of the High board of judges and prosecutors. They basically put an end to the independence that the high judiciary has enjoyed in the selection of the members of the Constitutional court and the High board of judges and prosecutors. That was what Erdoğan had in mind when he celebrated that “the caste system” in the high judiciary had come to an end.

IMPLICATIONS: The opponents of the AKP claim that the way is now cleared for a permanent “civilian coup d’état”. Those who hold that the constitutional makeover does not  amount to any real settling of accounts with the heritage of the 1980 coup regime point out that the president is in fact accorded even greater powers than he was given by the generals who authored the current, now amended, constitution. They also remind that other crucial features of the authoritarian constitution are preserved: the ten percent threshold to parliament that denies the Kurdish minority political representation, and the notorious higher education board that has the function of exerting ideological control over the state universities. The opposition claims that the AKP is bent not on deconstructing state power, but on becoming the party of the state itself.

However, a senior AKP Member of Parliament told the Turkey Analyst that the AKP “can never become the party of a state”. He assured that “an AKP that has internalized the state will in fact lose power, since society has come to expect change. We have no choice but to live up to that expectation.” İhsan Arslan, another senior AKP M.P., similarly told the Turkey Analyst that “we have come to enjoy change”. As Turkey undergoes a rapid economic development that empowers its citizenry, the country has begun to break free from the straitjacket that the state had fitted on society. The traditional, hierarchical understanding of the state-society relationship is being decisively challenged by socioeconomic change. Ultimately, these are changes that serve to impress that the state is the servant, and not the master, of the people. When Prime Minister Erdoğan states, as he did in his victory speech on September 12, that “the state must derive its legitimacy from the people” his word resonate in society. Indeed, even those who represent a statist political tradition are now coming around to a democratic understanding of the role of the state. It is noteworthy that the deputy chairman of the Kemalist Republican people’s party (CHP), Umut Oran, concurs that “the people has to be protected against the state, not the state against the people”.

Undoubtedly, that change of perspective is attributable to the fact that the state has shifted hands. With the state now effectively under the control of Islamic conservatives, secularists in society are becoming emancipated from statism. It is telling that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of the CHP, saw fit to underline that “I don’t stand for the status quo.” Change has, in a sense, come to seem as the natural order of things, acquiring a self-perpetuating force that carries politics in a direction that may not always represent the conscious choice of the political actors. What was once a fringe opinion, held by marginal liberals and leftists, that the heritage of the 1980 coup has crippled Turkey and has to be disposed of, has become a mainstream view. The secularists will now have to appeal to the people, and not to the Constitutional court; deprived of the power of the state, they have no choice but to rely on the force of their ideas. As was earlier the case with the Islamic conservatives, who adopted a liberal rhetoric in order to ensure themselves wider legitimacy in society – as well as, and not least internationally – liberalism imposes itself an instrumental necessity on the secularists, and may in time become truly internalized by them.

To what extent the Islamic conservatives have indeed truly internalized liberalism will now be put to its most serious test. Until now, the AKP could with some justification claim that it was waging a defensive battle against the Kemalist elite of the state that did not hesitate to use whatever power it had left to subvert the government. Turkish liberals, and their western counterparts, have tended to overlook the AKP’s own abuses of power, the attempts on the freedom of the media and the irregularities that have stained the investigations into the alleged coup conspiracies. However, as the Kemalist threat has been warded off once and for all, the AKP will have no excuses for not living up to its own democratic rhetoric.

It is not incidental that the AKP has introduced a radically new discourse about the state-society relationship. It is indeed consequential that Turkey becomes accustomed to imagining the state not as an omnipotent entity to which society owes allegiance, but as a servant of the citizenry. Together with growing prosperity which empowers individuals, that will, arguably, ultimately work to ensure that authoritarianism is purged from the cultural fabric of Turkey. In the short term, however, it is more probable that the approval of the amended constitution will above all enhance the power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Presidential Palace at Cankaya

CONCLUSIONS: Speaking on the evening of the referendum, Erdoğan vowed that the AKP was now going to chart a route that will end with a new constitution being adopted after the elections that are due in 2011. In a television interview two days earlier, Erdoğan had opened for the possibility that he may opt for a presidential system. Indeed, it is no secret that Erdoğan craves the presidency; and it seems likely, given the Prime Ministers’ remarks, that the question of what kind of president he intends to become, if and when he fulfills what is presumed to be his aspiration, will serve as the focal point of the deliberations on the new constitution. A transition to a presidential system would make certain sense as the president is going to be elected by popular vote when Abdullah Gül’s term is completed. It would certainly conform to Erdoğan’s personality. Whether Gül will serve for five years (as stipulated by the constitutional amendment that was adopted in 2007 after he was elected) or for seven years (the term for which he was originally elected) is presently unclear. However, the resounding vote of confidence that the referendum represents for Erdoğan has made it more likely that Gül will step down in 2012, and not in 2014.

The possible introduction of a presidential system is certain to stoke the fears that Turkey is moving toward authoritarianism, with Erdoğan becoming an elected “sultan”. Those fears are not unfounded. Yet in one crucial respect, the transition may work in the opposite direction. Full democratization requires that the question of the rights of the Kurdish minority be addressed in the constitution. That calls for an ethnically neutral citizenship and for the abolition of the ten percent threshold to parliament. The referendum has in fact demonstrated that Turkish ultra-nationalism is less of a threat to the AKP than what had been generally assumed. The base of the ultranationalist MHP defected to the AKP in large numbers, making the MHP the major loser of the referendum. Concurrently, the referendum impressed that the Kurdish movement cannot be ignored. A substantial majority of the Kurds in the Southeast boycotted the referendum, heeding the calls of the PKK and the BDP.

A resolution of the Kurdish problem cannot be imagined as long as the Kurdish minority is denied parliamentary representation. Yet the AKP is unlikely to abolish the ten percent threshold before the election in 2011, since doing that would deny it the prospect of renewing its absolute majority. A presidential system may however offer a solution to the AKP’s Kurdish dilemma: With the power of the AKP secured through a partisan, executive president, it would become less consequential for the ruling party to allow parliament to become truly representative.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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