Concerning trends in Turkey

erdogan-2Donald Trump’s inauguration seems like a good reason to focus our attention elsewhere and your columnist has selected Turkey: that’s the country, not the Thanksgiving meal.

After 11 years as Prime Minister and two as President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is proposing amendments to the constitution. He wants the position of Prime Minister abolished and its responsibilities passed to the office of the President. Effectively, he is merging the two offices into one, with himself combining the roles. To an American audience, this may seem reasonable. America has managed just fine with no office of Prime Minister and executive power vested in the presidency. Everywhere else in the world, this model has had little success, at least when judged against the values of liberty and pluralism.

Hitler merged the offices of Chancellor and President of Germany to form a new position of Fuhrer, but comparisons with Hitler have reached the level of tired cliché, so let us consider instead the case of Robert Mugabe.

In 1980, Mugabe became the first Prime Minister of an internationally recognized government in Zimbabwe. Canaan Banana served in the largely ceremonial role of President, and Parliament obligingly passed a law which criminalized telling jokes about the President’s name. In 1987, however, Banana was pushed aside and Mugabe combined the two offices. Mugabe was no model of liberal pluralism before this, but he was, at least, accountable to Parliament. As an executive president he has acted independently of any checks or balances.  

In country after country, parliamentary democracies have been replaced by executive presidencies mostly as a prelude to authoritarian excess. A partial exception is France – where the president exercises powers through parliament when his party controls both branches, but is largely ceremonial at other times. Aside from this, the US is almost alone in maintaining an executive presidency and pluralist politics.

The US Constitution is carefully crafted to divide powers: between the branches of government and between the US and the states. But even in the US, the President’s exercise of power in a hands-on way is a choice. Washington was elected unanimously as a non-partisan figure. His Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, was effectively prime minister in Washington’s administration. Subsequent presidents have chosen not to follow that model. They have been less aloof and more directly involved in day-to-day policy. The executive has also grown in power at the expense of Congress

But liberty, pluralism and democracy are deeply embedded in American culture. The legal structures of divided power have survived more than two centuries and have strong popular support.

Turkey has no similar history or law to fall back on. Erdogan, while theoretically holding a ceremonial role, has pulled the strings in Parliament and the cabinet. When he formally combines the roles of President and Prime Minister, things will most certainly get worse. Under the “state of emergency” thousands have been purged from their jobs and more than 100 journalists are in jail. Massive change is being implemented in Turkey’s whole system of government and the checks and balances necessary to debate it have been disabled.


Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it


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