Parliament lacks a role under Turkey’s new presidential rule

Turkey’s June 24 elections marked both the triumph of incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the implementation of a new constitution narrowly approved in last year’s referendum.

Under the new rules, Turkey effectively ceased to be a parliamentary republic and moved to a system in which almost unlimited executive powers are granted to the president, directly elected by the people.

As quickly demonstrated by a string of presidential decrees with force of law, the president also holds sweeping legislative powers, making parliament almost redundant.

“There were legal and procedural concerns about Erdoğan's first set of decrees radically restructuring the Turkish state system,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the Turkish parliament. “The parliament, however, was utterly powerless to exert any check on the president's arbitrary rule, proving that parliament is incapacitated under the current arrangement.”

Even after the elections, there were claims that the parliament could balance the presidential power. Devlet Bahçeli, leader of nationalist MHP, junior partner in the ruling coalition, vowed in his victory speech to provide checks and balance to Erdoğan’s new powers.

But under the new constitution, the Turkish system appears to have some unique features that make it unlikely to have any limit to the presidential power.

“In comparison to other executive presidential systems, such as the U.S. or Mexican ones, the Turkish system provides basically for no substantial institutional checks and balances. In some presidential systems this could be done through a system of federalism and locally decentralised power,” said Magdalena Kirchner, a political scientist and conflict researcher, specialising in Turkey and the Levant. “Turkey, however, has no second chamber of parliament, and in recent years many local officials and mayors have been dismissed and replaced by the national government.”

The executive itself does not appear to be more than an instrument in the hands of the president.

“Unlike cabinet ministers in earlier periods, Erdoğan's ministers have little political weight of their own, and hence no autonomy,” said Erdemir.

A close adviser to the president explained that in the new government there is no room for dissent; whoever disagrees will be fired.

Erdoğan never made a mystery of his disdain for the separation of powers. “Under the new system, Erdoğan is able to bypass parliament and to a large extent legislate through decrees,” Erdemir said.

Theoretically, since both the presidency and parliament are legislative organs, there is a chance of conflict, which should be settled by the Constitutional Court.

In that case, the chances are the court would be sympathetic to the president, who under the new rules nominates half of its members, as well as part of the members of the Highest Board of Judges and Prosecutors, the ruling body of the judiciary.

“The judiciary is now fully subservient to Erdoğan,” said Erdemir. “There is little hope that there could be any meaningful judicial review of Erdoğan's excesses. The opposition will be less likely to bother to bring issues to the judiciary, knowing too well that it is near impossible for any judge to go against Erdoğan's wishes.”

The same will be true for members of parliament, said Magdalena Kirchner.

“A significant conflict between parliament and presidency is unlikely as long as the president can secure at least a relative majority of parliamentarians, something that has been eased by the stipulation that the president can maintain his position as head of a political party,” she said.

The end of the president’s neutrality means there cannot be any meaningful difference between the executive ruler and the majority party at least while the president controls his party.

Parliament has passed laws that made de-facto permanent the state of emergency just lifted after two years, amending the already draconian anti-terror legislation.

“It appears that the new constitution and the subsequent decrees have cemented the president’s control over the AK party, the state bureaucracy, including the military, and unchallenged power position vis-à-vis the economy,” Kirchner said.

“The transition into the ‘new Turkey’ or the Second Republic is completed. In contrast to the first, however, it lacks a consistent foreign policy outlook and with Atatürk and the secularist state principle still in the picture, a completely transformed image of Turkish society,” she said.

Keeping parliament in place, even if devoid of any real power, has a deep meaning for Turks.

Establishing parliament in Ankara in 1920, in opposition to the imperial authority in Istanbul, was a revolutionary act that fuelled the War of Independence. The anniversary of its foundation is celebrated on April 23 as a national holiday.

The perception of parliament as the seat of popular sovereignty was indirectly confirmed during the night of the 2016 coup attempt, when rebels bombed the assembly building in Ankara . The attack, which baffled observers because the assembly was already deprived of any real power, came after representatives of all parties had condemned the coup, showing a rare display of unity in what probably will be remembered as parliament swan song and its finest hour.

“In Erdoğanocracy, the Turkish parliament is not even a rubber stamp, but simply a tool to legitimise one-man rule,” said Erdemir.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.