Whither Turkish Presidentialism  

Daron’s piece in the New York Times argued that the ongoing protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and several other cities may be a coming-of-age moment for a more participatory democracy in Turkey, but also that things are likely to get worse before they get better. The reason for this caution, even a bit of pessimism, was that Turkey is an already polarized society, and hard-liners in the AKP might use the protests to further polarize society. So far, Prime Minister Erdoğan has indeed taken a fairly uncompromising stance.

But there is probably one immediate benefit from these events: the end of Turkish presidentialism.

It was no secret that Erdoğan, who was supposed to step down in 2015 according to the AKP’s own rules, wanted to change the Turkish Constitution to create a shift from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy, with himself at the helm as the powerful executive president.

There is no consensus in the political economy literature on the costs and benefits of parliamentary vs. presidential democracies. The most influential work on this is Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini’s book The Economic Effects of Constitutions. A summary and critical discussion is provided in this article.

Persson and Tabellini present cross-country evidence suggesting that presidential systems have smaller governments, measured as government spending relative to GDP, and also are better able to reduce the size of government following increases in spending during downturns.

Persson and Tabellini do not, however, focus on the longevity and health of democracy. The political science literature and in particular the work of the famous political scientist Juan Linz, has suggested that presidential systems may create more political instability and may have a harder time consolidating democracy, as exemplified by the frequent coups against the presidential Latin American democracies.

In fact, it may well be that presidentialism works very differently in societies with weak institutions. When other democratic institutions are weak, a presidential system can create greater concentration of power — with no checks and balances to speak of — ultimately empowering the politically powerful and further polarizing society.

This receives some support from the willingness of the weakest democracies to switch from parliamentary presidential systems. The list of countries that have done so includes: Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Ginea-Bissau, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, as detailed and discussed in James’s paper with Ragnar Torvik, “Endogenous Presidentialism”.

What company for Turkey!

Indeed, the fear of many was that the presidential system in Turkey would engender a less conciliatory style of politics (not that the current system in Turkey is distinguished by its conciliatory style). In the extreme, presidentialism could pave the way for a more authoritarian type of democracy, without many of the liberal trappings and the checks and balances.

Before the recent protests Erdoğan seemed set to succeed in changing the Constitution. Not only was he likely to get another huge victory in the next elections (how could he not with the opposition he was facing!) , but he also was in the process of revolutionizing Turkish politics with recent overtures for a true peace in the Kurdish parts of the country —a move that, though met with hostility from the nationalist right and left wings of the political spectrum, was likely to increase his popularity in many parts of the country and also provide support from the Kurds.

But the Prime Minister’s uncompromising attitude and increasingly authoritarian style that have fanned the flames in the streets will likely give pause to many more Turks, even to those who have voted for him and may even do so again, when it comes time to supporting a transition to a presidential system.

So perhaps, Turkish democracy is already reaping the benefits of the protests.

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