Turkey's Surprising March Towards a Presidential System

Co-authored by Tolga Bag

Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu's decision to "voluntarily" step down on Thursday caught the markets and most observers off-guard. After a resounding electoral victory that all but assured the ruling AK Party stability for the next four years, months of disagreements on policy with President Erdogan and his team finally led to the Prime Minister's announcement.

Davutoğlu's removal from the political scene once again confirmed and now consolidates the decisive power of President Erdogan who picked the international relations professor to succeed him as party leader and Prime Minister. Despite the fact that constitutionally and legally, the President has no authority over the government or the AK Party, the political power of Erdogan has never been greater in Turkey.

Davutoglu's premature departure underscores the top priority of the sole agenda-setter of contemporary Turkish politics, President Erdoğan and sets his successor's mission clearly: the constitutional transition to a presidential system. In a country with a 139-year Parliamentary tradition, it's a challenging endeavor even for President Erdoğan. Under the current political setting, a transition to a presidential system now seems possible only with early elections for a number of reasons. First, the AK Party lacks the Parliamentary majority to bring a draft constitution to a popular referendum. Secondly, the opposition parties are not likely to support the presidential system, while agreeing on the necessity to draft a new constitution. Thirdly, there is no guarantee that a popular referendum on the presidential system will be favored. The most feasible option for the AK Party is to call for early elections and aim to obtain 367 MPs that will allow direct constitutional amendments. Both pro-Kurdish HDP and nationalist MHP are at risk of falling short of the 10% electoral threshold providing a window of opportunity for the AKP and Erdogan who seems eager to seize it in comparison to a more cautious Davutoglu.

The new Chairman of the AK Party and Prime Minister of Turkey who will be chosen on May 22 at the AKP General Assembly is most certainly going to be an Erdogan loyalist even closer than Davutoglu who even upon resigning has refused to speak ill of the President much like Abdullah Gul before him. The new Prime Minister is likely to act as a de facto Vice President, a role that does not constitutionally exist in Turkey. This paves the way for President Erdoğan and his advisors to be much more involved in the daily functions of the government that grated on Davutoglu and led to the current predicament.

Davutoglu's meteoric political rise from academic obscurity to Prime Minister evoked both envy and ridicule two years ago, but in recent times hailed as Turkey's "good cop" to Erdogan's "bad cop" when it came to international relations which were always his specialty. There are still many unknowns about who and how Davutoğlu will be replaced along with how international leaders that were familiar with the former foreign minister will react. An example being the tense reactions to Erdogan given the law suits he has launched against all that criticize him.

Davutoğlu's resignation will have the biggest effect on the foreign policy developments he was leading such as the recent migrant deal reached between the EU and Turkey. Having secured a historic deal with the European Union over refugees in which the European Commission recommended the lifting of visas for Turkish citizens on the same day is fitting. In addition rapprochement with Israel and a softer line on Cyprus now hang in the balance.

The new Turkish PM has simultaneously big shoes to fill but extremely low expectations given his predecessors removal and his singular focus on accelerating the new constitution process towards a presidential system. In the meantime, all the structural economic and legal reforms that the country needs could be sacrificed as secondary priorities to this overarching priority for Erdogan. The new PM's formation of the economy management could also lead to the implementation of unorthodox economic policies that Davutoglu prevented. The independence of the Central Bank now is under attack and it will be pressured to drastically decrease the interest rates for economic growth. The five criteria the EU refugee deal is contingent on by the European Commission includes legal reforms on Turkey's penal code related to terrorism, which the Turkish government most likely will resist considering the ongoing fighting with PKK, a terrorist organization. Regional developments in Iraq and Syria along with already tense relations with Washington will no doubt also be effected although all foreign policy concerns will be secondary to domestic developments for the foreseeable future.

What or who comes next in Turkish politics remains in the air, however who will be driving is not in doubt nor what is at stake. Erdogan's mastery of Turkish politics has never been in question, but whether Davutoglu's resignation will hurt or help him in his quest for a presidential system in Turkey will ultimately depend on how this next chapter plays out.

Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) formerly worked on Turkey for the US State Department and is Vice President in Washington, DC for APCO Worldwide where Tolga Bag is an associate consultant out of the Istanbul Office.