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Populism, Authoritarianism and Dictatorship: An Investigation on the Style of the Turkish Presidential System

Populism, Authoritarianism and Dictatorship: An Investigation on the Style of the Turkish Presidential System
Published Date: Tuesday, 23 April 2019
The Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU) Cyprus Policy Center (CPC) collaborated with the Department of Political Science and International Relations to organize a seminar titled "Populism, Authoritarianism and Dictatorship: An Investigation on the Style of the Turkish Presidential System". The seminar took place on the 24th of April 2019 at the Old Senate room of the International Relations Department in EMU. During his opening speech, EMU Department of Political Science and International Relations Chair and  CPC Director, Prof. Dr. Ahmet Sözen introduced the seminar's speaker: General Public Law Professor Hüseyin Levent Köker.

Köker has published a lot of articles in Turkish as well as English including Modernization, Kemalism and Democracy (1990), Two Different Policies (2008) and Democracy, Criticism and Turkey (2008). In 2007, Köker was part of a team led by Prof. Dr. Ergun Özbudun who prepared a new constitution draft for Turkey. He is currently working on the topics of establishing a constitution, democratic political theory, post-nation state constitutionalism and cosmopolitanism.

During the seminar Köker  addressed Turkey's transition to the Presidential System as a result of the April 2017 referendum, the "right-wing populism" of the new system and approaches that are important in supporting the development of democracy within the scope of "competitive authoritarianism" or "sectarian management". During his speech, Köker investigate the role of these conceptualisations in political analyses. He sought to show a critical perspective moving beyond the populism-authoritarianism framework and  to make a case that conceptions of dictatorship must be taken into account for a critical encounter with the current state of affairs.

Köker concluded that "'Turkish style presidentialism' has been an outcome of a process of 'deconstitutionalisation' and an ensuing 'politics of the extraordinary', thus fits into the Schmittian ideal-typical definition of 'sovereign dictatorship'". He added that "the new system, with procedural defects in the referendum that undermined its legitimacy from the start, is unable to resolve foundational legitimation problems of the Turkish nation-state" and "the new system is unsustainable within the confines of what I prefer to name as 'minimal legality', thus bound to become increasingly lawless, destroying eventually its very existence".

Full transcript of Köker's speech:


"Let me begin by reminding you that Turkey changed this constitution in 2017 and after June elections in 2017, these constitutional changes have become effective in full. So, before the changes Turkey had a strange parliamentary system debate, relatively strong president; now, it is some kind of presidential system. But those who actually forged this system, who designed this constitutional arrangement, and those who supported politicly, intellectually, they are aware of the fact that this is not an ideal typical presidential system.


So they invented a Turkish term, "Cumhurbaşkanlığı hükümet sistemi", which cannot be translated into any other language – other than Turkish. "Cumhurbaşkanlığı" means presidency. So some of our colleaques who are working closely with the government, as their academic relations public agency (SETA for instance), they invented the term "Presidency system" as a kind of translation of "Cuhmurbaşkanlığı hükümet sistemi".


But, to be more honest, Ahmet İyimaya, a member of the parliament from the AKP, he was also the chair of the constitutional committee of the Turkish Parliament, he coined the term, Turkey Style Presidentialism. And, I understand the addicted Turkish in the English language context, refers to the territory, As Fidanell, not only to the ethnic Turkish, but also to the territory. When we say Turkish, it means belonging to the territory. So we can say Turkish presidential system or Turkish style presidential system, if we dont want to use presidentailism alaturca.


And, this process of governmental change, coincided with an emergency rule. Actually, these constitutional changes and the referandum that took place, they all happened within the oppressive atmosphere of the emergency rule, which undermined its basis of legitimacy (…). But still this is a coincidence of still emergency rule and constitutional amendments. This is important for our discussion (...).


And, also after these amendments, even before the 24 June elections, 2018, several institutions including the Council of Europe declared that Turkey is not a democracy anymore. Turkey is a non-democracy. So, this is a breaking point, I think, in Turkish political developments in the recent years. Because, before the amendments, or before the constitutional changes for the Turkish style presidentialism, Turkey used to be call a semi-democracy, floor democracy, or an electoral democracy, or may be to some political academics prefer delegated democracy. But, now it is an authoritarian system, with an addictated competitive authoritarianism is the most preferred term. And, we use the populist as well, populist authoritarian, authoritarian populism, competitive authoritarianism and populism, they go hand in hand.


Here you see some of the leading indicies I figured out during my research. We done is very interesting, its actually we stand for varialbles for variations I think, its a political science department project of Gotehnberg University in Sweden. They actually measured some data. And, this is interesting because according to their data, they say, the erosion of democracy in Turkey started in 2007 which is in line with Andrew Arato's The picture of Turkey's constitutional changes after 2007 as a majoritarian imposition, so not democratic.


In the same time (...), 25th of April, 2017, almost nine days after the referandum, Council of Europe warned Turkey that moving away from democratic path. But still, for the Council of Europe observers Turkey is not a dictatorship. Let me say what I will say in the end now, I think dictatorship is more and more appropriate as a concept. I am not using the dictatorship as a provocative political discourse (...).


The scolarship in the world of political theorists, or political scientists, whichever term you might use, we see that Turkey is defined as an advanced democracy, in those circles who are sympethatic with the President and the AKP government's position. They said that the new system, Turkish Style Presidentialism, eliminated what we know as the tutelary form of democracy and opened up the space for the full realization of popular will or national will.


And, this is an interesting fact of Turkish political life. Nation and people, so national and popular are at the mainstream discourse, they are used interchangeably. In the beginning (...), in the 1920s, when the republic was in the making, there was a distinction between what people are and the identity of nation. (...)


For those who criticize the current state of the Turkish style presidentialism, Turkey is a "competitive authoritarian regime". Or, most recently two colleagues actually said Turkey is a dictatorhsip. Orhan Gazi Ertekin, who is a judge actually, but holds a PhD. in political science from the Middle East Technical University. He wrote an article in English, saying that Erdoğan's way is Sezarism. Turkey is actually in or near in, a situation of civil war. And that, those conditions of civil war, will produce a dictatorship which is closer to what Romans had in past, the Sezarism.


And Banu Bartu, from University of California, Santa Cruz, who was my former colleaque, (...) she wrote an article, year one in a new journal. I think she says Turkey is a sovereign dictatorship, which is a concept used by a German constitutional lawyer and political theorist of the Nazi period. We know him quite well, Carl Schmidt. He has a book called dictatorship, where he makes a distinction between a constitutional temporary, he calls a "commissariat" which means commiserial with a mission...


So my purpose in this paper is to find the correct vocabilary or correct conceptual repertoire to account for whats going on in Turkey. It also has a theoretical concern, are we trying to explain what's going on in terms of cause and effect analysis (...) or is the theoreticians task is to describe whats going on, or are we going to up for a critical perspective to the political realm. I think I prefer the critical way of looking at things and the critical way of looking at things is the way you theorize it but you also want that your theory should have practical political consequences. You have say something about the practice.


So with this in mind, lets briefly look at the new institutions in Turkish Sytle Presidential System. We have, like all presidential systems, Turkey now has, a monist and unipersonal executive. But, as opposed to the ideal typical presidential government, Turkish style presidentialism has an unaccountable president. It is written in the constitution. President is unaccountable except the ballot box.


So, in elections, to be held every 5 years, the president runs for the office for two terms, but other than that there is no accountability. President is irresponsible, motamo, word by word translation of the constitutional term is this, "sorumsuz" in Turkish, irresponsible. I know irresponsible has some other connotations in English but may be (...)


in the Turkish style presidentialism there is no organic link between the executive and legistlative branches. But the seperation of powers in the typical presidential system, is something that is instituted, because we want check and balances. The legislative must have checking balancing powers vis-a-vis the executive transactions.


In the Turkish Case, legislative branch, Turkish Parliament, has no power via-a-vis the presidents transactions. Only written questions can be submitted for ministers, not for the president. You cannot ask questions to the president. You can only ask questions to the ministers. And, both the ministers and the president can be trialed. This is process that resembles the impeachment. But it requires some qualified majorities to initiate and finalize the decision.


Another issue degrees that might have effect of a parliamentary act, a law. Some transactions of the President office requires a parliamentary approval, but some transactions of the President, there is no need for parliamentary approval. For instance, these might be good things, decleration of the emergency by the President requires a Parliamentary approval immediately, budget of the central state or deployment of the armed forces. President can appoint not only ministers, but also all high bureaucratic members of the central state administration and there is no need for a Parliamentary approval. Unlike the US system, you don't need an approval in the centre, for instance.


And, also there are grave problems in this system, pertained to what is known as presidential degrees. For the presidential degrees, I don't want to go into a technical discussion of these, but there are several problems.The first problem is, we have two words in Turkish, they both come from the same root. One is karar (which is decision), and the other is kararname (which is a degree or sometimes reseambles to what Americans call "executive orders").


So, this distinction is there, but we don't know how it will reasonate in the judicial section of the Turkish thing. How the constitutional court, for instance, will qualify these transactions of the Presidents office. I mean: presidential degrees are subject to constitutional review by the constitutional court; but who is going to review the decisions, that is not known. And, we still don't have an example.


Then are individual resolutions or transactions like appointing someone for a high office in the bureaucracy there will be and there are still missing. President Erdoğan issuing some laws or other regulations that clarify how a certain act or a statute will be implemented. But, this final aspect, the presidential degree, with the force of law, we don't have that term anymore, we don't know how this is going to be tackled.


When we say presidential degree, in this sense it resemble to the executive degrees with the force of law in the old system. In the old system, there was a Council of Ministers. And, the Council of Ministers could have issued executive degreees with the force of law; but that competence of the Council of Ministers was dependent on private authoritization by the Parliament in front of the law. Without a private authorization in law, the executive cannot issue degrees with the force of the law.


But, now the president does not need a private authorization by the parliament or a exposed factor, approval of the parliament. He or she can issue degrees with the force of law at will. There are certain limits, but we don't know how the judiciary will adjuidicate these issues like, for instance, the president can not issue degrees with the force of law pertaining to fundamental human rights.


But he recently issued not degree that time, but a presidential decision saying that you can not rent or sell your property with a currency that is other than Turkish lira. This is a interference with the right of property, for instance. But it is not a "degree", it is decision. It is a "karar", not "kararname", so we don't know where we will go. To Council of State or to Constitutional Court. Does it matter, not very much. Because institutions in Turkish style presidentialism in judiciary is under the control of president.

The most important judicial organ is the Constitutional Court and Council of Judges and Prosecutors, and the Presidents Office controls almost all appointments in the constitutional court twelve out of fifteen members are appointed by the President, unilaterally without any approval. Three out of fifteen by the Turkish Grand National Assembly and Turkish Grand National Assembly has an overwhelming AKP majority and AKP chairman is the first. This is the de-facto situation.


And, Council of Judges and Prosecuters is a very important institution because this council appoints almost all judges in the Court of Cassation and Council of State. So, if you control, Council of Judges and Prosecutrers, you also control appointments in the Court of Cassations and Council of State. And, the President also has a power to appoint one-fourth of the members of the Council of State. And, Supreme Council, Supreme Election Council (...)


In short, the president in Turkish Style Presidentialism is irresponsible, controls the judiciary, it is not responsible to parliament it has a executive power but also has a good portion of legislative power, but that is not pronounced. (…) After these changes, as they stand now, Turkish constituion is a constitution which has conflicting norms. (...) It is a self contributing constitution as these changes now stand. And, the whole architecture of this so-called Turkish Style Presidentialism rests on certain principles. (…)


Instead of seperation of powers typical to a presidential system, the Turkish system holds for a concentration of power. Concentration of power in the office of President. Instead of protection of liberty, its stability and order, that is the emphasis. Instead of concensus, delaboration, concensus building, etc., it is effectiveness, you have to be fast, effective and Manosonian fear of majority in the American system, I think that is the founding base of an ideal presidentialism, we have a majoritarian understanding of politics.


Now, these are not constitutional changes, or they are not only constitutional changes, these constitutional changes actually, amount to what we know as a regime change. So what is the meaning of a new regime, when you look at the political science literatüre, (…) some of them emphasize that some dualisms are either iradicated or (iradicated is a powerful term but) dualisms are still there but they don't work as they used to work before.

Like, for instance, inspired by Edward Shields, the late Professor Şerif Mardin wrote a very influencial article "Centre and Periphery", a key to understand Turkish politics with a question mark. But that question might be answered by our colleaques in the mainstream Turkish political science: Yes, it explains, centre and periphery. So there is a central state, and the periphery which is the people, and the people are controlled by the central state. (...) Now, the periphery came to the centre and invaded all these institutions. This might be a form of narrating things. This is the kind of explanation, you might find in Ersin Kalaycıoğlu and others.


Similar to this, there is a dualism in the form of state and people, which might stand for centre and periphery, for instance. And, supporters and critiques, and I here mention the name of a colleaque of my from the Middle East Technical University, from department of International Relations, Necati Polat, (...), "Regime Change in Contemporary Turkey". He argues that state-people dualism is on the way to become extend. But he doesn't deny that the current situation is authoritarian, even dictatorial. He doesn't use the term dictatorship but he said there is a certain nemesis (...). The AKP is a kind of nemesis of Kemalist single party. So, maybe, this will lead to a democratization of the Turkish state and politics with the elimination of this distinction between state and people."


But more importantly, and I think this is more important than previous dualisms is another dualism which the literature I cite here do not emphasize, but this is my approach to this literature, there is a theory of dual state by a German theorist, he has wrote a book in the 1940s and by dual state he means we have a legal state, a state that is regulated, organized even founded on legal basis, so this is what we might call the constitutional state. But he also says that there is an extra legal dimension, and the state exists in two forms: the constitutional legal form and the state subject to constitutional norms, legal regulations, what we might know as, if we might use the German term, Rechtsstaat, the rule of law state.


But when we say rule of law, its a term actually that the connotation, main meaning of rule of law, is prior to the state. So, when we say rule of law state, or a state of rule of law, (...), but we mean that there is a set of rule of laws, or rules we call it law, and that law exists as rules of law. However, in the continental trandition which as Franco has developed this idea of dual state, even in the French tradition, or in the German tradition, it is for instance, for the French term, the rule of law, (...) it is the law that is legislated by an organ of an established state. That is state must be a subject. So, this dual state, as legal state, or legal constitutional state or extra legal state, I this is something that we can detect not only in other continential European state traditons but also in Turkey.


And, we know that this extralegal part of this state as deep state, the state that functions underground, may be illegally. We know that state organs and individuals acting in the name of the state are duing illegal things, but still they are workers of the state. So, Polats' regime change and nemesis, is allegation is claim that after AKP's this dictatorial nemesis of the Kemalist period, there would be this distinction between the state and people eliminated but will happen to state, we don't know.


But dictatorial developments, Sezarism, or sovereign dictatorship, the extralegal or illegal state becomes dominant. And, the rule of law, legal constitutional type of state, either disappears; or it doesn't disappear, but becomes subject to extralegal or illegal state. So that whats make it authoritarian or dictatorial.


Now, if this is a regime change, from semi (vote) electoral delegated democracy to an authoritarian form of politics, we also witness that Turkish political institutions, legal institutions, have been effected by this change drastically. …had actually changed (destroyed) whatever then was left – as kind of rule of law, or a legislative state.


So if we witness, what we are seeing in Turkey, something like destructure of the institutions, then there has to be something very close to what does political scientists today call populism. Because one of the most important tendency of contemporary populism or populism was always not like this.


If this the rise of Erdoğan to the presidency and presidency becoming the chief powerful organ of Turkish style presidentialism, this was something that is working against the republican estabishment as we know. (…)


In the literature when you look at the recent writings on Turkish politics, you will come across this term "populism" frequently, as well as "competitive authoritarianism" etc. Some of them, but not all of them, mention that there is a relationship between populism and competitive authoritarianism. Actually populism functions as a catalyst of competitive authoritarian systems, that is one arguement by Levitsky. We see something similar to populism in Turkey as well. So, we might jump to conclusions that Turkey is a competitive authoritarian and Erdoğan is a populist.


So, what happens, (…) we don't like it, but it is normal. I mean, it happens in: Thailand, it even happens in the heart of the European Union, in Hungary, or there is Poland, etc., and look at Brazil, even look at the United States. We have na authoritarian minded President there, who is even who is a proto-dictator. But he is surrounded by powerfull checks and balances systems, he can't move in a federal state with this strong supreme court or even a court system etc. And we all know, the American institutions, they have Powers, but we cannot even optimistic about the US system. There are curious warnings coming from other political scientists.


So, Erdoğan's position and Turkish style presidentialism, that we are talking about, have some populist elements in it. But, to work on a critical analysis of whats' going on in Turkey within the parameters of competitive authoritarian systems and within the context of a discussion of populism, I find it so uncomfortable. There is something wrong with this.


First, I feel uncomfortable because populism, as I said, one of the main tendence of populism was anti-establishment. So Erdoğan, Turkish style presidentialism, destroyed the republic and the establishment. If that's the fact, then he is a popülist because he was anti-establishment and anti-elite. (elite was the old republican elite, probably now they want their own new elites for the new regime). When this is our arguement, we act as a political option, we set forth a political option, like we should destroy the old establishment, the previous establishment. But the previous establishment was bad. There were problems with the previous establishment. So if Erdoğan is a populist that destroyed the old establishment, we have to restore the old establishment. And, this is something that makes me uncomfortable, the arguement of populism.


Another thing is when we use the term authoritarianism with an addicted, we mean the dictatorial aspect. And, we have to say if this is a dictatorship, it is a dictatorship. Here I follow a French, who hasn't written on Turkey, Erik Fassin, he has a book, "The Great Ressentiment". He wrote an article in his Open Democracy Page. The article is entitled "The neo-fascist moment of neoliberalism," not talking about Turkey, but talking about USA, Europe or other configurations for popülist authoritarian politics, the rise of popülist authoritarian politics. These are not populist or authoritarian. These are all neo-faschists. But, the term populist conceals whats behind the seen and it softens dictatorshsip.


And, he also points to the fact that populism has good and bed versions. So, rightwing populism is bad (…), but there is good version – leftwing populism. And this coincides with the Turkish case because in Turkish, when you translate populism, there is a Turkish Word "halkçılık". And, this laids back to 1920s, and 1920s debates around the principle "halkçılık" which was in fact the translation of a Russian term "Narodnik" in the 1910s, before the Soviet Revolution, before Bolshevik revolution. And, "Halkçılık" was something good populism. Because there was a class analysis at that time and like the Soviet System dictatorship of the proleteria, there is a good dictatorship and bad dictatorship. …Burguova dictatorship is bad, …proleteria dictatorship is dictatorship of majority, because majority of the people are proleterian.


In the Turkish context, 1920 assembly, (…) in that very assembly of Ankara, people were debating who is the people, and the people who use the hammer in the factories, that for sure, labours are the people, but what about the shop-keepers, or the lawyers, or Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-muslims, do they belong to the people…

So from this backround, when you say someone a populist, it will not be bad. I mean if it may be bad in our mindes, (…) but when you say Erdoğan you are a populist, the supporters would say, of course we are populist. We are for a populist demoracy. But what they say a populist democracy is a populist dictatorship. So we should see what is there, and I think what there is fits to Carl Schmidts perspective, that is my main arguement. For Carl Shmidt, there are two conceptions of dictatorship,


One is a derivation of the Roman republican conception, if there is a crisis in the state, in the Roman Republic, you suspend constitution and a dictator, for a limited period of time, for six months, to the extend may be, but fors ix months… The dictator acts and restores the constitution without any legally binding normative framework. So, this is a temporary commissariat dictatorship. This is something that corresponds to state of emergencies in constitutional democracies – also we have that in Turkey. But, the Turkish constitutional system, in times of state of emergency, this time in 2016 to 2018, two year emergency rule, they destroyed all the legal state. This extra constitutional state of emergency fits into the second conception of Carl Schmidt sovereign dictatorship.


Here we now have a formal dictatorship which also has a mission but sovereign dictatorship's mission is not to restore an existing constitutional order in a crisis but to constitute a new framework, a new state may be. So sovereign dictatorship is a founder for a new constitution, there is also an admission for that. But these are all identitified constructs.


And, why I am feeling closer to Carl Schmidt's sovereign dictatorship, because Turkey had various times in history, Turkey has had deep political constitutional crisis. The most well-known, recent crisis is 2007. When Turkish Parliament was about to elect the new President, the Chief of General Staff intervened in the process together with the CHP [Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republic Public Party)] and Constitutional Court, they blocked the election process by the Parliament, so we have early elections, constitutional rules have changed for the election of the President. So, we adopted for President directly elected by popular vote, instead of Parliamentary etc.


It was not only crisis of constitution, it was a crisis of politics in the sense Carl Schmidt used the term. Because for Carl Schmidt again, and this is also the picture of Turkey I think, …fry without a fryer political decision, …the nature of the nation state you cannot establish a legitimate and valid constitutional order, so here we have a problem in Turkey. And, that problem came to surface in 2011, 2013 crises moments as we said. What we call de-democratization and deconstitutionalism, (…) deconstitutionalisation is a fact. (…)


So, Turkish style presidentialism is a response to political constitutional crisis of the Turkish state, and President today, Erdoğan, in the course of these electoral campaigns for the municipal elections, (…) before that, he always has this word, the vocabulary saying that, this is the endurance of the state, is the problem. We have to protect the state. State always has the priority in Turkish context, like the continental European context in critical times, state is prioritized vis-à-vis to the law. So, you can do illegal things, if you think state is in a vital survival state (…).

So, those we have in the Turkish state has become legal constitutional state is now destroyed. (…) So, this may continue. This is likely to continue, for a more cruel, more oppressive forms of politics, with or without the current President.


It doesn't matter because the constitutional arrangement is typicly and unconstitutional, (...) it is a self-contributional constitution. So we will need a new paradigm in the future. And, what I am trying to think these days to gather all these analyses together as a basis for thinking more a new paradigm. And, that new paradigm will begin with realizing that there is no sovereign power that would found a constituional state. And, we are not living eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, in todays world a sovereign constitution making process is impossible.


This is not a theory, but it is also practice for Turkey because even if we abolish this constitution today, we will still have restrictions for a future constitution that are jacked down in the Treaty of Lozanne. So there won't be a legal vacuum for Turkey, there always been legal restrictions in international law.So we have to be aware of the fact that there is no such thing as sovereign constitution making. So there wont be anyting like sovereign constitution power. This is something that should be acknowledged in the general public and in the elite minds.


And, another aspect of the future paradigm will be that there is no chance of a mono-cultural politics surviving. So it has to be multi-cultural, or prularist or cosmopolitan in many ways. (...)"