In a week of surprises in Turkey, first the Justice and Development Party (AKP) controlled by Pesident Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept to a surprise victory in the general election on November 1. Three days later, AKP has now dropped another shocker after the presidential spokesman called for a referendum to create an executive presidency.
"An issue like the presidential system can't be decided without the nation. If the mechanism requires a referendum, then we will hold a referendum," Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said, reports Reuters.
AKP went into last weekend’s general election polling about 43% of the vote, but in a surprise result won just over 49% on the day. That is enough to give the party, which represents Erdogan’s interests in parliament, enough seats for a simple majority, but not enough to change the constitution.
According to unofficial results, the AKP is projected to get 317 seats in Turkey's 550-seat parliament, more than the 276 seats needed to form a government. The ruling party, however, failed to secure a super-majority – 330 seats – that would allow it to hold a referendum on giving more executive powers to Erdogan. Thus, to win 330 votes for the constitutional change the AKP needs to seek a compromise with the opposition parties.
Erdogan has long made it plain that he wants to transform the presidency by transferring more executive powers to the post and taking de jure control of the political process as well as the de facto control he currently exercises.
"The executive presidency is not a question of our president's personal future. He has already entered the history books. The basic motivation is to make the system in Turkey as effective as possible,” Kalin said.
Only a day earlier, Tim Ash, head of research at Norma, speculated that Erdogan would wait up to two years before attempting to push through a change to the balance of power in Turkey.
"It is clear is that President Erdogan views the surprise (at least for almost everyone, aside from Erdogan and his supporters) AKP election victory now as a basis for reinvigorating his bid to secure an executive presidency. And the fact that the AKP fell short both of the three fifths parliamentary majority required to lodge a referendum on constitutional change, and the two thirds constitutional majority to enact such constitutional changes means that he will need to work with the opposition, and compromise," Ash said in an emailed note.
At the moment it looks unlikely for the political parties represented in parliament to find common ground on constitutional changes and paving the way for moving Turkey towards an executive presidential system.
"The HDP is ready to discuss constitutional changes if they bring along more freedoms, but the party’s position regarding the presidential system has not changed; we are against it," said Ayhan Bilgen, spokesman for the Kurdish HDP, whose share of the vote declined by three points to 10.8% (59 seats), just above the 10% threshold in the November elections.
The main opposition party, the centre-left Republic Peoples’ Party (CHP), similarly, does not reject outright the idea of rewriting the constitution, but party officials say the CHP will support such efforts only if the amended constitution will ensure the rule of law and will bring broader rights. The CHP will reject any discussions about the presidential system, said the party’s deputy chairman Gursel Tekin. The CHP increased its votes only to 25.3% (134 seats) from 24.95% in June.
The nationalist MHP has not commented yet, but ahead of the November elections, its leader Devlet Bahceli clearly said he was against the presidential system. The MHP was the clear loser of the November polls. The nationalist party’s votes fell to 11.9% (40 seats) from 16.3%. But despite its poor showing in the elections, Bahceli has not resigned.
So now the horse-trading starts, and despite their public statements Erdogan will push hard – by fair means and foul – to get a deal.