On 28th August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan moved from being the Prime Minister of Turkey to being sworn in as its President; a post for which he has big plans. Having served two terms as Prime Minister, Erdoğan, like Vladimir Putin in 2008 (swapping the presidency for the premiership before a switch back in 2012), believed he needed to seek a new form of legitimacy for his continued rule.  Unimpressed by the constraints on the head of state in Turkey’s semi-presidential system, Erdoğan wants to dramatically enhance his resort to executive powers and make Turkey a fully presidential republic.  His Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) will need to win a two-thirds majority in parliament at the next parliamentary election – a plausible outcome – to amend the constitution thus granting Erdoğan the powers he craves.

It is a worrying development.  The political scientist Alan Siaroff affirmed that, ‘[e]xperience suggests that once installed, direct presidential elections are not easily abandoned’.  With the shining exception of the USA (and even that is in legislative deadlock), the analyst José Antonio Cheibub stated that ‘[p]residential democracies are considerably more brittle than parliamentary ones’.  Cheibub goes on to dismiss the critiques that presidential democracies are ‘institutionally flawed’ (e.g., ‘winner-takes-all’ politics; lacking the stability-inducing flexibility of parliamentary democracies; aloofness) focusing more on their preponderance in ‘societies where democracies of any type are likely to be unstable’, especially because such countries are more likely to suffer from military dictatorships and juntas.

Turkey is a country renowned for the interference of its army in political affairs, either overtly through coups or behind the scenes in shaping policy, the latter status giving rise to the term ‘praetorian government’ – an iron fist in a velvet glove.  Erdoğan could claim that he has banished this threat forever, subjugating the reactionary elements in the Turkish military and placing the entire set-up under firm civilian rule.  The generals were unhappy and those of the officer class that were not prosecuted resigned in their droves from 2011 onwards (partly to try and avoid arraignment themselves). In September 2012, after a 21-month trial, a court sentenced three former army generals to 20 years each in prison for plotting a coup.  Together with the generals, nearly 330 officers, including senior ones, were convicted for the would-be coup.  However, just because the military is becalmed does not mean that the conditions that permitted an overthrow of democracy or a stealthy injection of authoritarianism into it are gone.

Turkey is a very divided country between its secular and Islamic constituents and that is before one considers the ongoing security crisis in Turkey’s Kurdish region, and the increasing fractious relations between hardline nationalists and the Armenian community.  Erdoğan may feel that he needs to exercise an unwavering course to temper these passions, but even as a Prime Minister he overreacted. Anti-government protestors were brutally treated when a wave of demonstrations shook Turkey in 2013 over the violent eviction of a sit-in at a park in Istanbul.  Similar harsh treatment was meted out to those who were angered by government complacency in a mining disaster earlier this year.  Thus, the mechanisms which sustained army interventions are being deployed by the increasingly authoritarian Turkish leader.  Those that were disenfranchised by military interference are quite happy to give Erdoğan the benefit of the doubt, just as secular Turks were not much perturbed by the over-mighty nature of their top brass.

Juan Linz, in his seminal work The Perils of Presidentialism, outlined how compared to parliamentary democracies, presidential regimes leave ‘much less room for tacit consensus-building, coalition-shifting, and the making of compromises which, though prudent, are hard to defend in public’.  When the air of moderation is thin, it is not surprising that many presidential democracies fall prey to ‘backsliding’ into dictatorship, as seen by President Alberto Fujimori’s Autogolpe (auto-coup) in Peru in 1992 when he dissolved both Congress and the judiciary to unite the three pillars of government (executive, legislature and judiciary) in himself.  One could also cite when President Viktor Yanukovych made determined efforts to turn Ukraine from a semi-presidential system into a fully presidential one, embedding autocracy as he went until he fled (like the Roman Emperor Nero) – an act that obliterated his credibility (there was no ‘coup’).  Take also Egypt where President Mohamed Morsi, after being elected in the first free and fair elections in the country, pursued a divisive policy that sought to ensure that power permanently rested in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only when he encroached on prerogatives the military believed were their own, did the latter step in to remove Morsi.  It is no surprise that Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights violations; Morsi is being tried on much the same grounds (though with political revenge a guiding factor) and Kiev has issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych for massacring almost totally unarmed protestors in Maidan Square.  Who is to say an Erdoğan presidency will buck the trend for the actions they were alleged to have committed and the paths they took?

The theory of political culture where a country’s makeup determines its regime has to be treated with caution as it can descend into patronising, broadbrush assessments at best, prejudice at worst.  Nevertheless, Cheibub’s advocacy, limited as it is to the study of presidential democracies, is persuasive, especially his focus on Latin America where presidentialism is dominant but so is the high level of regime instability.  Turkey also fits this mould. Erdoğan was supposed to bring a new politics but more and more he is taking comfort in the old methods that brook no dissent, believing himself indispensable.

A decade ago, Turkey was being held up as a model democracy for the Middle East; now the picture is darker.  Styling himself as a father of his country is a retrograde step – such paternalism used to be called ‘enlightened despotism’.  As Linz says, ‘[h]eavy reliance on the personal qualities of a political leader – on the virtue of a statesman, if you will – is a risky course, for one never knows if such a man can be found to fill the presidential office’.  John Acton’s warning that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is still pertinent.  Erdoğan’s virtues will be tested to the limit should he break free of his current constitutional shackles.  To date, the omens are not promising.