How will Erdogan’s ‘efficient’ democratic model function?

Caleb Lauer contemplates the unforeseen consequences of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempt to overhaul the Turkish political system

Vanity and power-lust are the usual sins that opponents point to in explaining Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into one where his presidential office holds most of the power.

But much more significant is the way that Mr Erdogan is making his appeal for the new system, suggesting democratic safeguards be traded for the development of national power.

Any such transformation is likely to follow the June 2015 general election, after which the government has declared it will draw up a new constitution.

The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Mr Erdogan still effectively controls, hopes to win enough seats in parliament to either rewrite the constitution or put the new law to a national referendum.

In short, the election will be about Mr Erdogan and the executive presidency he desires.

His approval-seeking follows a hard logic: in the face of a polarised society and domestic crises, and against a regional backdrop of disintegrating states and delegitimised rulers, Mr Erdogan knows the value of showing that voters are on his side.

But Mr Erdogan is selling his plan more as a power overhaul that a complete restructuring of the democratic process.

He and his supporters claim that a presidential system will be more “efficient” and would lift certain “burdens” from the exercise of power. Only by freeing Turkey from the friction and procedural eddies that stunt parliamentary policymaking, the argument goes, can Turkey leap to the next level of development.

And Mr Erdogan is not talking only about material development. Bolstered by the optics of his new presidential palace, invoking catchphrases about the “national will” and “national power”, and reminding us often of the horde of conspirators trying to undermine the country, Mr Erdogan frames and fills his campaign for a presidential system with references to a richer, more prestigious and victorious Turkey taking its rightful place as a power on the world stage.

Theorists of democracy have warned against such arguments for centuries. Only with institutionalised “inefficiencies” – checks, balances and separated powers all under the rule of law – can a democracy protect itself against tyranny, especially a tyranny of the majority.

But Mr Erdogan appears to have judged that a narrative about the prospect of Turkey’s rise and a majoritarian sense of security will be enough to convince his constituency to trade in demands for democratic safeguards or “inefficiencies”.

Still, one wonders how it can be made to work. Several unanswered questions suggest just how contentious the debate is likely to become.

Some questions are theoretical: how can parliamentarians willingly draft a constitution by which they will sign away their power? How can prime minster Ahmet Davutoglu square his claim that a new constitution will ensure the highest degree of democratic rights and freedom with Mr Erdogan’s demands for “efficient” executive power?

Some questions concern Turkey’s toughest policy challenges: to what degree does Mr Erdogan want a presidential system because he sees it as a necessary corollary to any regional autonomy that might be seen in Turkey within the context of peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party?

Some questions are speculative: does the risk of the governing AKP splitting make a presidential system more urgent or less likely?

And some seem more profound. A custom-built, sleek, streamlined and unchecked political machine such as an “efficient” executive presidency carries a risk that one’s opponents could take office.

With the system Mr Erdogan envisages, could he risk relinquishing the presidency to the other camp?

No matter one’s record at the ballot box, without democratic safeguards and “inefficiencies” in place to cushion and protect those that lose power, the imperative of self-preservation would become a problem greater than power-lust or vanity.

Such a situation would create all sorts of perverse policy incentives. Not losing power, rather than boosting the country’s power, would become all important.

Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist who covers Turkey