Presidential Systems and the Claim of Effective Oversight

TURKEY CONSTITUTIONAL WATCH – By Menderes Çınar* – 26-11-2012

Negotiations on the draft constitution, hobbling slowly forward, have finally reached the chapter on “state organization”—the type of government Turkey is to have—and the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) has finally presented its long-awaited proposal for a presidential system.

According to AK Parti spokespeople, a presidential system would not only make it possible to establish a strong administration (a precursor, they say, to political stability), it would also make it possible for the parliament to enjoy effective and efficient oversight over such administrations. The Constitution Watch web site has already published an analysis on the first point—the positive link being asserted between a presidential system and political stability. [1] Not wishing to be redundant, here I will examine the call for “effective and efficient parliamentary oversight through a presidential system.”

Under a presidential system, the executive and legislative branches of government are determined by two separate elections. The fact that their origins are separate makes the executive and legislature independent of one another. The legislature plays no role in forming a government, while the government feels no need to solicit the support of the parliament for its existence. The legislature, meanwhile, remains unaffected by potential issues such as an executive calling for early parliamentary elections. For these and other reasons, presidential systems are considered strict systems as regards separation of powers. The claim that the executive would be subject to effective oversight by the parliament, I believe, originates from this simplified analysis. Here, the “general features of a presidential system,” extrapolated from the experience of countries like the United States that have successfully implemented such systems, are interpreted as “universal principles” and, in the debates on the Turkish constitution, presented as the “advantages of a presidential system.” Let’s leave aside the tendency to rely on rote learning or the copy-and-paste mentality, as well as oversimplifications like ignoring the disadvantages of a strict separation of powers.

Should Turkey switch over to a presidential system, there would be a very real issue that has gone unnoticed by those who claim that, because of its origin in a separate election, the legislature would basically “automatically” balance and check the executive in a more effective way. This issue also directly affects their party organization. One of the features of a presidential system is the fact that it has weak party discipline. Party discipline is generally a precondition for a parliamentary system to function smoothly. Under a presidential system, meanwhile, because the executive is determined by a separate electoral process, it is not dependent on parliamentary support, and thus not dependent on party discipline. Therefore, one of the conditions of the effective parliamentary oversight touted by supporters of a presidential system is a weakening of party discipline. This is because continued strong party discipline under a presidential system would mean the de facto elimination of the strict separation of powers under a formal government system; even though the parliament would be formed by a separate election, such strong party discipline would result in a parliament whose members are decided by and loyal to the president. This, of course, would mean the loss of the parliament’s ability to balance and check the power of the executive.

We know that the AK Parti is quite a disciplined political party, and that this is a result not only of its leader’s strong charisma or its tight leash over its members, but also of the Law on Political Parties implemented by the military regime after 12 September 1980 (and still in force today). The assumption enshrined in the Law on Political Parties is that party discipline would be ensured and thus parliamentary regimes made stable by strengthening the hierarchical nature of the parties to the extreme, starting with the parties’ chair and central committees. It is obvious that all Turkish parties are affected by and benefit from this law. Yet the fact that a political party which supports a presidential system has not proposed any measures to democratize the internal workings of political parties through a weakening of party hierarchies—and that said party has not given a single indication that they would move to introduce such changes—is to be interpreted as a sign either that its priority lies less in parliamentary oversight than in executive domination, or that they haven’t studied hard enough.


*Associate Professor, Başkent University (Ankara), Department of Political Science and International Relations.