Lack of democratic oversight will lead to collapse of Turkey’s presidential system

A lack of legal oversight and punishment for malpractice has led to the failure of the Turkish Armed Forces as an institution. The same reasons will lead to the collapse of the executive presidential system that came into force after June elections last year.

For years I defended measures to turn the Turkish military into an effective force under the command of the political authority in accordance with democratic norms. I have always valued the armed forces and so never viewed the issue from an anti-militarist perspective.

Defence is one of the services of the state, just like health, education and justice, and should therefore be subject to the same rules as other institutions. 

The thousands of soldiers killed fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since it began its insurgency in 1984 is evidence of the failure of the Turkish Armed Forces.

The failure has become more obvious since the 2016 military coup attempt, as nearly half the senior ranks have been sacked and a large portion of them have since been jailed, accused of belonging to the Gülen movement that the government says was behind the plot.

The armed forces failed as an institution as they were not subject to parliamentary and legal oversight and there were no sanctions for malpractice, which resulted in a culture of impunity.

Oversight is the factor that determines the efficient functioning of any institution. The armed forces should be subject to the political oversight of parliament and the legal oversight of the Court of Accounts. But that was not the case.

The Turkish military had its own appeals court and administrative court, bodies that do not exist in any democratic country, and complaints of corruption and malpractice were heard by people working in the same institution. The military is still not subject to the oversight of the Court of Accounts due to a regulation that differentiates it from other public institutions.

If an institution can act freely, independent of oversight, it is destined to face problems. Many people have pointed to this fact and have been denounced as a result.

Until the constitutional amendments approved by a referendum in 2017, the military command was tied to the Defence Ministry, but not under its control. Even now, the protocol has not been changed, so the chief of the general staff still stands in front of the defence minister at official ceremonies.

Meanwhile, the executive presidency that came into effect after elections in June last year was modelled on the U.S. system, but checks and balances of the United States were ignored.

The new political system is subject to neither legal, nor political oversight, and therefore not only violates the principle of the rule of law, but will lead to problems in the future.

Parliament does not have the power to oversee the presidential system and its budget. The courts are also largely not allowed to hold to account those wielding power. According to changes made in the law governing the Court of Accounts, ministers are now only accountable to the president.

The whole system is now free of parliamentary oversight, a freedom previously only enjoyed by the military.

Those who designed the new system probably think that they have done a good job by giving the power to appoint ambassadors, university chancellors and Constitutional Court judges to one person, the president.

If parliament had a say, perhaps the same people would be appointed, but least then there would be space for negotiation and democratic decision-making. If parliament had been allowed to oversee the armed forces, it might have been able to prevent the 2016 failed coup.

Institutions have an inner rationality. If you alter the rules that ensure the proper functioning of institutions, you end up with poor institutions.

For example, U.S. President Donald Trump had to wait more than two years for funding to build a wall along the Mexican border, one of his election promises. Only after the U.S. Supreme Court last week approved the transfer of $2.5 billion from the military budget for the construction of the wall, can Trump now take steps to fulfil his election promise.

This is an example of a properly functioning presidential system. I personally would prefer a parliamentary system, but if Turkish society wants a presidential one, then it should function properly.

Ignoring parliamentary and legal oversight and saying voters will check the functioning of the presidential system at election time is a sign of total ignorance of democratic principles. Similar conditions lead to similar results. If the presidential system is not transformed in a way to ensure its proper and healthy function, it will soon meet the same failure as the Turkish Armed Forces.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.