An attempt by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to circumvent the country’s secularist establishment’s opposition to Abdullah Gul becoming president looks set to return to haunt it later this month.
Under the current constitution, the president is elected by parliament. In April this year, the AKP put forward the then-foreign minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate to be the country’s eleventh president in the expectation that its majority in parliament would make his appointment a formality. However, Gul’s radical Islamist past meant that his candidacy was vigorously opposed by the staunchly secularist Turkish military and the opposition parties in parliament. On May 1, the Turkish Constitutional Court announced a hitherto unknown legal requirement that at least two-thirds of the members of parliament had to participate in any presidential vote in order for it to be valid. As the AKP did not have two-thirds of the seats in parliament, all the opposition had to do was to boycott the election in order to prevent the government from being able to appoint Gul as president. The AKP responded by calling an early general election for July 22.
Although the AKP was confident of securing a second term in power, it was less sure of winning two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In order to prevent a repeat of the previous impasse, the AKP tabled a package of constitutional reforms that will be put to a referendum on October 21. They include shortening the maximum term of a parliament from five to four years and introducing a popular election for the presidency instead of a vote in parliament. In the July 22 election the AKP won 341 seats in the 550-member parliament (see EDM, July 23). A few days later, the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which has 70 seats, unexpectedly announced that it would participate in any presidential vote in parliament, thus ensuring that the AKP could appoint Gul as the country’s 11th president. Gul was formally sworn in on August 28.
However, it was too late to cancel the referendum, which will go ahead on October 21. A string of opinion polls currently suggests that, once the constitutional amendments are put to a referendum, they will be approved by a large majority.
Under normal circumstances, the new system of electing the president would be introduced at the end of Gul’s current term. However, in what appears to have been a quite extraordinary blunder, the text of the constitutional amendment prepared by the AKP explicitly states that the eleventh president will be elected by a popular vote. Given that Gul is Turkey’s eleventh president and was elected by parliament, not a popular vote, as soon as the constitutional amendment is approved, his position will become untenable.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to dismiss suggestions that Gul will have to stand down as president. “I want to underline that this amendment only allows the people to elect the twelfth president and those who come after,” he said (Milliyet, Radikal, NTV October 3).
Unfortunately for Erdogan, this is simply not true. The constitutional amendment prepared by the AKP and approved by Erdogan specifically says that the new system will be introduced for the eleventh president.
Opinion polls conducted in the run-up to the July 22 general election suggested that, if a popular election were to be held for the presidency, Gul would probably still win. However, he would have to step down as president in order to campaign for election. A popular vote would also give Turkey’s secular establishment the chance to put forward an alternative candidate. Perhaps more dangerously for Gul, once he is out of office, his opponents could attempt to prosecute him in the courts. Gul has been accused of complicity in allegations of fraud conducted by the Islamist parties of which he was a member in the 1990s. No convincing evidence has been produced to implicate Gul directly. Nevertheless, as a member of parliament since 1991, Gul has enjoyed parliamentary immunity, which has prevented him from being either formally convicted or formally acquitted.
By blundering over the phrasing of the constitutional amendment, the AKP has also put itself in a very difficult position. Erdogan is not known for admitting his mistakes. If he accepts that he erred, he will lose credibility and face several months of a potentially divisive and destabilizing election campaign in the run-up to the popular vote for the presidency. If Erdogan refuses to back down, there is a strong possibility that the Turkish Constitutional Court will rule that Gul’s tenure as president is no longer valid. But if Erdogan maintains that Gul should remain in office then, under the amended constitution, he will be perpetuating a situation that is unconstitutional, which would in itself leave the AKP vulnerable to closure by the Constitutional Court (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, NTV, October 4).