Direct presidential elections in Turkey?

With the Turkish parliament having been unable to elect a president in recent weeks and with new parliamentary elections having been called for July, the latest move in the constitutional tug-of-war is a proposal to amend the constitution in order that the president be elected popularly.

Currently, as in many parliamentary republics, the president has limited, but by no means trivial powers, and is elected by a procedure meant to encourage a supermajority, but not require it. For instance, the Turkish parliament needs two thirds in early ballots, but ultimately can elect a president by a majority.

If there is no majority party, the method requires cross-party agreement even if the initial supermajority threshold is not met. Turkey has the highly unusual situation of a majority party in parliament that rests on only around a third of the electorate. In fact, the majority party, the AKP, is only a few seats shy of two thirds on its own. The presidential term is currently seven years, so this is the first presidential election since the AK has been in power.

The cabinet, headed by a prime minister and dependent on confidence of the parliamentary majority, is far more powerful than the presidency. However, the presidency has some significant powers–mostly in judicial appointments, national security (where it serves as a liaison between the military and the civilian authorities), and the ability to refer bills passed by parliament to the constitutional court rather than promulgate them.

It is hardly surprising that the AK and its opponents would clash over this election. But what should we make of the proposal for direct elections? The measure won 367 votes (against 184), which is one vote shy of two thirds. This is significant, because the next move falls to–who else–the president, and his range of options depend on whether the proposal has cleared three fifths or two thirds of parliament. If the amendments are approved by two thirds, the proposal can go straight to a referendum without presidential approval. However, if it obtains less than two thirds of the votes in parliament (but at least three fifths), then the president effectively has a veto on the proposal. No referendum can be held if the president does not approve.

As is often the case with legislative procedures, the bill’s individual articles must be voted separately. The article on direct presidential elections won 370 votes–which would be good enough to convoke a referendum on the proposal over the president’s veto. However, the package–which also includes cutting parliament’s term to four years and the president’s to five (with reelection permitted), and other measures–failed to reach the required 369 votes.*

Clearly the bargaining is going to keep going on–all in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections. And if parliament re-passes the same bill a second time (after the veto), the president must take it to a referendum (assuming I understand correctly).

A crucial question here, which I have not been able to find the answer to, is what is the method by which the president would be elected, if the amendment is ultimately approved? The AK clearly would benefit from plurality if the opposition continued to be unable to coordinate. It is less clear that it could win a runoff, given that it starts with a base of only around 34% of the vote (as of the 2002 elections).

Given that the logic of the presidency is to have a check on the parliamentary majority, and that the latter is itself manufactured by the electoral system (and fragmentation), a directly elected presidency potentially offers a greater check on the majority than does one elected by the same parliament that chooses the government. However, the AK’s behavior suggests it is confident that it can get its candidate elected president by the people where it has so far failed in parliament.

* BBC reports 376 votes, which would be two thirds. This appears to be an error. The source cited above is a Turkish news source that is a day newer than the BBC report.

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