Erdogan Said to Start Campaign for Presidential System in April

  • Ruling AK Party drafts charter after bid for consensus failed
  • Public support may force lawmakers into action, officials say

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to kick off a campaign to widen the powers of his office in April as he seeks public support for a possible referendum later this year, according to two senior officials with close knowledge of the preparations.

Erdogan will argue that a new constitution should feature a strengthened presidency while retaining a key role for the parliament, said the officials, asking not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. He’ll also emphasize new checks and balances that would cap the president’s powers, they said, a response to critics who say Erdogan is merely seeking to strengthen his own rule.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Photographer: Jure Makovec/AFP via Getty Images

After more than a decade as prime minister, Erdogan ascended to the presidency in 2014. He’s since devoted much energy to expanding the executive role of what’s traditionally been a largely ceremonial post, arguing that strong leadership will help extend a record of economic growth. The effort has sparked a backlash among opposition groups who say Erdogan and the Islamist-rooted ruling party’s dominance of Turkish politics has eroded a once-secular system and diminished media freedom.

The AK Party, which Erdogan founded, is working on a draft constitution but only holds 317 seats in the 550-member parliament, short of the 330 votes needed to take a new charter to a public vote. That means he’ll require support from at least some opposition lawmakers. The senior officials said that could come from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, which has shown signs of fragmenting recently.

Convincing Lawmakers

“Erdogan knows that mobilizing public opinion for a presidential system is key to convincing skeptical lawmakers,” said Mehmet Sahin, deputy chairman of the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking. Newly elected lawmakers would be more likely to support the plan than take a risk on early elections if it fails, he said.

The AK Party accelerated work on its own draft of a new constitution after efforts to write a charter agreeable to all political parties collapsed last month amid opposition to Erdogan’s proposals.

Investor View

Some investors say they’re wary of the efforts to change Turkey’s political system, viewing them as a costly distraction likely to exacerbate social tensions.

“Obsession with constitution reform for increased presidential power rather than economic reform” is one reason to be bearish on the Turkish stock market, Michel Danechi, a London-based portfolio manager at Duet Asset Management, which helps to manage $1.5 billion in emerging-market assets, said by e-mail on Tuesday.

The Turkish lira dropped 0.3 percent to 2.9060 against the dollar in early trade on Wednesday, after weakening the most in more than two weeks on Tuesday. The Borsa Istanbul 100 Index fell 1.4 percent on Tuesday, paring its gain this year to 10 percent.

“The presidential system is the best way to use Turkey’s resources in a more effective management model,” Mehdi Eker, head of the AK Party’s economic affairs office, said this week. “We believe this has to be debated and evaluated by the nation.”

Increasing Violence

The political clash threatens further turmoil at a time when Turkey is waging a war against the Kurdish PKK in its southeast, has been attacked by Islamic State, and risks getting drawn deeper into the conflict in neighboring Syria.

The country has stepped up airstrikes against the PKK, which has been blamed for a series of attacks including a suicide car-bombing in the capital Ankara on Sunday that killed more than 30 people. The Kurdish group, classified as terrorists by Turkey and its U.S. and European Union allies, has been fighting for autonomy for three decades, and has ties with Kurdish groups that now control swaths of northern Syria.

The recent escalation in Turkey’s war with the PKK may be entwined with Erdogan’s bid for wider powers, said Nihat Ali Ozcan at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara.

“The PKK is engaged in a direct confrontation with Erdogan with the aim of preventing him from turning his office into an executive presidency,” Ozcan said. “However, Erdogan may benefit from a growing nationalist backlash in his campaign for a presidential system, as long as he maintains his crackdown on the PKK.”

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