Repercussions of Presidential System: Issue #1
Turkey made a comprehensive change in the government system with the historic referendum held on April 16, 2017, and adopted the Presidential Government System with the official naming. This article is an effort to evaluate the effects of the new government system, which came into force as of July 9, 2018, on foreign policy making in Turkey. The article consists of two main parts. The first part looks at the institutional changes the new government system brought about in foreign policy making. The second part will look at the changes in Turkey’s foreign policy in the last four years and assess the relationship between the new government system and foreign policy.
New Government System and Foreign Policy Making
The constitutional amendment approved by the popular vote on the above date brought extensive changes to the government system. First, the constitutional amendment changed the process of formation of the executive branch. In the previous government system, there was only one election, and the legislature was formed first with this election. On the other hand, the executive branch is selected from the legislature by receiving its vote of confidence and continuing its existence by protecting its trust. In addition, executive branch members had to personally maintain the legislature’s confidence to remain in their posts.
In the new government system, the formation and existence of the executive branch have changed radically. First, the head of the executive branch, the president, takes office with a different election than the legislature. The other body members, vice presidents, and ministers are appointed according to the president’s preferences. In addition, the need for the legislature’s trust, both as a whole team and as individual members, has been removed (Constitution 101, Articles 104-106, and repealed Articles 109-113).
The new government system also brought changes that would upset the balance between the executive branch and the legislature in favor of the previous one:
- The phrase “supervising the Council of Ministers and ministers,” which was among the duties and powers of the legislature in article 87 of the constitution, was removed. Thus, the legislative body’s pre-existing political control over the executive body was deprived of its mandate and authority.
- The constitutional amendment removed the power of the legislature to initiate a parliamentary inquiry directly related to the head of the executive branch and to ask him written questions. The relevant article 98 recognizes the authority in question only for the deputies and ministers appointed by the head of the executive branch.
- The constitutional amendment transferred the authority to structure the central and provincial administrative organization from the legislature to the executive branch.Hence, the executive branch can now make the desired restructuring by decree without the need for the approval of the legislature (Constitution Article 104).
These changes also altered the institutional structure of foreign policy making. First, it should be noted that the constitutional amendment did not completely nullify the legislature’s influence on Turkey’s foreign policy. The legislature has two important powers, which are enumerated in the constitution (Article 87 of the Constitution): to decide on the declaration of war and to approve the ratification of international treaties. However, the legislature could shape foreign policy through law-making in the pre-constitutional period. The rules that limit the activities of the ministry of foreign policy, which is the executor of foreign policy in Turkey, and determine the principles, duties, powers, organizational structure, and internal functioning of the ministry were only determined by law. Therefore, these could only be changed by law. With the constitutional amendment, this authority of the legislature was completely transferred to the executive branch.
With the constitutional amendment, the legislature’s authority over the formation of the executive branch was nullified. The sole authority for appointments, dismissals, rights, etc. of ministerial officials at all levels was concentrated in the hands of the executive body. More specifically, the foreign minister, deputy foreign ministers, ambassadors, and other high-level bureaucrats had no authority over the appointment and dismissal.
To put forward the difference brought about by the constitutional amendment more clearly, we can look at how ambassadors are appointed. The ambassadors were appointed by a decree known as the tripartite decree before the constitutional amendment. Three signatures were required for the appointment: the president, who is head of state, the prime minister, who is head of government, and the minister of foreign affairs. With the constitutional amendment, the authority and involvement of the legislature in the appointment of ambassadors were removed because the legislature had no authority over the main decision-maker, the president. The legislative body’s involvement in the process was realized through its vote of confidence over the prime minister and other ministers, as well as through the questions it could pose and the investigations it could initiate.
Again, to further clarify the difference, we can look at the process in the United States, where there is a strong presidential system. The American president, who took office due to a separate election from the legislature, only nominates the foreign minister and ambassadors as in Turkey. However, the Senate, the upper legislative body, must approve the nominee for the ambassadorship.
The constitutional change in Turkey brought with it the personalization of foreign policy making. There is no longer a government or cabinet in making or maintaining foreign policy; only the president has the power to do that. It is possible to observe the projections of this personalization in the expressions used in the assignment and resignation documents signed by the president. Appointment to the office takes place with the president’s approval, while leaving the office by asking for a “pardon from duty” and again by the president’s approval.
It is possible to observe the projections of personalization even in decrees, which have a much more formal style. Presidential Decree No. 1, which restructures the ministry of foreign affairs along with other institutions of the administrative organization, is a very clear example. For example, article 128 of the decree includes the duties and powers of the foreign ministry: (a) “To implement and coordinate foreign policy according to the objectives and principles determined by the President” and (b) “to represent the President as a competent authority before foreign states and international organizations.”, (c) “observing the compliance of the activities carried out abroad with the foreign policy determined by the President,” (d) “informing the President about the developments and changing conditions in the foreign world.” However, previously Law No. 6004 on the establishment and duties of the ministry used more institutional language in similar expressions and referred to a team, the ‘government,’ not a specific person, the president.
With the constitutional amendment, the president’s authority in the ministry appointments has also expanded. While the minister’s signature is required for the appointment of the deputy ministers and ambassadors in the pre-amendment period, the minister’s signature is not required for the appointment of either the deputy ministers or the ambassadors in the post-amendment period. There is no difference between the deputy ministers and ambassadors in terms of coming to office and leaving office.
However, it is not possible to claim that the changes made by Presidential Decree No. 1 in the duties, powers, and organizational structure of the ministry of foreign affairs are radical and comprehensive. Specifically, the relevant articles of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (127-165) of the decree are almost word-for-word repetitions of the relevant articles of Law No. 6004. The decree did not make any noticeable changes in the organization’s internal structure either. For example, only three general directorates within the ministry were abolished, and five general directorates’ names were changed. The names of 21 general directorates remained unchanged.
The most striking change is the serious simplification in Article 10 of Law No. 6004, which regulates ministry personnel. However, this is not a negative simplification. Because the relevant article 160 of the decree states that the procedures and principles of recruitment and promotion of civil servants to be assigned in the central and foreign organization of the ministry, which the law regulates in more detail, will be regulated by laws and regulations. Therefore, it has delegated the authority in this matter to the legislature. It should be noted that this regulation is not an authority for determining and executing foreign policy. On the other hand, the continuity between Presidential Decree No. 1 and Law No. 6004 is due to the president’s preference. However, the president currently holds power to render the ministry unrecognizable compared to before.
An important institutional innovation that should be mentioned in foreign policy making after the constitutional amendment is the establishment of the Security and Foreign Policies Board to advise the president. Article 26 of Presidential Decree No. 1 counts among the duties and authorities of this board, developing policy proposals for Turkey’s international relations and security, increasing regional efficiency, solving regional problems, following global developments, and preparing reports. It is unknown how and to what extent the members of the board appointed by the president, individually or as a team, contribute to the making of Turkey’s foreign policy due to the lack of academic studies on this subject.
Turkish Presidential System and Foreign Policy
In order to evaluate whether the new government system impacts the direction and scope of the change in Turkish foreign policy, we will compare Turkey’s main foreign policy issues between 2017 and May 2022.
Turkey-US relations were struggling with difficult problems as of the end of 2017. The most crucial among these problems were: US military, financial, educational, and logistical support to YPG (People’s Defence Units), which Turkey considers as the Syrian extension of the PKK, hence a terrorist organization, in the military operation against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria; Fethullah Gülen, who was accused of being behind the bloody coup attempt in 2016, was not handed over to Turkey; Turkey’s signing of the agreement to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia; President Trump’s taking the opposite position of Turkey in the Gulf/Qatar crisis that broke out in June 2017 and the decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the Halkbank case and the detention of Hakan Atilla, the bank’s deputy general manager.
It is possible to say that Turkey-US relations have been disturbed by these problems for the following four and a half years, and the two countries could not overcome these problems as of May 2022. First, the USA’s support for the organization, YPG, continues. Turkey still has the YPG problem, which controls a large area in Northern Syria, and the biggest obstacle to resolving this problem militarily is the continued support of the US. The S-400 crisis could not be overcome, so Turkey was excluded from the F-35 fighter jet project and was exposed to some other sanctions. In addition, no progress could be made in the Gülen and Halkbank files, and even Halk Bank Deputy General Manager Hakan Atilla was imprisoned in the US.
We should add that Turkey’s relatively balanced policy between the parties after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not cause a new crisis and problem in Turkey-US relations. On the contrary, Turkey’s strategic importance may have increased with Sweden and Finland’s application for NATO membership after the invasion of Ukraine. However, the cold attitude of the US administration towards Turkey continues.
Turkey-European Union (EU) Relations
Turkey-EU relations are also problematic at the end of 2017. Turkey’s further authoritarianism as an EU candidate country was the most serious of these problems, and everything related to it was part of the wider problem: the continuation of the state of emergency declared after the 2016 failed coup attempt; the human rights violations that intensified and became widespread in this period; narrowing down or closing the ways to judicial remedy for these violations; and lastly the referendum on the new system of government in 2017 and its acceptance, which seriously upset the balance of powers.
The fact that the deepening authoritarianism in Turkey was frequently voiced by both the EU and EU member states and that Turkey was heavily criticized has always kept Turkey-EU relations on pins and needles. The Kurdish problem, the overlooking of the PKK’s activities in Europe, and the lack of progress in Cyprus were chronic problems of relations, and they were still valid by the end of 2017. As a new problem, the dispute over the exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean with the member state Greece should be added to the list. Another problem was added to the list with the bloody coup attempt: Turkey could not get the support that she expected from Europe against the Gülen movement, which was blamed for undertaking the failed coup and declared a terrorist organization by Turkey.
It is possible to say that Turkey-EU relations continued to grapple with these problems for the following four and a half years. The new government system, which came into force in July 2018, has completely upset the balance between the legislature, executive, and judiciary in favor of the executive, as it was feared, making Turkey more authoritarian. Moreover, this happened despite the abolition of the state of emergency in 2018 and the opening of a limited judicial remedy for human rights violations. It is possible to observe the authoritarianism in Turkey from the reports of Freedom House. While the political rights score of Turkey was 18 out of 40 and the civil liberties score was 20 out of 60 in 2017, both the political rights and the civil liberties score decreased to 16 in 2022. The fact that Turkey’s scores are worse than the neighboring countries such as Azerbaijan, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Russia, and Syria in both categories can give an idea of the current situation. The other problems mentioned above regarding Turkey-EU relations have continued in this period without alleviation and still negatively affect relations.
On the other hand, it is also possible to evaluate Turkey’s candidate country status for the EU as an indicator that relations are not completely broken. Two different factors can be suggested for this. First and foremost, the EU still hasn’t given up hope on Turkey. Although all the steps taken toward authoritarianism and social opposition in favor of democracy, a secular state and secular lifestyle are still alive in Turkey. Second, Turkey maintains an extremely critical mission for the EU as a ‘refugee gateway.’ It should also be noted that Turkey, unfortunately, serves as the trash can of the EU.
As a final development, it is necessary to mention the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it is unclear what impact this development will have on Turkey-EU relations. First, this occupation keeps the idea that Turkey can play an important role in the security of Europe with its military power. On the other hand, the occupation tightens the ranks within the EU around the axis of democracy. Naturally, EU countries question the place of an authoritarian Turkey in such a Europe. History will ultimately show the outcome of the two opposing forces that pull Turkey from Europe on the one hand and push it away from Europe on the other.
As of 2017, Turkey-Russia relations were heading toward the golden age. Even in the ongoing Syrian civil war, which was the most difficult problem between the parties, these two states had taken important steps to harmonizing their policies. Turkey needed Russia’s approval and support for the military operation against Afrin, which it would launch shortly, and Turkey managed to realize this operation. The most striking indicator of the improvement in relations was undoubtedly Turkey’s agreement to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia. With this agreement, Turkey also risked its relations with the USA and NATO. In effect, the USA and NATO raised objections and criticisms against the agreement. The most important area in which relations deepened is, of course, energy. While the offshore part of the TurkStream Natural Gas Pipeline was under construction, the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant was to begin in the following year.
Turkey-Russia relations have continued in a similar way for the following four and a half years. Despite Turkey’s continued denial of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s airstrike in Idlib in February 2020, which resulted in the death of 34 Turkish soldiers, there was no major crisis between the parties. Cooperation between the parties in the field of energy also continued. The Akkuyu nuclear power plant is under construction, while the TurkStream pipeline has been completed and opened.
It should be noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine did not lead to a wide-ranging and profound change in Turkish-Russian relations over the seven months after the invasion began. Relations are going well between Russia and Turkey despite the claims that unmanned aerial vehicles provided by Turkey to Ukraine inflict serious damage/loss against Russian forces. Turkey’s policy of balance between the West and Russia undoubtedly contributed to this outcome. Turkey’s participation in the sanctions imposed by almost all Western countries and their allies against Russia was limited. President Erdogan continues to have regular phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two also held a face-to-face meeting in Tehran in July 2022. In the same month, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine signed a grain corridor deal. This deal aims to safely transport grain and similar food products through three separate ports in Ukraine. With this agreement, Turkey contributed to solving an important problem the world faces.
Turkey intends to launch a new military operation against the YPG at the highest level recently. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that a new military operation against Syria is unacceptable for Russia. However, it should be noted that this statement was made mostly to emphasize the aim of normalizing relations between Turkey and Syria. In short, despite the ongoing disagreements over Syria and Ukraine, it is unlikely that Turkey’s relations with Russia will face a deep crisis soon.
As of the end of 2017, the main area of Turkey’s relations with China was economic and commercial. The trade volume between the two countries started from $200 million in the 1990s and exceeded $1 billion in the early 2000s. Trade volume rose to $26.7 billion in 2017, reaching its highest volume until that year. However, this expansion was in favor of China, despite Turkey’s protective measures. In 2017, Turkey’s trade deficit with China was $20.7 billion. However, we observe that the intensifying and developing economic-commercial relations with China do not sufficiently ring the alarm bells in Turkey. On the contrary, Turkey signed a strategic cooperation agreement with China in 2010 and started to draw a lower profile toward the Uyghur problem.
It is possible to argue that the reason for this situation is Turkey’s unending need for foreign investment. For the next four years, economic-commercial relations continued to guide the relations between Turkey and China. Although the trade volume decreased to $21.8 billion and the trade deficit to $16.4 billion in 2019, it continued to increase in favor of China over the next two years. In 2020, the trade volume was $25.9 billion, and Turkey’s trade deficit was $20.1 billion; In 2021, the trade volume was $35.9 billion, and Turkey’s trade deficit was $28.5 billion vis a vis China. However, we should note that this last two-year increase is not natural. It is probably related to Turkey’s import of the Sinovac vaccine produced by China to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. We should also note that Turkey maintained its low profile on the Uyghur issue for the next four years and made a special effort not to disturb China on this issue.
Turkey-Middle East Relations
As of the end of 2017, Turkey’s relations with the countries of the Middle East differed from country to country. Turkey’s strongest ally in the region was arguably Qatar, evident in its stance during the Gulf crisis that erupted in June 2017. In this crisis, the three giants of the region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (the UAE), and Egypt, launched a comprehensive embargo against Qatar and implemented various sanctions. Turkey has taken a completely pro-Qatar position in this crisis and has given all possible support to this emirate. So much so that the Turkey-Qatar axis would be mentioned in the Middle East in the following period.
Turkey’s strong stance alongside Qatar has worsened its already troubled relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Egypt were completely broken in 2013. The main problem in Turkey’s relations with these three Arab countries was that Turkey was a shelter for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which these countries declared a terrorist organization, and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to continue its opposition through the media in Turkey. It should also be noted that Egypt’s signing a deal with Greece in 2013 regarding exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean poses another threat to Turkey’s relations with Egypt.
As of the end of 2017, the target of Turkey’s policy in Syria had completely changed. Turkey was now aiming to completely take control of border areas from the YPG, destroy the YPG organization completely if possible, and create security zones along the border. In line with this aim, it launched a military operation in August 2016 under the name Euphrates Shield. By the end of 2017, Turkey was preparing a new military operation in the Afrin region, which is under the control of the YPG.
Turkey’s relations with the two non-Arab countries of the region, Israel and Iran, were also under the influence of the recent past. Turkey’s relations with Israel have been problematic since the Mavi Marmara attack in 2010. The chronic Palestinian issue and the spokesperson for the Palestinian cause that Turkey (self) assumed was perhaps the only reason for the tense relations. As of the end of 2017, no steps had been taken yet on the way to recovery. The most difficult problem in Turkey’s relations with Iran was the opposition they took in the Syrian civil war. However, it should be noted that this opposing stance did not trigger a deep crisis between the parties. In any case, by the end of 2017, Turkey had already changed its target in Syria, and this new target was one that Iran would not object to, at least for a short period. In addition, Turkey was negotiating with Iran in line with this new policy target, as it did with Russia.
Turkey – Middle East relations witnessed a visible improvement in the four and a half years following 2017. At the very beginning of 2021, the Gulf countries resolved the crisis among themselves, thus freeing Turkey from the necessity of being a party to an ongoing crisis. The first steps of recovery with the countries with which Turkey had problems followed one after another: In November 2021, the most powerful name of the UAE, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed, and in March 2022, the President of Israel visited Turkey. In April 2020, President Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, where relations have been problematic since 2013, steps have been taken toward recovery. First, at the end of April 2022, Mekameleen TV channel, which belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, announced that it had stopped its broadcasts from Turkey. In June 2022, Turkey’s Treasury and Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati visited Egypt. However, we should state that these steps are just the beginning, and there are still many steps to return the relations to their pre-Arab Spring situation.
It is possible to argue that Turkey has made significant progress in its new policy toward Syria over the next four and a half years. As a result of the three military operations it carried out, and the negotiations and agreements with Russia and the USA, the YPG’s control of the Turkey-Syria border has almost ended. However, beyond the safe zones controlled by Turkey and the borders under the control of Russia and the USA, there are still areas under the control of the YPG. When this report was written, it was announced that Turkey intended to launch a fourth military operation against Syria. Finally, let us note that the parties have not yet taken any steps to improve Turkey’s relations with Syria. By the end of 2017, Turkey had already reduced its target for Syria, and in this way, she had eliminated the only serious problem in her relations with Iran. For the next four and a half years, there was no serious crisis related to Syria or any other issue.
It seems that with the transition of Turkey to the Presidential Government System, there has been a significant change in its foreign policy only in its relations with Arab countries. Apart from that, while relations with the USA and the EU were grappling with the same problems, there was no radical improvement or deterioration in relations with Russia and Iran. Whether the new government system paved the way for the limited improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and Egypt or not is a difficult argument to decide on.
Turkey is not an ideal case for an academic examination of whether a change in the government system has brought about any serious alteration in foreign policy, at least not in its current form. Because those who determined and carried out Turkey’s foreign policy before and after the government change were the same cadres. These cadres did not face any serious obstacles that the legislature could put in front of them, both in policy making and execution, even before the government change. In the same period, the mainstream press was also open to the impact of the government and, therefore, could not create serious public pressure regarding foreign policy. With the new government system, legislation’s influence on foreign policy was, of course, institutionally removed. However, in the previous period, the said effect was only a formality because the head of the executive was fully in control of the majority party in the legislature. The independence of the mainstream press against the executive was further weakened in the same period. Turkey’s press freedom index prepared by Reporters Without Borders decreased from 47.02 in 2017 to 41.25 in 2022.
It is clear that with the change in the government system, President Erdoğan has highly personalized the making and execution of foreign policy. The question is whether this personalization has had any effect on the direction and scope of foreign policy, and if it has, the extent and depth of this effect are difficult to answer. However, this personalization should also be seen as an extension of a more fundamental problem. That fundamental problem is that Turkey is an authoritarian country. Authoritarianism paved the way for the ideological readings and ideals of the government to influence on making and execution of foreign policy more, at least in the case of Turkey. A significant part of the problems that Turkey has dealt with during the 2010s and still feels the negative effects were either the direct result of authoritarianism or the result of following the ideological readings and ideals that authoritarianism paved the way for. And these problems were easily avoidable. The recent improvement in relations, especially with the countries of the Middle East region, is a sign of a return to a more realistic and pragmatic line in foreign policy. Only time will tell how long this line can be sustained.
*This article was published in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Fotoğraf: Greg Shield