“A presidential system in Turkey would be no different from a dictatorship” – Interview with Prof. Dr. Cem Eroğul

 This interview of Berkant Gültekin with Prof. Dr. Cem Eroğul, originally published in Turkish in Birgün on 12 February 2015, was widely recirculated after the military coup attempt on 15 July 2016. It highlights some of the key issues in AKP’s agenda to change the political system of Turkey, which reside at the core of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s post-coup offensive stance. The interview further gives a historical analysis of the development and underdevelopment of Turkish democracy. The shortened translation to English aims at providing the non-Turkish-speaking audience to hear critical voices from within Turkey.

Eroğul was a professor of political science, specialized in constitutional law and Marxist state theory. – translators.

>> As a professor of constitutional law and state theories, do you think that AKP has transformed the structure of the state to the extent that would surpass what would be considered normal for a classical center-right party? How do you evaluate the 14 years of AKP government?

 Since the foundation of the republic, the Turkish state had two big boundaries. One of them was “communism”, and the other was “sharia”. This means, political movements that defended sharia or communism were considered “against the system”. These movements had their own political objectives, and these objectives would push the limits of the center-right vs center-left spectrum of the republican norm.

This attitude started to change after the 1973 elections, when CHP leader Bülent Ecevit formed a coalition government with Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist party, MSP (Milli Selamet Partisi – National Salvation Party). Once this door was opened, other parties pushing beyond the political system also started participating in governments. For instance, Milliyetçi Cephe (Nationalist Front) governments led by Süleyman Demirel not only had Erbakan, but also MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi – Nationalist Movement Party) of Alparslan Türkeş took part of the governing block. On the other side of the frontier, starting particularly in 1968, leftist movements gravitated towards forcing the system and eventually changing it.

AKP is the heir of MSP (which made a coalition with Ecevit) and its political vision: “The National Vision” (Milli Görüş). For these parties, the goal is not only to come into power within the existing system, but also to change it in the long term. In our example, the direction of the change is to make it as religious as possible. We see very clearly that this programme is being applied systematically. In its earlier years, AKP tried to hide his agenda, but it was revealed rather quickly. With AKP, there is a radical change towards a more religious and more religion-based state and system.

>> Once it was fashionable to claim that AKP’s government and the Turkish state are distinct. Is this possible to make this claim today?

We entered a very interesting period in Turkey. Together with democracy, the state apparatus is also melting away. Of course in all class societies states are tools of the dominant class, but they are more than that. They have other aspects too. For instance, the state is responsible for limiting oppression beyond a certain point, because it has to consider its own future and reproduce its legitimacy. These are disappearing in the last years. This is quite an interesting phenomenon. The ruling block in Turkey is trying to gradually dissolve the state as an entity separated from the political power. The institutions that have been the corner stones of the republican state were destroyed over night, not even bothering with proper law changes to do that. For instance, the Board of Financial Inspectors in the Ministry of Finance was abolished via secondary legislation. Incredible! The Board of Financial Inspectors was at the core of bureaucracy. It just disappeared. There has been no bureaucratic continuity in the state. And the hardest blow hit the jurisdiction. It became completely dependent on political power. Therefore, the usual picture of other countries does not apply to Turkey any more; there is no state power that is distinct from the governing body and that would be capable of balancing it.

>> What are AKP’s governing principles?

All political movements, especially if they come to power through elections, aim first and foremost to win elections. AKP had done a few things to win elections, the most famous example is free distribution of coal to electors in poor neighborhoods. Another example is to keep close to the hegemonic ideology, to the world-views accepted by the majority of the population. There is an interesting point here: In AKP’s fundamentalist identity, the emphasis changes according to the hegemonic discourse. For example, sometimes they are closer to Turkish-Islamic synthesis, and sometimes their religious side outweighs their Turkish nationalism.

Beyond these daily concerns, there are also some factors arising from its class character. AKP, as opposed to Erbakan’s National Vision movement, is in full harmony with imperialism. For the West, Erbakan has been a little “scary”, whereas Tayyip Erdoğan and AKP emerged with a ready-to-serve Islamist identity that the US was looking for. This was not emphasized enough, but think about it: Barack Obama was elected as the president of the United States, and in his first three months made one of his first visits to Turkey (6-7 April 2009). This is very important. Before him came Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, and a huge publicity campaign was launched. Obama arrived flamboyantly, and made a speech in the parliament. He did all these, addressing an Islamist movement. As opposed all previous Islamist movements, AKP came to power in full accordance with the US imperialism. Thus, at that stage, there was a strong harmony with global bourgeoisie. In time, secondary groups within the national bourgeoisie, called “Anatolian Tigers”, grew fatter and formed special relationships with AKP. These are not capable of challenging the big bourgeoisie. It is also not true that they are of a more “nationalist” tendency. They have a global vision as their bigger counterparts, yet they survive only with the leftovers. They are also not as serious as big bourgeoisie, as they never plan for their long term interests. Anatolian Tigers coalesced with AKP in a clientelist relationship, where Anatolian Tigers provide financing for AKP and AKP in turn provides the political support for them. This engine is working well so far, but it is also forcing democratic mechanisms.

>> Can we say that there has been a continuity from the military regime following the 12 September 1980 military coup until AKP’s government?

No doubt on that! But let’s not wrongly accuse AKP here; September 12th is a coup of the bourgeoisie as a whole, not only a faction of it. September 12th fascism is a result of the great fear of the ruling classes. What was that great fear? The mass demonstrations in Taksim starting from 1976, hundreds of thousands of people marching, banners of Marx, Engels and Lenin… And even before that, June 15-16, 1970, the magnificent rise of the working class. As the petty bourgeoisie in Ecevit’s circles opened up to a new and populist discourse, a leftist movement that is powerful enough to force the law have merged with the left and facilitated a progressive acceleration across Turkey, starting from 1973 elections. In 1977 elections, Ecevit got better results than SYRIZA and yet missed the chance of coming to power by himself. However, Ecevit made a huge mistake after these elections: as he could not form a single-party government, he gave ministry seats to 11 deputies he pulled off from the right-wing AP (Adalet Partisi – Justice Party) in order to form the government on January 1978. Ecevit, having the support of grassroots movement, startled the capitalists so much that his government faced the most extensive smear campaign ever in Turkish history.  Those who haven’t lived those times would not know. The business association TÜSIAD’s anti-government ads were all over the newspapers. The capitalist class made deals with their international partners as well, and the credits were cut immediately. Hence, the Ecevit government was drawn into an incredible crisis. This, was an indicator of the fear that was felt towards the emergence of a mass left movement after the second half of 1970s.

>> There are ongoing discussions about Islamism today. Until a few years ago, there was a claim that it would be possible to oppose to the system and disregard the Islamist and reactionary character of the government. Some circles in the Left still defend this position in the name of Marxism. Do you think it is possible to struggle against the system without addressing the identity of the government?

That is simply impossible. The success of the former depends on the consideration of the latter. In order to struggle against capitalism, one has to struggle against AKP. These two cannot be separated. It is wrong to say: “As long as there is capitalism it doesn’t matter if it is AKP or some other party in power.” There is no doubt that, a social democratic government sympathetic to the interests of the laborers is different from a government that is in pure pursuit of profit and rent before everything else. Similarly, a secular government that values the legacy of Enlightenment is very different from an Islamist government. It is utterly wrong to say: “All roads lead to Rome.”

However, I also want to state the following. Those who say “One must oppose to capitalism” feel something, and they have a point. The world is going through a tremendous process of change: We have come to the end of capitalism that lasted almost 500 years now. Objectively speaking, capitalism ran out of breath; there is no way to maintain this system. It is no longer possible to spin the wheel in the pursuit of profit. At the productivity levels that the forces of production have reached today, it is feasible to cover the basic needs of 7 billion people without compulsory employment and wage labour. It would be enough, only if volunteers, a few million people in the world, say “I want to work.” Labor productivity has increased do much that the age of creating surplus value by extracting labour power with the urge for profits for the improvement of forces of production is basically over.

Marx states this in Grundrisse: There is going to be en enormous progress due to use of science in production, he says, after that point, creating surplus by exploiting the worker will be meaningless. Then capitalism will lose it objective foundation.

It really has lost its foundation; we came to the end of capitalism. But surely the system of exploitation will not fall down on its own. If humanity does not meet the necessity of bringing it down, barbarism and fascist regimes will be very common.

>> How do you interpret the alliance between Islamism and capitalism?

Neoliberalism is a system based on profit. I would like to cite a sentence from Lenin: “If there were just two capitalists left on the earth, one would sell the rope to hang the other.” A system based on profit doesn’t see anything else. If there is a chance to feather its nest, it would ally with anyone. Hence, while the US defends secularism inside the US, they don’t stay away from alliances with fundamentalist groups worldwide. Taliban was created by the US – and through a very poor reasoning, in the pretext of the Soviet Union occupation in Afghanistan. (They did, but the Soviet government was sending the girls to school.) They fed all the fundamentalist forces, paving the way for the eventual creation of ISIS. Thus, liberalism doesn’t have principles, or rather, if it has, then it is just money. Likewise, they encouraged “moderate Islam”. Islamism is not a current of thought like neoliberalism. Like any other ideological movement, Islamists use everything else as an instrument of their ideology. The aim of Islamism is to establish a worldwide Islamist regime. It allies with anyone in order to reach this aim.

>> The ballot box constitutes a crucial fetish in the AKP’s general political understanding. How do you consider this issue of the “national will;” do you think that the one who wins the election gets to do all he wants?

This is completely against historical realities. For instance, the first general elections were held, only among men, in France following the 1848 revolution. What was the reason behind the introduction of a general voting system? It was to flood the Parisian proletariat by millions of votes of the villagers. That is why the Parisian proletariat marched to the assembly to halt the introduction of a general election. And they were right to do so. It was right after this, that the presidential system (a nod to Tayyip Erdoğan here), which had been approved by the constituent assembly, became an empire for the first time in Europe thanks to general elections. It is as clear as can be: Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III), who was president in the presidential system, “democratically” asked the people: “My dear brothers, would you want to see me as emperor?” They responded, “Of course, by all means” and Napoleon became the emperor. Hitler took power as the leader of the most voted party. Therefore, general elections fetishism goes against historical facts. The discourse that “National will has no bounds“ is not a democratic discourse. There are counter-examples to this too. For instance, in contrast to France, the way that the working class in Britain attained voting rights was completely dependent on the proletariat. But, generally speaking, the statement that “The voice of the people is the voice of justice“ is utterly alien to historical facts.

I would like to give two historical examples from our own history. The first is the September 12th constitution, for which I cannot find appropriate adjectives. I really don’t know how to qualify it. For, I’m a constitution expert, and throughout history, constitutions were written in order to limit the power of the state. And yet, at the very beginning of the September 12th constitution is written “The Sacred Turkish State“! I cannot find the right words to describe such a phenomenon! This “constitution“ got the votes of 91% of my beloved compatriots. And there was yet another scandal. A referendum was held in 1987 to decide whether to give back the former politicians their political rights! How is such a thing possible? In plain language, the state established “people’s courts”! Demirel and Ecevit could barely regain their rights. How is this democratic? If 50 thousand votes had gone the other way, people would have been stripped off their rights without any due process. This was a process that was entirely outside of the law. And people’s votes were used to justify it.

“National will” should not be fetishized this way. ”National will” is like the will of god. As it is impossible to ask what god thinks, there is no way of knowing what people think. The reality of the situation is that the “national will” is merely the expression of the people who wish to vote in a certain election at a specific time, depending on their attitude on that specific day, according to their thoughts that day. Interpreting such an outcome as if it is the will of god is against both theory and historical practice. If I were to come up with the idea that the elections shall be held every 25 years from now on, and if the people were to accept it through their vote, what would that make? A democracy? Things do not become democratic just because people accepted them.

The foremost prerequisite for democracy is human rights. Let us assume that we have held a referendum to determine whether or not to bring back death penalty, and thereafter that we have held another referendum asking whether such and such person should be hanged. Let us assume that the majority said “Hang them!” Do we then say “What can we do, this is what the people have asked for”? I cannot accept such an understanding of democracy. The same way we do not have to accept everything that Tayyip Erdogan wants simply because the people have elected him…

>> Politicization of jurisdiction has always been a hot topic in Turkey. And AKP’s influence over jurisprudence is beyond doubt. Do you think it is possible for jurisdiction and politics to function separately?

An oft-quoted but on-point saying goes like this: you salt the meat to keep it from smelling, but what can one do to keep salt from smelling? In Turkey salt has started smelling. I have been a professor for 44 years, I have taught constitutional law, and I have relentlessly advocated for independent judiciary and for the impunity of the judges. But they have brought the country to such a state that in people’s eyes, advocating for independent judges does not comply with democracy anymore. The processes that are called cases within the judicial framework are not real cases; these cases, which have nothing to do with rights, justice, or the law, are —to use their own terminology— “conspiracies.” Marx has a superb criticism against the decision to give impunity to the judges of the 1848 republic; he says, “Congratulations for giving impunity to all of Louis-Phillippe’s inquisition judges.” Meaning that principles are things that apply only under usual circumstances. But the circumstances are no longer usual in Turkey. And yet, justice is, indeed, the basis of the state. Justice has collapsed, and hence we should be afraid for the collapse to the state.

>> There are ongoing discussions on introducing a presidential system in Turkey. AKP is defending that the presidential system is what Turkey needs. All remaining parties argue that a possible presidential rule will only bring dictatorship. What is your opinion on this?

First I would like to give some theoretical background on this: What AKP actually wants is not a presidential system, it is a semi-presidential system. It is a model invented by the French. How is it different from full presidential system? There is a Prime Minister; this does not exist in full presidential systems. This “semi” description in theory is in fact misleading. Because this political regime called semi-presidential is more presidentialist than the full presidential system itself. It is more of a “one-man” regime. In the United States, there are great legal and political restrictions on the powers of the president. There is a strong mechanism of checks and balances. Moreover, the federalist structure of the US ensures that the central government cannot intervene with most matters of the national states. So, first restriction is federalism. Second is the absence of presidential powers against legislation. The president cannot interfere with the choices or decisions of the Congress. Simply put, the president cannot even send a draft law to the Congress. The president does not have an authority as such. The government cannot interfere with the Congress, it has a veto power, but not the power to draft a law. Thus, the legislation in the US is quite strong compared to the executive. Moreover, the judiciary is also very strong compared to the executive government. The US Attorney General has the authority to start a prosecution against his own country’s president. Remember that Bill Clinton’s prosecution was started this way, and the judicial process later on was carried on until the very end. Hence, the judiciary is very powerful.

In every other presidential system except US (Latin America i.e.), the president is powerful, because there is no democracy that has functioning checks and balances. Semi-presidential regimes, where there are no checks and balances against the president, are the regimes in which the president is more powerful and influential in executive. In these regimes, you find a Prime Minister who can be held accountable, but the real authority is in the hands of the president. Then who is going to be responsible against the parliament? The responsibility and thus the accountability will be on the Prime Minister, but the real powers will be executed by the President. So the President is able to rule without being held accountable.

>>The textbook definition of the presidential system does not apply when it comes to reality then, right?

It certainly does not. But it applies to certain examples of semi-presidential system. What Putin has in Russia is also semi-presidential, what AKP wants is very similar to that of Putin’s. It is not like the rest of the semi-presidential systems – like the one in France, where you have democratic values.

Now let me tell you something. AKP is supposed to be Ottomanist, but only very selectively, you see? For example, the regime that AKP wants for Turkey today is the exact opposite of what Ottomans wanted to establish during II Constitutional Period in terms of the limitations on and the character of the executive… II Constitutional Period arrived after 30 years of Abdülhamit’s despotism and it simply meant that the powers of the Sultan was transferred to the parliament. That’s how the parliamentary system was introduced in Turkey. What does it mean to have a strong parliament? It means that the executive is held accountable by the legislative. In 1909, before any constitutional changes were made, the parliament overthrew the Kamil Paşa government. Why? Because the political power is now in the parliament. What AKP is doing is to weaken the parliament and do the exact opposite of the II Constitutional Period. If the country adopts the presidential system that AKP wants, the accountability of the executive, that was brought during II Constitutional Period, will be erased as a whole. A historical period will come to an end. A practice which is older than a century will be gone. The executive power will belong to the President. Who will the President answer to? Not to the parliament, nor to judiciary…

>> How is it going to be different than dictatorship then?

Unfortunately, it won’t be much different.. Sad but true…

>> Given its democratic tradition, which one is the system most suitable to Turkey?

In terms of constitutions, Turkey wasn’t born yesterday. Since the first constitutional movement in 1839, 177 years have passed. The first constitution was declared in 1876, and 140 years have passed since then. For instance, when the parliament assembled in 1877, there was no such thing in Russia, which was considered one of the great powers. Turkey has a strong history of constitutions. When the 1961 constitution was established, it was one of the distinguished constitutions in the world. Not only regionally, it was one of the most libertarian constitutions worldwide. And I am saying this, having read all the constitutions in the world as part my profession.

The reason I am emphasising on these is as follows: Turkey has a certain constitutional tradition. The  II Constitutional Period plays a particularly important role in that tradition. For, the  II Constitutional Period is the democratic revolution of Turkey. The bourgeois democratic revolution started with the  II Constitutional Period, continued throughout Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s period, and ended on 27 May 1960 (and the 1961 constitution). And identifying the  II Constitutional Period as such is not my original idea, it was actually Lenin who said this. What did the democratic revolution do? It gave the political power to the parliament. This is the tradition. Giving the political power to the parliament means having a parliamentary system. It means holding the executive government accountable in front of the parliament.

It is clear that Turkey is now going backwards. Turkey can form a democratic representative state mechanism only if it follows its own historical path. The 2007 referendum was completely against this direction. The introduction of the election of the president through public vote, as opposed to how it sounds at first sight, it is the one of the biggest steps against democracy. By this change, Turkey went off track from its political tradition. This is important. In democracies, he who is nearer to public representation has the political power. If you introduce direct public vote for executive roles, then you cannot limits their power. There is a lot of misunderstanding on this, people say it should be elected by the public but their power should also be highly limited. This cannot be. The problem is not giving authority to someone elected by the people, the problem is to make the people elect a president. Because by doing that you take away the superiority of the parliament, you are setting up a “one man” sovereignty. Particularly in a society like ours that values leadership under all circumstances, it is wrong to put a single person answer to the public. This is also the exact opposite of the US presidential system. The US is a country of grassroots democracy. It is the country where semi-direct democracy is widely implemented. Besides primary elections, there are tools such as recalling elected officials, holding a referendum on laws that passes, holding a referendum on a draft law, which give access to direct public participation in politics. The “My people and I” mentality does not exist in the US. This mentality exists in France, in semi-presidential systems, in Latin America. And we would become experts on this, for sure.

The collapse is going on today. For a democratic restructuring, Turkey must go back to its own track. Obviously, it requires very strong reforms too. For instance, with a 10 per cent electoral threshold, one can never get any democracy.

There are many things to be done, and they are quite urgent too. The Turkish state is losing its legitimacy and giving way to a political dissolution.

>> It seems that the de facto dictatorship of today will now become an institutional dictatorship. How would you explain the difference between these two? 

Today, even laws are not enforced. If we look at courts, at recent trials, we see unbelievable things happen. One example was with the 17 December 2013 corruption scandals and the investigations that followed. The public prosecutor receives a court order from a judge, then orders the police to execute it; but then the police officer is dismissed, another one comes, but the court decision is also tossed out. These are practices against the existing laws. This lawless attitude got normalized in the last years, and this is what a dictatorship is. And now it’s even worse. As in the case of Hitler, a dictatorship is on its way through a legal path. This would be legal, but not legitimate. The conditions of legitimacy for legality have been abolished by the practices of the government. They killed our kids in Gezi, but there is no way of bringing them to account for it. We are in such a state now that the rulers could declare “We are not in the month of February, it’s actually August now.” They are denying even the most obvious, visible facts. In the corruption scandal, everyone heard the phone call recordings, everyone saw the shoe boxes filled with money, everyone saw the money counters in the houses of the sons of ministers. But it went unnoticed, somehow.

 >> Can the system continue like this?

The system cannot continue like this, but once also cannot guess when, where and how it will explode. For years we said “After the 12 September 1980 military coup, social movements died away.” Then what happened? In May 2013, in the Gezi resistance, an incredible life energy spread unexpectedly. There is no recipe for deciding what kind of change will happen when.  

[This interview translated by Sinan Eden, Ceren Deniz, Zeynep Oğuz, Nihal Kalender, İpek Burçak from the Turkish original at BirGün on 12.02.2015]