Turkey Election: Executive v Legislative in Historical Context

Easter in the Christian tradition is associated with redemption and renewal. Perhaps it was only chance that the Turkish election on presidential powers, held over the weekend, coincided with the most important feast in the Christian calendar. Given that Christians make up only a miniscule percentage of Turkey’s population, it was likely just fortuitous. Yet people with their eye on Turkey would see themes of redemption and renewal manifested in the election. The plebiscite has been seen in many quarters as resurrecting the spirit of the Ottomans, where a Sultan with absolute power held sway over an area which at one stage rivalled geographic areas controlled by other great Empires of history.

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Aside from either fears or hopes – depending what side of the fence you are on – of a recharged Turkish nation, the election also renewed a centuries old debate within the Western tradition concerning governance. The plebiscite can thus be placed within the context of broader European history (Turkey one of those countries like Japan or Russia which has been part of Europe ‘spiritually’ if not geographically). President Erdogan fought the election on the basis that the Turkish executive was hampered. This view was no doubt copper-fastened by the recent coup attempt by the Turkish army. In strengthening the power of the executive, Ergodan – like an increasing number of politicians in the West – took firm aim at the idea of separation of powers and, in particular, that of a popular legislature holding either a cabinet or presidential figure to account. The plebiscite has also become an event in the wider debate where the executive has faced off against the legislature.

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Beginnings of the conflict can be traced back to the Reformation and can especially be attributed to the Calvinist/Puritan strain within Protestantism (Luther and his acolytes were no enemies of a powerful executive). Those intellectual movements emanating from the Calvinist tradition like the Monarchomachs were adamant that there should either be no kings or very constitutionally constrained kings, which – in an era of absolutism – essentially amounted to the same thing. Initially, the popular will was held to be the best restraint on executive prerogative. The English Civil War, which ended in the tyranny of Cromwell, was a perfect paradigm of the conflict between the executive and a popular legislature, as well as highlighting the difficulty with simply replacing executive tyranny with a parliamentary one.

We then move into the Enlightenment. Skepticism towards populism remains, although not in the writings of those like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What comes to the fore is the idea of the separation of powers. Government can be decomposed into three arms according to philosophers like Montesquieu; the executive, legislative, and judicial (a follower of Hegel might add the administrative) arms. Given that Europe had emerged from a period where the executive, i.e. the absolute monarchist tradition, had reached its pinnacle, it was obvious that the balancing of powers by legal means would be emphasized. The US constitution – framed in a country basically founded by the Puritan spirit – was a stellar example of the primacy given to the legislative and judicial arms.

The story did not stop there, however, With the increasing centralization of nation-states, and advanced technological leaps, the executive arm has begun the process of clawing back its former primacy. War, civil strife, and economic emergencies, have all required an energetic executive, in the last two centuries, even in liberal-democracies. America, which once embodied the rule of law ethic of John Locke and Montesquieu, has seen the presidency accrete more and more power. This reached an apogee with Richard Nixon, but the election of Donald Trump is also coloured by a fear of executive prerogative.

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Back to the plebiscite. Turkey seemed to be a country with its heart set on extinguishing the absolutist spirit of the Ottomans or even that of Ataturk. Instead, a slight margin has decided in favour of strengtheing presidential powers. Hence, the outcome of the plebiscite has disappointed many of those inside and outside Turkey who wished to see executive prerogative become a thing of the past. These desires are part of a centuries-long European tradition which has fought the counter-vailing tendency of personal and arbitrary power. Since Turkey is one of the most powerful Muslim-majority countries in the world, the election is likely to halt any shift in that vast region of the world towards legislative supremacy and the position of Turkey as a global player in the non-Muslim world will likely spread unease about executive prerogative in the non-Muslim world.

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