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The Perils of “Turkish Presidentialism”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 May 2018

Berk Esen
Bilkent University
Sebnem Gumuscu
Middlebury College


Turkey has switched to a presidential system via a referendum held in April 2017 that will take full effect after the 2019 presidential elections. Turkish presidentialism increases the prominence of the executive at the expense of the legislative branch and concentrates power in the office of the president. Executive aggrandizement will deepen ideological polarization and electoral mobilization by significantly raising the stakes of the game for both the incumbent and the opposition. As such, we posit that the new presidential system will institutionalize the de facto personalism and majoritarian rule that the AKP has hitherto established in recent years. This trend is likely to trigger a transition from a competitive authoritarian to hegemonic electoral authoritarianism in case of Tayyip Erdoğan's election, thus placing Turkey on par with the strongest executive systems around the globe such as Russia and Venezuela.

Special Focus on Turkey: The Evolution of a Referendum
Copyright © Middle East Studies Association of North America, Inc. 2018 

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1 For literature on the move toward authoritarianism and presidentialism, see: Esen, Berk and Gumuscu, Sebnem, “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9 (February 2016): 15811606CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Somer, Murat, “Understanding Turkey's Democratic Breakdown: Old vs. New and Indigenous vs. Global Authoritarianism,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 4 (November 2016): 481503CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Özbudun, Ergun, “Turkey's Judiciary and the Drift toward Competitive Authoritarianism,” The International Spectator 50, no. 2 (June 2015): 4255CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Öniş, Ziya, “Monopolising the Centre: The AKP and the Uncertain Path of Turkish Democracy,” The International Spectator 50, no. 2 (June 2015): 2241CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5 Esen and Gumuscu, “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism.”

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9 Esen, Berk and Gümüşçü, Şebnem, “A Small Yes for Presidentialism: The Turkish Constitutional Referendum of April 2017,” South European Society and Politics 22, no. 3 (October 2017): 303–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 The Gülen movement (or Hizmet as their members would call it) was established in 1966 with the goal of fighting communism and raising a “golden generation” that would be pious, hardworking, and well educated with a strong sense of solidarity and ‘military-like discipline’ [Yavuz, Hakan M., Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)Google Scholar]. The leader of the movement, Fethullah Gülen, wary of the secular regime's repression, rejected explicit political mobilization and preferred building a network of educational institutions, civil society organizations, media companies, and businesses motivated by Islamic principles. One of the primary, yet less publicized, targets of Fethullah Gülen remained colonization of the state bureaucracy with the members of the “golden generation,” primarily through manipulation of bureaucratic recruitment processes, i.e. centrally administered tests or appointments based on the drawing of lots. The AKP and the Gülen movement formed a political coalition in the aftermath of the 2007 elections with the purpose of counterbalancing the Kemalist bureaucracy in the judiciary and armed forces. As part of this agenda, the allies passed a constitutional referendum in 2010 to redesign the structure of the higher courts and carried out sham trials (Ergenekon and Balyoz) to liquidate Kemalist officers from the military. Soon after this liquidation the former alliance ended in a power struggle that spanned years and took different forms including an attempted coup in July 2016. For details on this alliance and its fallout see Sebnem Gumuscu, “The Clash of Islamists: The Crisis of the Turkish State and Democracy,” Project on Middle East Policial Science Memo (November 2016):

11 “Turkey's Former President Gül Responds to Criticism from AKP over Controversial Decree Law,” Hürriyet Daily News, last modified 29 December 2017,

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14 Linz, “The Perils of Presidentialism.” In Venezuela, a similar cohabitation scenario occurred when the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV) lost the 2015 legislative elections but retained the presidency under a competitive authoritarian regime.

15 Çarkoğlu, Ali, “Ideology or Economic Pragmatism? Profiling Turkish Voters in 2007,” Turkish Studies 9, no. 2 (May 2008): 317–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Building a Competitive Authoritarian Regime: State–Business Relations in the AKP's Turkey,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies (November 2017): 1–24.

16 Mustafa Sönmez, “2018 fraught with uncertainties for Turkish economy,” Al Monitor, last modified 29 December 2017,

17 “Prof. Dr. Daron Acemoğlu: Bir-iki yılda kriz çıkacak,” Cumhuriyet, last modified 25 December 2017,

18 Esen and Gümüşçü, “A Small Yes.”

19 Erdem Aytaç, S., Çarkoğlu, Ali and Yıldırım, Kerem, “Taking Sides: Determinants of Support for a Presidential System in Turkey,” South European Society and Politics 22, no. 1 (January 2017): 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar; IPSOS Turkey, “Anayasa Referandum Sandik Sonrasi Raporu,” last modified April 2017,

20 Linz, “The Perils of Presidentialism.”

21 Theoretically, Erdoğan could also build a coalition with Kurds to win the presidency, however, current regional dynamics, particularly the crisis in Syria, render it unlikely at least in the short-run.

22 Esen and Gümüşçü, “A Small Yes.”