What ‘Vegetarian Lions’ Say About Erdogan’s Plans for Turkey


“No one has the right to turn Turkey into a country of lions condemned to a vegetarian diet.”

Confused? In President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s usage, a lion subsisting on salad is like a country running old software even though it's got strong hardware.


Vegetarian lions and out-of-date software are the same as a shirt that’s too tight, to use another of Erdogan’s recent phrases. These colorful metaphors all boil down to one thing - that thing being the president’s determination to move Turkey away from the parliamentary system that he says has outlived its usefulness.

Since at least his election to the post in August 2014, Erdogan has been seeking to shift Turkey’s center of power to the presidency instead of parliament, expanding the scope of his powers in what had previously been more of a ceremonial role.

That’s why Capital Economics’ Emerging Market Economist William Jackson places the president’s latest turns of phrase on a continuum with other expressions of his might, like the act of edging out his prime minister that sent markets tumbling last week. The lion quip is an attempt to seize the momentum after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s ouster and put constitutional reform back on the agenda.

In an interview with Bloomberg, former presidential adviser Burhan Kuzu revealed that behind the scenes plans for political reform are in full swing. Turkey's ruling party may push for a "mini constitutional change package" that allows Erdogan to assume leadership of the ruling AKP in a transitional step on the way to an enhanced presidential system, he said yesterday.

The head of state is presently supposed to be non-partisan, so Erdogan had renounced ties with the party he founded when he was elected to the presidency almost two years ago.

In the wake of Prime Minister Davutoglu's departure, the AKP plans to select its new chairman at an extraordinary congress to be held later this month. Given Erdogan's ambitions, the new chairman may not stay long in that seat, said Kuzu, who's been working for many years on redrafting the country's old constitution.

However it’s expressed, the bottom line is that it’s only through the shift to a presidential system that Turkey can soar, according to Erdogan. A “two-headed system of government” is rife with inefficiencies, he’s said when addressing the subject more directly.

The lion comment, made in a speech on Tuesday, echoes sentiments expressed in happier times by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Until he announced he’d resign last week in a decision that, in his valedictory press conference, he said wasn’t his own, he sometimes appeared to be lobbying for his own irrelevance by campaigning for a change to the constitution that would curb his own powers.

Still, on at least one occasion Davutoglu seemed to attribute the party’s loss in the first set of general elections to Erdogan’s bid for a stronger presidency. The Turkish people wanted change but not away from the parliamentary system, former history professor Davutoglu said after the first, inconclusive general election, in June 2015. That was one of the first signs of disagreement with the man he had been hand-picked to succeed.

Before Kuzu's comments it seemed that to formally expand Erdogan's powers, the AK Party would need either to pass the revised constitution with a popular referendum or get it through parliament with a two-thirds majority - something it doesn’t have on its own.

While the process for getting there remains unclear, President Erdogan is certain about the nature of the system he's proposing. For that, the master rhetorician has another metaphor:

“The Turkish presidential system won’t be the same as that of the U.S. - nor will it have anything in common with the dictatorships of Africa,” he told naysayers last April.

“It'll be unique to Turkey. Think of a bee going from flower to flower and creating a unique blend of Turkish honey.”

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