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Turkey's executive presidency in uncharted territory

In this photo taken on June 24, 2018, Turkey's President and ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, greets supporters after casting his ballot in Turkey's elections at a polling station in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

ISTANBUL (AP) -- More than half of Turkey's voters approved President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's bid to a powerful executive presidency, cementing what critics call his "one-man rule," while support for his Islamic-rooted party in parliament dropped. In the uncharted territory of a new governance system, an assembly stripped of most powers will be the only place to check Erdogan's authority.

Days before the election during a televised interview, Erdogan unveiled his revamped state structure, made possible by constitutional changes narrowly approved in a referendum last year. He said the new system would strengthen democracy and the separation of powers, while bringing speed and efficiency to public services.

State-run Anadolu news agency published a visual framework that brought comparisons to a "solar system" with the president at the center. With four arched layers in varying degrees of proximity to the president, the schema charts administrative offices, policy councils and ministries. It's a complete overhaul of the current state structure.

Kadir Has University's Serhat Guvenc says the shift marks an end to Turks' experiment with parliamentary governance after nearly a century and a half. Parliament will have "much-reduced powers," he says. "We don't know how the new system will operate" and argues neither do its designers.

There is a sliver of hope to check Erdogan's power in parliament. University of Graz professor Kerem Oktem says the "hyper executive presidency leaves only very little space for checks and balances" but they exist nevertheless.

Under the new system, Erdogan will need parliamentary approval for his budget, giving the 600-seat assembly some control over government spending. Parliament can also shorten, extend or cancel a state of emergency and presidential decrees passed during emergency rule must be approved within 90 days, or become void. Parliament can also pass legislation annulling a presidential decree on the same issue or call for early elections with 360 votes.

Six short of majority, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has now lost its direct hold on parliament and will have to depend on the small Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. They already entered the elections as an alliance but now MHP, with its 49 lawmakers, is a kingmaker if Erdogan wants to fully control parliament.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli reiterated his support for Erdogan Sunday night, but he is "a fickle character, difficult, very challenging to deal with," says Fadi Hakura of think tank Chatham House's Turkey project. Bahceli now sees himself as Erdogan's "co-equal" and the anti-Western party could hold the AKP hostage by pressing for its nationalist and populist interests that are further to the right than Erdogan's.

Oktem says an organized and dogged opposition would have some room to "carve out a place for itself, as a second place of power" in parliament and make itself heard.

International observers say the election campaign was neither free nor fair but despite all odds against them, Turkey's various opposition parties mounted a significant challenge in the early elections and may continue to do.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, which Erdogan tries to delegitimize as "terrorists," passed an electoral threshold to enter parliament even as nine of its lawmakers and thousands of party members are behind bars. The nascent nationalist Good Party is now an actor in Turkish politics.

The leading opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, did badly with a nearly three point drop in its usual 25 percent support. Oktem calls this a "disgrace" and there are already cracks within the party, pushing party management to resign and renew.

But, Muharrem Ince -- the CHP's nominee for president -- reached beyond its traditional secular base in just a few weeks to be Erdogan's main rival at 30,6 percent. He has called politics "a long haul" and said he's ready to lead but it remains unclear in what capacity.

During his concession speech Monday, Ince said Turkey "fully entered a one-man regime" lacking limits. He described Erdogan's plan as "one man becoming the executive, legislative and judiciary" and called it a threat to the country's "survival."

The country has had a worrying track record on rights with a stifled judiciary since an attempted coup on Erdogan and his government in July 2016. Under a state of emergency still in place, Turkish authorities have arrested more than 50,000 people, including thousands of judges and prosecutors, and sacked some 110,000 civil servants for alleged links to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Erdogan blames for the coup. Hundreds of media and nongovernmental organizations were shuttered and limits to demonstrations imposed.

The crackdown widened to also include opposition lawmakers, journalists, activists and other dissenting voices. The country's prison population swelled with these arrests to more than 230,000, with nearly half of them held in pre-trial detention without any conviction, according to the World Prison Brief database.

When describing the new system, Erdogan said, "This is the Turkey brand.and its patent belongs to us." Following his 15-years at Turkey's helm -- first as prime minister and then president -- he will now be able to institute the changes through presidential decrees and appoint vice presidents, ministers and top bureaucrats.

He will have his hands full with myriad security issues and a looming economic crisis. Turkey expert Oktem says he may have won 52.6 percent of the votes in an uneven playing field but "We will see whether it's possible to respond to those questions adequately if you are effectively a one-person regime."

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