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The Battle for Turkey’s Constitution

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ISTANBUL – On September 12, Turks will vote on a set of constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for eight years.  Since the vote falls on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 military coup, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is portraying the referendum as an opportunity to reject the military regime’s legacy.

Turkey’s constitution has been amended repeatedly since the coup. But its anti-democratic core remains intact – and, unfortunately, the current proposals do not dramatically alter that.

Most of the previous amendments relied on agreements between governing and opposition parties, and were not put to a popular vote. This time, the AKP acted on its own and was barely able to garner from its own ranks the requisite majority for a referendum. Far from being an occasion for popular condemnation of the coup on its anniversary, the referendum is a mark of the AKP’s failure to gain widespread support for its project.

With another general election due next year, civil-society groups preferred that priority be given to lowering the 10% electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament, thus broadening political participation. The new parliament would then work on constitutional reform.

That, however, was out of the question: the AKP benefited from the rules put in place for the 2002 and 2007 general elections, in both cases converting pluralities of the popular vote into large parliamentary majorities.

In 2007, the AKP government briefly seemed interested in a new constitution, having weathered threats of a military coup just before the elections. A distinguished group of academics was assigned to produce a draft. But, before any public debate could occur, the AKP decided to amend only two articles of the constitution, in order to allow female university students to wear headscarves on campus.

The amendment won parliamentary approval, but was subsequently rejected by the Constitutional Court. Moreover, in a case brought to the Constitutional Court, the AKP’s support for the amendment was used as evidence that the party was violating Turkey’s secular constitution. In the end, the party was found guilty and subjected to a fine. From the AKP’s point of view, the Constitutional Court – and the judiciary in general – had replaced the military as the last bastion of Turkey’s secularist establishment.

The AKP then drafted a set of constitutional amendments that would change the composition of the Constitutional Court and of the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the body that handles the nomination and promotion of judges and prosecutors. Other proposed changes were added for democratic window-dressing. Indeed, the AKP insisted on submitting the entire package to a single “yes/no” vote, despite repeated calls from civil-society groups and opposition parties to allow for votes on each amendment separately.

One new “democratic” amendment would create an ombudsman’s office – long demanded by the European Union – but without a guarantee of autonomy. Likewise, an affirmative-action clause for women is little different from a provision in the current constitution. State employees would be granted the right to engage in collective bargaining, but would have no right to strike. The authority of military courts would be curtailed to some extent.

Most important among such amendments is the repeal of Provisional Article 15, which has provided immunity from prosecution to all actors of the military regime established by the 1980 coup. Whatever symbolic value this may have is overshadowed by the fact that the statute of limitations already precludes any legal action on this issue. Opposition proposals to sharpen this provision were rejected by AKP leaders.

So much for the fig leaf. The key amendments sought by the AKP would increase the number of seats on the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council, but without changing significantly the way appointments to these bodies are made. The president – directly elected since another AKP-initiated amendment was approved by a referendum in 2007 – thus maintains the predominant role, which underscores the AKP’s confidence that it will continue to control the presidency in the years ahead.

But Turkish voters care less about these amendments than about jobs, social security, and the continuing loss of lives in the never-ending war with the PKK Kurdish rebels. The AKP has largely squandered the goodwill that first brought it to power on a wave of voter revulsion at the old political elite’s rampant corruption. It has now created its own elite and shares the same political culture. People will base their votes in the referendum not on the substance of the amendments, but on how they feel about the AKP’s eight years in power.

Nationalist right-wing and statist left-of-center groups are campaigning against the amendments, Islamist-leaning groups support them, and Kurdish groups advocate a referendum boycott, wishing to support neither the secularist establishment nor the current government. Moreover, the socialist and the liberal left are divided over whether some progress is better than none, with opponents arguing that half-hearted changes to the constitution would preclude eventual real reform.

With the campaign dragging on for months, the referendum has thoroughly polarized Turkish politics. Win or lose, that is unlikely to change.

Haldun Gülalp is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Global Studies at Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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