The Constitutional Referendum and New Dynamics of Turkish Politics
The Constitutional Referendum and New Dynamics of Turkish Politics
by Ibrahim Kalin
On September 12, 2010, exactly thirty years after the 1980 military coup, Turkish voters went to the polls to vote on the largest constitutional amendment since the current constitution was adopted in 1982.
The 26-article amendment package, passed in the Turkish Grand Assembly and approved by President Gul, introduces a number of progressive changes into the Turkish political and judicial system. The 58 per cent ‘yes vote’ is a victory for the process of democratisation in Turkey. But it also confirms a deeper political battle raging beyond the referendum, a battle taking place between the reformists and the defenders of the status quo.
The amendments seek to cure the many deficits of the current constitution drafted by the army generals who carried out the 1980 military coup. They aim at expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, bringing the standards of Turkish democracy closer to that of the European Union (EU) in which Turkey is seeking full membership. The new changes include, among others, the establishment of ombudspersons, ensuring positive discrimination for children, women and the handicapped, and collective bargaining for public workers.
What is in the amendments?
The abolishment of Article 15 in the current constitution opens the way for the trial of army generals who were directly responsible for the 1980 military coup, consequently sending a clear signal to those who may engage in future coup attempts.
This is a significant step for Turkey to confront some of the darkest moments of its recent history, particularly the 1980 military coup, an event that led to the arbitrary use of power by the military, suspension of democracy and extra-judicial killings most of which continue to be unaccounted for. The vast majority of Turkish people are against any and all forms of military coup and intervention and the referendum results confirm this.
The most hotly debated changes in the current referendum pertain to the structure of the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the two key institutions of the Turkish judicial system.
Under the proposed changes, the Constitutional Court will have 17 members instead of its current 11 members, and the Turkish Grand Assembly will be able to choose three members to the Court from among the candidates proposed by the independent bar associations. All first-grade judges will be able to vote to elect members of the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors.
On these two issues, the opposition claims a government takeover of the judiciary. But this is not the case. The executive branch will not appoint members of the judiciary on its own but select from among candidates proposed by judicial branches and independent bar associations. This is more or less the same practise one finds in most European countries.
The opposition’s concern lies somewhere else, and it is their fear that the Turkish judiciary and high courts will no longer to be the vanguards of militant secularism. But Turkey needs not a militant secularist judiciary whose illiberal record is well known but a judicial system that will uphold the universal principles of democracy, human rights and civil liberties.
The political landscape
The changes are supported by a wide range of political actors and NGO groups including the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), displaying various political and ideological positions from the religious-conservative and nationalist to the centre and left-liberal.
The ‘no block’, while led by the main opposition secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP), is also varied as it includes the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the second opposition party in the Turkish Parliament. The critics reject the amendments as a plot by the ruling AK Party to consolidate its power over the judiciary, considered as the bastion of Turkish secularism.
All these facts reveal the deep fault lines of Turkish politics. Politically speaking, the ‘yes vote’ is a victory for the ruling AK Party and consolidates its electoral base. Faced with the fierce opposition of nationalist and secularist parties, AK Party will increase its self-confidence in electoral politics and continue to carry out political reforms.
This victory will also set the tone for the time between now and the general elections in the summer of 2011. The unintended consequence of this referendum has been to give a vote of confidence to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government which, by the way, did not intend to turn this referendum into political contest with the opposition parties.
The most important challenge for AK Party after this victory, however, is to manage the growing divide between the reformists and groups who cling to the status quo. Not unlike the anti-Obama attitude of the tea party goers in the US, the anti-AK Party segments of Turkish society feel an existential threat in AK Party’s growing electoral base and reformist policies. Many of those feelings are misplaced and reflect the petty realities of party politics.
However the debate about the future course of Turkey is real and will shape the dynamics of Turkish politics in the years to come. In his speech on the evening of the referendum, PM Erdogan reached out to those who voted no and promised to work together with everyone to build a stronger Turkey. He repeated the same call for drafting a new constitution.
The opposition response
The opposition parties will refuse to see the referendum results as a defeat. They may in fact be happy with the strength of their base despite losing to ‘yes votes’. In his short statement, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of People’s Republican Party, expressed his satisfaction with the 42 % ‘no vote’. But the fact is that he has been handed his second defeat after his bid to be mayor of Istanbul in last year’s municipal elections. It remains to be seen if CHP cadres will move on with him or seek a new leader for the 2011 elections.
A similar dilemma is awaiting Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party. Bahceli had the hardest time explaining his ‘no position’ to his constituency, a political community that has lived the hardships of the 1980 military coup and the uneven structure of the judiciary.
The pre-referendum polls suggested that about thirty percent of those who identify themselves as nationalist under the Nationalist Action Party would vote yes, a prediction which the referendum results confirmed. In his referendum statement, Bahceli rejected the referendum results as a step that will “bring Turkey into darkness”.
This attitude is likely to create a further gap between Bahceli’s leadership and the nationalist base because the Nationalist Action Party constituency sees itself psychologically and politically much closer to AK Party than the secularist Republican Party.
The opposition parties’ all-or-nothing style of opposition contributes to the ideological divide and makes it next to impossible to seek nation-wide consensus on Turkey’s key issues, a daunting task at which both the government and the opposition have largely failed so far. Such issues as writing a new constitution, the political reforms needed for Turkey’s EU membership, and the Kurdish issue all call for a broad-based consensus space in Turkish politics.
Paving the way
The referendum has now paved the way for a new constitution, and the PM Erdogan seems determined to push it through in the months to come. He has already called this referendum “a key to open the door for a new constitution”. Now that the referendum has passed with a considerable majority, Turkey can move into the next stage of preparing a new constitution.
Needless to say, this is a major task and will require the political wisdom and leadership of all actors. Consensus building has never been easy in Turkey. However this is what the country needs to address its urgent problems.
Dr Ibrahim Kalin currently serves as Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister of Turkey and is a fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University in Washington DC. He is the author of Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy: Mulla Sadra on Existence, Intellect and Intuition (Oxford University Press, 2010) and editor together with John Esposito of Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press; forthcoming).