12 September in Turkey is a very symbolic date. 30 years ago on this date the third military coup in the history of the republic was announced. Political parties and NGOs were banned, hundreds of thousand of persons arrested, thousands tortured. And this time the coup left a heavy legacy when the generals in 1982 returned to the barracks, a constitution designed by them, authoritarian, restrictive, undemocratic.
Since then a third of the constitution has been already changed, but the authoritarian character is still visible in many aspects. The AKP government in power since 2002 with an absolute majority opted for step by step reforms instead of a completely new constitution. This also because of massive opposition by nationalist parties, but also by the bureaucracy, judiciary and the Armed Forces.
The biggest step so far was a reform of 23 constitutional articles, which the government presented in parliament in May 2010. 22 of these articles received the necessary 3/5 majority, but failed to get a 2/3 majority, therefore according to the Turkish constitution they become valid only after approval by a referendum. And this referendum took place on exactly 12 September. More symbolism was hardly possible and the result was clear. A majority of 58 percent accepted them.
This also meant that from May to September politics was occupied with a proxy election campaign, which was for the most part irrational and content-free. Both supporters and opponents exaggerated the scope of the changes, the government sold them as the big step catapulting Turkey into the 21st century aligning the constitution with EU-standards. And the Kemalist opposition (CHP) pointed to the fact that unemployment and economic growth are not affected or even that it doesn’t tackle the problem of the apricot planters in Malatya and the neo-nationalist opposition (MHP) said this would pave the way for dividing up Turkey and giving in to terrorists. Both argumentations have little to do with the actual changes, which are far more modest.
The most vigorously debated articles to be changed were concerning the composition and election of the constitutional court. The court will increase from 11 to 17 members, of which three will be elected by parliament and 14 appointed by the president. This exemplary shows the art of the changes. A small step, but also a coward one if it concerns serious issues. In a previously prepared new draft of the constitution, it was foreseen that all members would be elected by parliament. However, after criticism by the opposition that the government was trying to get the judiciary under its direct control, the AKP changed this reform to something not much more than cosmetic. Even this change has not prevented the opposition to insist that the government will get the judiciary under its control.
Some of the other changed articles sound nice, but will have little direct influence such as the positive discrimination for women and children to secure equality. Other changes are more concrete, but also politically much less controversial concerning union rights or the introduction of an ombudsman system. And there are two aspects affecting civil-military relations, one concerning the military court system, which will be restructured and in its scope limited and secondly concerning the legal prosecution of the generals responsible for the 1980 coup. The referendum annulled “temporary article 15” (after being 28 years temporary), which saved the coup plotters, leading 4-star generals from legal prosecution. On the morning of 13 September, various NGOs, political parties and individuals sued coup general Kenan Evren in various cities in Turkey. Evren is meanwhile 93 years old and therefore it is not clear whether he will really stand trial, but for the many people who were arrested, tortured or lost relatives during the coup time, symbolically this is very important.
Besides these constitutional changes, there seems to be another effect of the referendum. It seems to have boosted political activity and given way to new initiatives by various political players. This is also due to the fact that the main opposition party CHP can live with 42 percent No as a party who not even got 21 percent in the latest elections. And the Kurdish BDP at least had some impact with the call to boycott the voting. They all now see room to manoeuvre.
Right after the referendum an intensive debate started on further constitutional changes and when these should happen. Most activity was around the Kurdish issue. A meeting between the AKP and BDP took place and the BDP presented a list of articles they would have liked to change, e.g. concerning mother tongue education, definition of citizenship, decentralization. These are the most sensitive political issues and therefore it is more than questionable whether the AKP will put these articles on the agenda before the elections, because the opposition would use them for another fear campaign and easy propaganda against them like “AKP gives in to terrorists”. To avoid this, these changes, which are absolutely necessary to transform Turkey into a truly democratic country, could be postponed to after the elections, speculating with another election victory and a clear majority in parliament. However, the debate will not disappear.
But also the CHP is looking for new political manoeuvre. Chairman Kilicdaroglu visited Brussels and Berlin after the referendum, stressing the commitment for EU membership by his party. And even a meeting between him and prime ministers Erdogan took place where Kilicdaroglu proposed a parliamentary commission to first solve the headscarf issue.
And the AKP opened another topic, which comes up from time to time, especially when parties feel strong. The transformation of Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, where current prime minister Erdogan could become the first president of the new system. However, introducing a presidential system without decentralizing Turkey to balance the power, doesn’t seem desirable. And a quick devolution seems highly unlikely.
The discussion on all sorts of constitutional changes and reforms will be intensified in the coming months. However, whether far reaching reforms will be done before the elections scheduled for summer 2011 will depend on the courage and strategy of the AKP, but also how the political climate evolves. If there is a positive dialogue with the BDP, a cease fire of the terrorist PKK, no or few attacks and military clashes, then also sensitive issues could make it into a reform package. But since this process has many opponents both by Turkish and Kurdish extremists, there is always the danger that it will be sabotaged, as it has been so often in the past. However, as the trend of the past years showed, also this would only postpone further constitutional changes, it’s no longer a matter of if, but of when.
Photo: Istanbul Modern di Nico Crisafulli