Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 219

On November 25, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will make public the details of a new Turkish constitution on December 15 (Hurriyet, Milliyet, Sabah, Vatan, Radikal, November 26).

Erdogan’s statement came on the last day of a three-day AKP retreat at Kizilcahamam, just outside Ankara, attended by all of the AKP’s parliamentary deputies and high-ranking party officials together with their spouses. Privately, AKP MPs described the retreat as an opportunity to try to rediscover the drive and energy that characterized the party in the three years after it first came to power in November 2002.

Despite its landslide victory in the general election of July 22 (see EDM, July 23), in recent years the AKP seems to have lost both momentum and direction, becoming reactive rather than proactive. Not only have Turkey’s EU accession negotiations stalled – not least over the two sides’ failure to resolve the Cyprus problem — but the domestic reform process has also ground to a halt.

In September, the AKP tried to build on its election triumph and recapture its reformist vigor by formulating a new draft constitution. But the attempt collapsed in a public relations fiasco, as party officials repeatedly insisted that the new constitution would be an AKP creation but would be by and for the Turkish people, only to refuse to release details of the draft (see EDM, September 4). Then, in response to the furious reaction from Turkish secularists when the draft was finally leaked to the media, the party declared that the final decision on the wording of the new constitution would be left up to Erdogan.

One of the most controversial changes proposed in the leaked draft was to provide a constitutional guarantee that the manner in which people dressed would not prevent them from receiving an education. In practice, this would lead to the lifting of the current ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarf in universities, which effectively prevents pious women from receiving a higher education. Although opinion polls suggest that the majority of the Turkish public would not oppose the lifting of the headscarf ban, for hard-line Turkish secularists it would be regarded as a violation of the constitutional principle of secularism.

The draft constitution leaked in September also included proposals to reduce the Turkish military’s representation on the country’s National Security Council (NSC) by removing the commander of the Gendarmerie, while making all decision of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) eligible for appeal in a civilian court. The Turkish General Staff has frequently accused Islamist groups of trying to infiltrate the officer corps and has used the SMC to purge its ranks of suspected activists, and it has vigorously opposed any amendments that could lead to them being reinstated. On October 1, Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit publicly warned the AKP that the military would not tolerate the weakening of any of the provisions in the current constitution protecting secularism (see EDM, October 2).

In his address at Kizilcahamam, Erdogan repeated that the new constitution would not be an AKP creation and that the party would listen to as broad a range of opinion as possible. However, he also asserted the AKP’s right to draw up a new constitution.

“They tell us we can’t do it,” he said. “But if we can’t do it, then who can? Why shouldn’t an administration to whom the people have given 65% of the seats in parliament do it?” (Hurriyet, November 26)

But Erdogan did not provide any details of how those outside the AKP would be able to make any contribution to the drafting process. When it was preparing the previous draft, the AKP consulted with a handful of carefully selected professors of constitutional law but failed to contact many others, particularly those known to oppose the AKP. Nor did the AKP consult with either the Turkish Bar Association or Turkey’s growing NGO community (see EDM, September 13).

Privately, some AKP MPs admit that they were shocked by the strength of the reaction to the party’s previous attempt to draw up a new constitution and would favor a more comprehensive public debate, including consultations with a broad cross section of society, before formulating the next draft. However, it remains unclear whether their views are shared by the party leadership, particularly Erdogan himself.

However, today (November 27) the AKP was spared potential embarrassment from a previous attempt to amend the existing constitution. In a referendum held on October 21, the Turkish people overwhelmingly approved a package of constitutional amendments, including reducing the maximum parliamentary term from five years to four and introducing a popular vote for the presidency. The AKP controversially changed the wording of the referendum after voting had already started at ports and airports in an attempt to prevent the clause on a popular vote for the presidency from being applied to the incumbent, Abdullah Gul, the former AKP foreign minister who only assumed office at the end of August (see EDM, October 4). Today the Turkish Constitutional Court announced that it had rejected an application from the parliamentary opposition to have the results of the referendum annulled on the grounds that the electorate ended up voting for two different texts. As a result, barring a change in the draft new constitution that will be announced next month, the next Turkish general election will now have to be held by July 2011, while Turkey’s first ever direct presidential election will be held in August 2012 (Anadolu Ajans, November 27).