Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is finally expected to announce details of a new Turkish constitution later this month. A provisional draft has been submitted to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his approval prior to it being made public. The current expectation is that, following its publication, the new constitution will be formally promulgated this spring.
The new constitution was originally due to have been announced in fall 2007. However, publication was postponed after copies of the draft leaked to the Turkish press suggested that the new constitution would explicitly guarantee that women wearing Islamic headscarves would be able to attend university (see EDM, September 20, 2007). The Islamic headscarf is currently banned in all state institutions, which affects not only university students and academic staff but also all civil servants and employees in state-controlled institutions such as hospitals and courts of law. For hard-line Turkish secularists the Islamic headscarf is an expression not of personal piety but of a desire to regulate the public space according to the precepts of Islamic law, and thus is an assault on the principle of secularism enshrined in the current Turkish constitution. However, recent opinion polls suggest that nearly 70% of Turkish women cover their heads (see EDM, December 3, 2007), with the figure rising to over 80% among the poorer sections of society who form the AKP’s grassroots support. Under the current laws, none of these women can work in the state sector or attend university unless they remove their headscarves.
In late November 2007, Erdogan announced that a draft constitution would be made public by December 15, 2007 (see EDM, November 27). However, publication was again postponed. The AKP has been heavily criticized for the secrecy with which it has been preparing the new constitution. Last fall 83 leading Turkish NGOs established the Constitutional Platform Initiative (APG) to serve as a platform for a public debate about the possible contents of a new constitution. However, the AKP refuses to include anyone from outside a small coterie of its own experts in the drafting of the constitution (Yeni Asya, January 3, Referans, January 4).
On January 3, the Islamist daily Zaman, which is run by followers of the Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen, who is currently in self-imposed exile in the United States, published details of what it described as the draft of the constitution that will be announced later this month. In recent years, the Gulen movement has established a very close working relationship with the AKP (see EDM, November 21) and actively campaigned for the party in the July 22, 2007, general election.
According to the report in Zaman, the new constitution consists of 137 articles and seven temporary articles. It includes an explicit commitment to the principle of secularism enshrined in the current constitution. However, Article 45 of the draft states that no one can be deprived of a higher education on the grounds of his or her choice of dress. In practice, this would make it unconstitutional to prevent women wearing Islamic headscarves from attending university, although girls could still be banned from covering their heads in primary and secondary schools.
The draft also curtails some of the prerogatives of the Turkish president. Under the current constitution, the president is responsible for appointing all bureaucrats. Under the draft leaked to Zaman, the president would only be responsible for appointing regional governors and ambassadors. The right to appoint all other bureaucrats would be transferred to the government.
Zaman reports that Article 32 of the new constitution would require the courts to provide translators for defendants unable to understand Turkish. In practice, this would breach the current de facto ban on the use of Kurdish in the courtroom, as many poorer members of the Turkey’s Kurdish minority have only a rudimentary grasp of Turkish.
Zaman also claims that Article 66 of the constitution will redefine the notion of Turkishness. The current constitution describes every Turkish citizen as a Turk. Zaman reports that this will be now be revised to read that every Turkish citizen will “be called a Turk regardless of religion or race” (Zaman, January 3).
Such a minor adjustment is unlikely to satisfy those Kurdish nationalists who want to see the new constitution include an explicit reference to their being allowed to express their own identity. The current constitution already includes provisions forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion. But Muslim Turks have long referred to members of the country’s non-Muslim minorities as “Turkish citizens of Greek/Armenian/Jewish origin” rather than simply as “Turks.” There is little prospect that the wording of the new constitution will eradicate this de facto discrimination.
However, once the new constitution is published, the key issue is likely to be whether or not the AKP will retain the provisions in the current draft lifting the headscarf ban in universities. In spring 2007, the fact that Abdullah Gul’s wife wore a headscarf was the main reason for the largest public demonstrations in Turkish history, as hundreds of thousands of secularists took to the streets to protest the AKP’s attempts to appoint him as the country’s next president. Demoralized by the AKP’s landslide election victory in July 2007, the secularists remained silent as Gul was eventually appointed to the presidency in August 2007. But, even if they do not take to the streets, there is little doubt that the inclusion of a clause in the new constitution outlawing the headscarf ban would further alienate secularists from the AKP government. It would also increase the pressure on the staunchly secularist Turkish military, which has long opposed any lifting the headscarf ban. Since its attempts in spring 2007 to galvanize public opposition to Gul’s presidency ended in failure, the Turkish military has avoided any public confrontation with the AKP. But if the AKP includes a clause lifting the headscarf ban in the new constitution, it will be very difficult for the Turkish military to remain silent.