Constitutional Amendments Further Polarize Turkish Politics

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 87

Opposition in the Turkish Parliament over constitutional reforms

Turkish domestic politics has been focused on a controversial constitutional reform package, proposed by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). In what appears to be a new trench war, the Turkish parliament has held the second round of voting on the proposed changes.

For the individual articles and the entire bill to be adopted, at least 367 votes are required. If the vote on individual articles or the whole bill falls somewhere between 330 and 367 votes, it can be put to a referendum. An article that receives less than 330 will automatically be quashed. If the vote on the entire package also remains 330, it will be rejected altogether. With its 336 Members of Parliament (MP’s), the AKP has been struggling to mobilize opposition support on the one hand, and prevent any defections on the other. Since a key article, which would make it more difficult to close down political parties, failed to receive the required 330 votes on May 3, attention has focused on the politics behind the constitutional changes.

Reforming the Turkish constitution, a remnant of the 1980 military coup, has long been on the agenda. The constitution has gone through several partial revisions, in an effort to further democratize Turkish political system. Still, many political actors, civil society organizations and economic interest groups have been calling for a complete overhaul, in order that Turkey could have a new constitution written by civilians.

An indication of a political movement that has been the main challenger to the Kemalist establishment, the AKP has strongly advocated rewriting the constitution. It prioritized this issue during its second term in power, following the July 2007 elections. Although the AKP asked a panel of legal experts to draft a constitution, its inability to garner broader support for the constitutional reform and the staunch resistance from the opposition, forced it to put this issue on the backburner. Instead, it opted for limited revisions, mainly intended to remove the restrictions encountered by female students wearing headscarves. This initiative, undertaken in coordination with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), however, resulted in a closure case against the AKP in 2008. Although the constitutional court failed to close the AKP, it still imposed fines against the party, arguing that it became the focal point of anti-secular activities (EDM, July 30, 2008).

Since then, it has been a matter of mystery how the AKP will handle the constitutional reform issue (EDM, July 31, 2008). While its grassroots and the liberal groups expected the AKP to maintain its wave of reforms, the opposition parties objected to any proposal coming from the AKP, since they viewed them as tactical moves to undermine Turkey’s secular system and consolidate the AKP’s own power. Thus, the AKP failed in several attempts at bringing the constitutional changes back on the political agenda (EDM, April 1, 2009).

In March, the government finally announced that instead of rewriting a constitution, it would opt for a smaller package of amendments. The amendments focused on changing the composition of the constitutional court and supreme board of judges (HSYK), dissolution of political parties, the decisions of the supreme military council (YAS), and the prosecution of past coup perpetrators as well as the expansion of certain civil liberties.

Several factors coalesced to force the AKP to refocus its attention on constitutional reform. On the one hand, the ongoing Ergenekon investigation put the AKP in a better position to call for further democratizing the Turkish political system. Similarly, the recent bickering between the government and the heads of higher legal bodies also added some justification to the AKP’s argument for redefining the powers and composition of state agencies. On the other hand, the AKP’s failure in the so-called “Kurdish opening” forced it to re-conceptualize the issue of giving greater rights to Turkish citizens of different backgrounds and present it as a broad-based “democratic opening.”

Nonetheless, the AKP also approaches the reform process strategically. The timing of the package and the context within which it was proposed suggest that the AKP uses it as part of its campaign to reenergize its grassroots, as the general elections in 2011 approach. Indeed, while introducing the current package the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, argued that it is only a prelude to more comprehensive reforms to follow the elections (www.haberturk.com, April 18). Many observers believe that if the AKP succeeds in passing the proposed changes, it could claim success in the election campaign for having undertaken courageous steps towards democratization. If this reform effort fails, it could then blame the opposition, and present them as the main obstacle to democratization.

Overall, during the parliamentary votes, the opposition parties either boycotted the meetings or voted against the amendments. The political parties have found the AKP’s proposals insincere and driven by narrow interests. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has pointed out to the proposed amendments pertaining to the composition of the constitutional court and HSYK to argue that, after having controlled the executive and legislative bodies, the AKP is now seeking to control the judiciary. Although the CHP earlier suggested that it would be ready to support the package, provided the government dropped some articles, such a compromise did not take place. Now that one controversial article has dropped, the CHP has again signaled its readiness to support the package, if the government withdraws controversial articles.

The MHP, which maintains that the AKP has led the country toward disintegration over its stance on the Kurdish issue, refused to support the package. The government also failed to secure support from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), because it failed to satisfy the BDP’s demands for amending the 10 percent electoral threshold which prevents the representation of smaller parties in parliament. Considering that the pro-Kurdish parties have been the main victims of closure cases in the past, the BDP’s decision not to support the relevant article has served as a stark reminder of the extent to which the constitutional reform process has been politicized and the AKP is unable to build bridges with the opposition.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>