Two recent reports by European institutions reignited the debate over political reforms that Turkey needs to undertake to bring its democratic practices up to European standards. The European Parliament (EP) and the Venice Commission criticized Turkey’s reluctance to continue with constitutional reforms, in particular its failure to amend the law on political party closures. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, in response, signaled that it would introduce a new constitutional reform package following the local elections.
On March 12 the EP adopted a resolution on Turkey’s progress toward EU accession. After acknowledging Turkey’s efforts to reform the political system, the EP members expressed their concern about the "continuing slowdown of the reform process" since 2005. The report noted various areas in which further political reforms were needed, especially stressing the laws on closing down political parties. It called on the government to resume efforts to write a new civilian constitution (www.europarl.europa.eu, March 12).
On March 13 the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe held a plenary session, during which it reviewed whether Turkish laws on the dissolution of political parties complied with European democratic standards. The commission concluded that "the general threshold is too low, both for initiating procedures and for prohibiting or dissolving parties. This is in itself in abstracto deviating from common European democratic standards." The Commission praised the 2001 constitutional revisions, yet found them inadequate for protecting political parties. It too advised Turkey to seek a new constitutional reform that would amend legal provisions on regulating party closures (www.venice.coe.int; March 13).
Both reports expressed concern about the fact that the Turkish judiciary frequently filed lawsuits for the closure of political parties, in some cases even against parties represented in parliament. Two major cases are significant. Last year, the AKP faced dissolution on the grounds that it had become the center of anti-secular activities. By a narrow vote the Constitutional Court decided not to shut down the party but nevertheless punished it by cutting in half the aid it received from the treasury. Since the fate of the incumbent party was at stake, the entire case posed a major threat to the stability of the Turkish political system. Similarly, the Constitutional Court is reviewing whether to shut down the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) on charges of separatism. The DTP’s predecessors were closed down by the court, which heightened tension in the country and posed major setbacks to a democratic resolution of the Kurdish issue. If the court rules in favor of closure in the case against the DTP, the exclusion of the party from the parliamentary processes is likely to avert a democratic presentation of Kurdish demands and undermine Turkey’s achievements in solving the Kurdish question.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party suffered from closure threats and has been considering changing the constitution, capitalized on these reports during the local election campaign. He announced that the AKP would return to the issue of constitutional reform after the elections. Rather than proposing a new constitution, he said, the government would introduce a package of partial amendments in four areas. If the amendments are accepted, individuals will be granted the right to apply to the Constitutional Court to challenge the constitutionality of laws, a post of ombudsman will be created to monitor state activities, and laws on political parties and elections will be changed (ANKA, March 13; Hurriyet Daily News, March 17). With regard to party closures, Erdogan later explained that the government would seek to bring Turkish regulations in line with the criteria established by the Venice Commission. He specifically stressed that parties not engaged in violence should function freely and not be punished for crimes committed by individual members (Sabah, March 15; Zaman, March 17).
This was not the first time Erdogan had raised the issue of constitutional changes. Earlier, he had said that the government would start talks with the opposition parties to discuss a new civilian constitution following local elections. Representatives of the opposition did not, however, find Erdogan’s proposal sincere and refused to cooperate with the AKP (www.haber3.com, February 14).
Herein lies the main obstacle to constitutional amendments: how to build the necessary political coalition for reforms. Not only European institutions but also most Turkish political observers agree that both the 1982 constitution, a leftover of the 1980 coup, and party closure practices are in need of revision; but without the support of the opposition, particularly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the government is not in a position to go ahead with political reform and be sure that any changes will not be revoked by the Constitutional Court. The real question, therefore, is whether political parties can find consensus on a process for introducing new constitutional changes.
Following the AKP’s landslide victory in the 2007 parliamentary elections, Erdogan promised that it would embrace all of Turkey and change the constitution in order to reduce growing polarization in the country. The AKP has failed, however, to generate trust among different segments of society. Nor could it find common ground with the opposition parties to introduce a new constitution. An attempt by the AKP to revise the constitution ended up in a dispute over the headscarf issue and sparked the closure case against the party. Since then, the chances for reforming the constitution have diminished even further. Democratic reforms have been given a lower priority on the AKP’s agenda, while polarization in society and among political parties has continued. The aggressive campaigns of the party leaders in the run-up to the local elections have increasingly pitted them against each other and undermined mutual trust.
Delivering on constitutional reforms might indeed help Erdogan revitalize the EU membership process and gain him political support at home; but he appears to have lost credibility in the eyes of the opposition for embarking on such a move and will have a hard time building bridges. At this juncture, a "reconciliation commission" proposed by the parliamentary speaker, Koksal Toptan, could provide a possible strategy (www.cnnturk.com, March 13). The success of a new constitutional amendment package might hinge on Toptan’s ability to convince party leaders to put aside their differences and continue work on the necessary reforms.