Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 169

A draft of the planned new Turkish constitution has been leaked to the media, and it suggests that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is planning to ease restrictions on the expression of religious and non-Turkish ethnic identities while reducing the political influence of the Turkish military.

Since it first announced plans to draw up a new constitution, the AKP has been heavily criticized for apparently reneging on a commitment to consult with a cross-section of Turkish society and ensuring that the content of the draft remained shrouded in secrecy. On September 4, AKP Deputy Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, the head of the committee overseeing the preparation of the new constitution, declared that the draft had been completed, describing it as a constitution by and for the people. But he declined to make the text of the document publicly available (see EDM, September 4).

However, on September 12, the Turkish television news channel CNNTurk published a leaked copy of the draft on its website. The text includes the text of the proposed constitution together with suggestions for possible amendments or alternative clauses.

The draft proposes easing restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language. Although private Kurdish language courses are now permitted, it still cannot be used in Turkish schools, either as a medium of instruction or as a “foreign” language. Article 3 of the current constitution on the basic characteristics of the Turkish Republic states “Its language is Turkish.” However, Article 3 of the new draft amends the clause to read, “Its official language is Turkish.” Article 45 explicitly allows education in other languages provided that new laws are promulgated to that effect.

The new draft reduces the military’s representation on the National Security Council (NSC) by abolishing the membership of the Gendarmerie Commander. It also suggests transferring both the chairing of NSC and the drafting of meeting agendas from the president to the prime minister. More controversially, it proposes making decisions of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which in the past has been frequently used to purge the officer corps of suspected Islamist sympathizers, eligible for appeal in a civilian court. But the AKP has resisted pressure from both the EU and its own party members to make the Turkish General Staff subordinate to the Defense Ministry rather than, as at present, merely responsible to the Prime Ministry (Radikal, September 13).

The draft preserves the commitment to secularism contained in the current constitution and that was originally introduced by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). However, although it reaffirms its loyalty to Ataturk’s legacy, the new draft contains noticeably fewer references to preserving and protecting his principles.

Under the current constitution, religious instruction is compulsory throughout the Turkish school system. The new draft makes religious lessons optional. However, it also contains a much stronger commitment to freedom of conscience and belief — something hard-line secularists believe will allow radical Islamists to shift the focus of religious education away from the state-monitored school system by making it easier to open private Koran courses.

Most contentiously, a proposed “alternative” to the main draft of Article 45 of the new constitution includes a commitment to ensuring that the manner in which people are dressed does not prevent them from receiving a higher education. In practice, this would result in lifting the current ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in Turkish universities (Radikal, September 13).

On September 4, Firat dismissed suggestions by Turkish journalists that the new draft would include proposals to lift the headscarf ban, arguing that how people dressed was not a subject for a constitution (NTV, CNNTurk, September 4; Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, September 5).

Even though the AKP has only consulted with a small number of party members and handpicked academics, on September 12, Firat angrily dismissed claims that the draft constitution had been drawn up by the AKP.

“Those who regard the draft as being prepared by the AKP either don’t know Turkish or their brains have atrophied,” he said (Milliyet, September 13).

Nevertheless, a number of other organizations, including the Turkish Bar Association and a committee established by NGOs, have responded to being excluded from the consultation process by drawing up their own drafts of a possible new constitution.

The AKP has announced that it does not expect to try to promulgate the new constitution before early 2008. But the secrecy with which it has been prepared and the controversial nature of some of the draft’s provisions look set to ensure that it overshadows the domestic agenda over the months ahead. Particular attention will be paid to the attitude of the Turkish military, which is currently regrouping after being outmaneuvered in its attempts to prevent Abdullah Gul from being appointed Turkey’ president (see EDM, September 4). The military has yet to react to the leaked draft text of the new constitution, but no one expects its silence to last indefinitely.