Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 150

Fresh from his July 22 electoral victory, returning Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced plans to draw up a new, “more democratic and civilian constitution” (Today’s Zaman, August 1).

The planned changes for the new constitution include more limited presidential powers, judicial review of the Supreme Military Council’s (YAS) promotion and dismissal of military officials, an appeal process for judges and prosecutors dismissed from their posts, a reduced political role for the military-dominated National Security Council (MGK), European standards on basic rights and freedoms (particularly freedom of thought, expression, and belief, as well as enhanced women’s and children’s rights), appointment of constitutional court judges by parliament rather than by the president, and an end to mandatory religion classes in the public school system.

Turkey’s current constitution was drawn up by the military after the 1980 coup. Since then, it has had 13 parliamentary reviews and 74 of its articles were changed. The two most important constitutional reform packages to date were adopted after 2002, when Turkey agreed to conform to the European Union’s “Copenhagen criteria,” which require, among other things, that the candidate country “…has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities.” A Turkish constitutional amendment in 2004 therefore established the supremacy of international human rights law over Turkish regulations, when the two conflict.

Despite these changes and Turkey’s subscription to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), many observers view the current constitution as fundamentally flawed and in need of a complete replacement. According to Aydin Cigi of the Turkish Social Democracy Foundation, “Hundreds of little changes, sewing here and patching up there; they don’t really work” (Today’s Zaman, August 1). The military-dominated MGK, for instance, still makes regular pronouncements that are taken more as orders to the civilian government than recommendations.

Other key problems include enduring constitutional prohibitions of any statement or action, intentional or unintentional, that threaten the territorial unity and secular character of the Turkish Republic. Despite ongoing European-inspired reforms, these vaguely worded constitutional prohibitions continue to be interpreted extremely broadly by Turkish military officers, judges and prosecutors. People continue to face prosecution for public statements about a “Kurdish problem” existing in Turkey, for using Kurdish in any official capacity (such as an election campaign speech or even bilingual Kurdish-Turkish holiday greeting cards sent out by one Kurdish mayor), for questioning whether Turkey’s national identity should be based solely on a Turkish ethnic identity, or for wearing Islamic headscarves in some public institutions. All of these actions are deemed to be threats to the territorial integrity and secular character of the republic, respectively.

Turkish progress in conforming to the 2002 Copenhagen criteria therefore faces serious difficulties. The problem lies in the failure to actually implement the legal and political changes already adopted in rhetoric and via various constitutional amendments. The lack of implementation comes from portions of the civil service, especially ultra-nationalist public prosecutors and judges, who have no desire or intent to change past policies toward minorities and public displays of religiosity. The current 1980-coup era constitution, due to the overly broad interpretive powers it bestows to these actors, may never fit into Europe.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came out of the July 22 elections with a mandate to advance Turkish-EU accession and the credibility necessary to try and replace the current constitution. Both Turkey’s EU candidacy and Erdogan’s political fate may therefore depend on his ability to push through a meaningfully new constitution. In the meantime, his “pro-Islamist” party continues to receive popular domestic and international recognition for its democratic reform efforts (which now even includes advocating an end to mandatory religion classes in Turkish schools).

Turkish accession may require more than Turkish conformity to the political and economic provisions of the Copenhagen criteria, however. The current EU member states must prove willing to accept Turkey at some point. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn recently warned French President Nicholas Sarkozy, “Turkey is the guide of the Muslim world from Morocco to Malaysia. If you hinder Turkey, a clash of civilizations erupts between the West and Islam.” Most major Turkish newspapers gave prominent coverage to his comments (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Sabah, Zaman, Radikal, June 13).