25/08/2010 - Analysis
The present Turkish Constitution dates back to the 1980's. It was written after the coup d'état of 12th September 1980 led by General Kenan Evren. The third in the country's history the last coup was also one of the bloodiest: around 5,000 people died, 6,000 others were imprisoned, 200,000 were put on trial and 10,000 were deprived their nationality; finally hundreds of thousands were tortured. After the coup Turkey was led by a National Security Council before democracy was re-established once more.
All politicians – those from the majority like those from the opposition agree to say that the Fundamental Law of 1982 does not meet international democratic standards. The need to modify the text is therefore not a subject of debate. This is why the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), suggested to Parliament at the beginning of the year the approval of several amendments to the Constitution. On 7th May last the constitutional reform won the approval of 336 of the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly, the only Chamber of Parliament but this was a number inferior to that necessary for the text to be adopted definitively but enough to be able to submit the issue to referendum. According to the texts in force this had to be organised within the 120 days after the vote (the electoral law was modified and reduced this period down to 60 days but this measure does not take effect until next year).
On 12th May last the constitutional reform that includes 27 articles in all was adopted by the President of the Republic Abdullah Gül and two days later the referendum date was set for 12th September next. Finally on 14th May the main opposition party, the People's Party (CHP) made an appeal to the Constitutional Court with aim of invalidating three of the article: one regarding the dissolution of political parties, another the structure of the Constitutional Court and finally one regarding the equivalent of the Higher Magistrates Court (HSYK). To do this the party had to collate 110 MP's signatures. Its request was signed by 97 MPs from the People's Republican Party, 6 from the Democratic Left Party (DSP) led by Masum Türker, one from the Democratic Party and 7 independent MPs i.e. a total of 111 people.
On 7th July last the Constitutional Court, the official guardian of the secular Constitution of Turkey delivered its decision after 9 hours of deliberation. The legal institution cancelled some measures in the text approved by Parliament (such as for example the ability for the President of the Republic to appoint the members of the Higher Magistrates Court) without however rejecting it as a whole.
In the past the Constitutional Court chaired by Hasim Kilic has rejected several projects to reform the Fundamental Law put forward by the AKP.
The text submitted to referendum
The constitutional reform that is being submitted to the Turks on 12th September next stipulates that soldiers must be tried by civilian courts and those accused of crimes against the State, including officers, should be prosecuted by civilian courts. It also includes a rule whereby officers dismissed from the army for having entertained links with radical Islamic groups may launch an appeal. Finally the text would enable the trial of the leaders of the coup d'état of 12th September 1980.
The number of the members of the Constitutional Court of Justice would rise from 11 to 17 including three appointed by Parliament. The Magistrates' Surveillance Council would rise from 7 to 22 members including four appointed by the President of the Republic.
The text submitted to referendum withdraws the monopoly held by the legal institution to decide over the dissolution of political parties. In 2008 the AKP was nearly banned for having impeded secularity; the Constitutional Court finally chose to deprive the party of half of the 26 million € annual state subsidy because of its anti-secular activities. The constitutional reform grants new rights to civil servants (including the ability to undertake collective negotiations together with the right to strike), it also promotes positive discrimination in support of the elderly, gender equality and the protection of children – it also includes the creation of a the post of ombudsman. Finally the text brings Turkey in line with the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights signed by Ankara. The 27 EU Members all welcomed the approval of the reform by the Turkish Parliament.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AKP) is presenting the constitutional reform as a passport to the EU. In his opinion this new text enhances democracy and meets the demands made by the 27. "If we adopt a new civilian Constitution we shall see the completion of the accession process of our country to the EU as it happened with Portugal and Spain," declared Egemen Bagis chief negotiator with the EU. "Accession on the part of Greece, Spain and Portugal gathered pace after they adopted civilian Constitutions. As a result 12th September next is a chance to make historical progress in Turkey's accession to the EU," he added.
The Electoral Campaign
The opposition parties, the National Action Party (MHP) led by Devlet Bahceli and the People's Republican Party support most of the articles in the constitutional reform but reject those affecting the control of the legal institutions. They fear that the text will increase the government's power over justice by increasing the number of members of the Constitutional Court and by giving Parliament and the President of the Republic the power to appoint some of them. They also maintain that the AKP may, with this new Constitution, take over the levers of power by placing its supporters in key positions across the country and affect the principle of secularity that has governed Turkey since 1923.
"We shall say "no" to the changes, the Constitutional Court's decision did not satisfy our requests," declared the new leader of the People's Republican Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. His party also chose to undertake a campaign with the slogan "Saying "No" can be a good thing", a phrase which cannot be translated effectively from Turkish since it includes a pun.
For its part the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP) is rather in support of the constitutional reform. Its leader Yalcin Topcu declared that all of the political parties should support the government's work to amend the present Fundamental Law. He also recalled the former People's Republican Party leader Deniz Baykal's promise to vote "yes" in the referendum if the Constitutional Court cancelled the articles modifying the structure of the Constitutional Court and the Higher Magistrate's Council. "The People's Republican Party must keep its promises and vote "yes" in the referendum," he declared.
"Our noble nation must not vote on the government's work or on the parties' political programmes but on the future of Turkey," indicated the Head of Government Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recalled that the text reduced the powers of the legal and military hierarchy. The Prime Minister repeats that the referendum is a democratic tool and not a political one and insists on the fact that by voting "yes" the Turks will be making the choice "of the path to democracy."
Since the referendum will be held on 12th September the electoral campaign will be taking place during Ramadan (from 11th August and 10th September this year). Kemal Kilicdaroglu also recommended his supporters not to leave the tarawih (a specific prayer during Ramadan) in the hands of the AKP and invited them to enter tents that have been set up by the town councils where believers can come to break their fast (iftar). This popular vote will be the first electoral test for the new leader of the People's Republican Party.
A "no" vote will of course be an excellent sign for the opposition parties just one year before the general elections planned for the summer of 2011. On 11th August last a poll by Sonar, published in the opposition newspaper Sozcu announced a possible victory for the "no" with 50.9% (49.1% for the "yes"). 5% of those interviewed did not express their preference or declared they would not turn out to vote on 12th September next.
The government may suffer because of a rise in unemployment and even a rise in violence in the south-east of the country, a region dominated by the Kurds who have threatened on several occasions to take advantage of the electoral campaign period to commit acts of rebellion. A "yes" vote won with a narrow majority or low turn-out would comprise a rejection for the Prime Minister and his party (12th September is a holiday when the Turks will be celebrating the Aid Al Fitr and the end of Ramadan).
As a coincidence the referendum will take place on the same day as the 30th anniversary of the 1980 coup d'Etat. "12th September is a perfect day to face the torture, cruelty and inhuman practices of the coup d'Etat of 12th September 1980," declared the Head of Government on 21st July last.