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Turkey Needs a New Constitution

The irony of the proposed Turkish constitutional reforms is that they change little. Real reform has been sidelined in the name of security.

Turkey needs a new constitution. Yet despite the claims on both sides of the current debate, the mechanics of the system are changing, but not the system itself. It is a shame that the focus has become the merits of a presidential versus a parliamentary system, since that is not the main flaw of the current constitution—written by a military junta in 1982, shortly after it staged a coup d’état.

The tone and content of the current constitution lay bare its fundamental failure—that it protects the state over and above the people; that it places the military in the position of guardian of the state; and, most divisively of all, that it maintains a nationalist mantra of ethnic exclusivity that is at odds with the manifest reality. For the past decade, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been courageous in addressing this issue. It has met with considerable resistance.

Lessons From History

It is easy to view the current turmoil surrounding Turkey’s constitutional reforms in simple and familiar terms: a democratic constitution—bringing to mind the American or French models—is to be torn up by an autocratic strongman intent on establishing one-man rule. While not entirely unrealistic, this is also a long way from the whole truth. To understand the parameters of debate, it helps to understand the evolution of Turkey’s constitution.

The first constitution of the modern state of Turkey was drafted under conditions of war and imperial collapse in 1921. As such, it was a document of convenience. Its fundamental purpose was to unite those who had traditionally sworn allegiance to the sultan and caliph against the subjugation of their lands by invaders from Christian Europe.

Ironically, given the many revisions since, that original 1921 document is regarded by Kurdish groups—the country’s largest ethnic minority—as the best blueprint for a new constitution. This is because, in rallying diverse ethnic groups to the war effort, it made no mention of a specifically Turkish nation or of the people living under the constitution as Turks. It also contained provision for regional autonomy within the state.

Founding father Kemal Ataturk’s redrafting of 1924 was a very different document. With Turkey established and its borders secure, his regime began the work of nation building. This drive toward nationalism was aided by two factors. The first was the ethno-religious cleansing of non-Muslim populations: The earlier removal of Christian Armenians from Anatolia during World War I was followed by the compulsory exchange of populations of Christians and Muslims with the Greek state from 1923.

The second was the establishment of an ethnic rather than religious identity in the remaining Muslims. The nationalist pursuit of ethnic purity is not unique to Turkish history. It is the Achilles heel underlying many state-building projects. Even the 99.8% of the Turkish population that is Muslim are far from all being ethnically Turkish. Excluding for a moment the Kurdish population, there are large hidden and less hidden ethnic strains of Slav, Greek, Laz, Circassian, Tatar and Arab, to name but a few.

By insisting on a purely ethnic Turkish identity within the constitution, the modern state has remained locked in a crisis that has ebbed and flowed ever since 1924. In 1961, the military junta that overthrew the elected government enshrined military oversight in the redrafted constitution, including the creation of a National Security Council (NSC) that institutionalized the power of the military in Turkish politics. This role was deepened by the 1982 redraft following the military coup of 1980.

The current document not only maintains an exclusively Turkish ethnic tone (e.g. Article 66: “Everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk”), but also outlaws the use of languages other than Turkish (e.g. Article 3: “The State of Turkey, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish”; Article 42: “No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education”).

These flaws are fundamental to the roots of the Kurdish question in Turkey. Without an acknowledgement of Kurdish ethnic identity and linguistic and cultural rights, the state cannot hope to find an enduring political settlement to a problem that has been approached almost exclusively from the perspectives of security and economics.

Security Trumps Pluralism

Turkey’s constitutions have been written by military men for whom strong, centralized control came naturally. With the new constitutional reforms, a major opportunity appears. It will be the first constitution in the history of the modern Turkish state drafted by civilians rather than military men. Since the AKP began pushing for it, hopes have been raised of a democratization, liberalization and diversification of the document.

That is not what is being delivered. Not all of the blame for this lies at the feet of either President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or the ruling AKP. Attempts at finding a consensus for a redrafting of the constitution met with resistance from the opposition secular nationalist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP). While the AKP has gained the assistance of the minority Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in pushing the recent reforms through parliament, the CHP offers an alternative redraft, yet one with few genuine reforms.

The CHP proposal offers one element that can be seen as a liberalization that would address Kurdish grievances. It involves the reduction of the current 10% threshold for entry into parliament to 3%. This extremely high current threshold was conceived by a military junta with the expressed intention of barring Kurdish representation from the Turkish parliament. It was, until the election of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidates in 2015, reasonably successful in that aim.

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The CHP decries the proposed constitutional amendments backed by President Erdogan and the AKP as eliminating neutrality within key branches of government. CHP deputy for the province of Canakkale, Muharrem Erkek, has stated that “This proposal moves Turkey away from a democracy. It would eliminate the independence and neutrality of the judiciary.” Such an analysis is disingenuous.

While technically accurate, it omits to acknowledge that the Turkish judiciary has—alongside the bureaucratic establishment and military—long been far from neutral and, in fact, propagated the highly undemocratic system laid down in Turkey by successive constitutions with the chief aim of protecting a secular nationalist establishment. This judiciary has been instrumental in banning Kurdish and Islamist parties throughout the state’s history.

Far from dismantling democracy, constitutional reform in Turkey would lead the country away from a history of military constitutions, coups and repressive actions that have curtailed religious, cultural and linguistic freedoms. The removal of the 1982 Turkish constitution would be a good day for Turkey. It does not necessarily follow that what the AKP propose is positive.

The most obvious reason to doubt the reformist credentials of the proposed constitutional reforms is that the AKP is achieving them with the parliamentary assistance of the MHP. The MHP is Turkey’s far-right nationalist party. It is instinctively conservative, distinctly ethnically exclusive and against any concession to the Kurdish minority. A constitutional reform backed by the MHP will not resolve Turkey’s fundamental weaknesses.

The result is that the central emphasis has become that of Erdogan’s presidential system, creating a strong presidency that will eliminate the often ineffective workings of the parliamentary system—with the MHP leader Devlet Bahceli likely offered the vice presidency. It provides a comforting focus on security and stability, but not the concessions needed for genuine long-term stability.

It is noteworthy that the constitutional reforms that are now heading toward a referendum have not had unqualified support even from within the ruling party. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who resigned in May 2016 after a strained relationship with President Erdogan, was a senior figure who was clearly ill at ease with the relentless focus on a presidential system.

A Missed Opportunity?

Sadly for the Turkish people, events both internal and external have contributed to mean that this process is now occurring within an atmosphere of combative nationalism in which the space for consensus politics has been largely snuffed out. This may result in a historic missed opportunity. Some of the blame for that must inevitably fall to the ruling AKP and the president, but blame can be well distributed in the current climate of polarization.

Lest we forget, it was only a few short years ago that Erdogan’s AKP declared a “Kurdish Opening” when the government was in serious talks with imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, and that the move to rewrite the constitution was being hailed by many as fundamental to the resolution of the Kurdish conflict and the further democratization of Turkey.

Events are sometimes beyond any individual’s ability to influence—yes, even President Erdogan’s—and events in Turkey have become so destabilizing that to steer a broad, liberal course through them might well be impossible. Erdogan has offered Turkish citizens a strongman presidency with the stability to hold Turkey together and avoid weak coalition governments.

A majority will almost certainly back him at the polls. He has some validity in the claim that parliament has been unequal to the task of recent events. It failed in its ability to find consensus on constitutional reforms. And for all the ingenuity of Erdogan and the AKP, the opposition has been lamentable. Aside from the brave stance of the HDP, which drew voters as a result, the vote share of the main opposition CHP has barely changed in the 21st century. This speaks of an inability to engage anyone outside its core supporters through genuinely new approaches to old problems.

What is wrong today is not the desire to rewrite the Turkish constitution, but that the rewriting is now taking place in a climate of securitization and nationalist isolationism, rather than a climate of democratization and liberalism. The fault lies not only with President Erdogan and the ruling AKP, but also with the Turkish opposition, the PKK, autocratic leaders in the Middle East, Russia and beyond, and the failure of the West—and in particular the European Union—to offer Turkey real incentives for change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: FGorgun