TitleWhat are the amendments to the Turkish constitution really about?

In Turkey’s mirror: democratization and secularism

10 Sep 2010

■ Peyman Jafari
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During the summer months, Turkey not only sweltered under consecutive heat waves, but it also experienced a rise in political temperature as the debates about the referendum on constitutional changes heated up. While many believe a ‘yes’ vote on 12 September will pave the way for further democratization, others argue it will destroy secularism and lay the ground for an Islamic dictatorship of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The referendum is also important for Turkey’s neighbours, which will be affected by its outcome. With regard to Iran, there are two more reasons to give the Turkish referendum proper attention. Like in Turkey, current political debates in Iran are centered on ‘democratization’, ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’. Moreover, Turkey is an important point of reference for political thought in Iran since at least the early 20th century.

12 September, the date of the referendum, is not chosen coincidentally. It marks the 30th anniversary of the military coup in 1980. In that year civil society was shattered, 14,000 people were stripped of their citizenship, 30,000 people fled the country, an estimated 17,000 extrajudicial killings occurred mainly in the Kurdish southeast, thousands were tortured, 50 people were executed and tens of thousands were sacked from their jobs. The date of the referendum was chosen as a reminder that the current constitution was dictated in 1982 by the leaders of the military coup to underpin their authoritarian political system. Since then, two thirds of the constitution has changed as the parliament approved amendments in the past two decades, mainly to meet the conditions to Turkey’s entrance in the European Union. However, the authoritarian core of the constitution remained unchanged so that the military and the Constitutional Court retained the power to intervene in political affairs as the ‘defenders of the secular character of the republic.’

Turkey is an important point of reference for political thought in Iran

After the 1980 coup Turkey’s army, in alliance with the Constitutional Court, has intervened regularly in politics in al. In 1997 the army forced prime minister Erbakan from the Islamist Welfare Party to step down and the Constitutional Court banned his party in 1998. Moderate Islamists created the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is socially conservative and has a neoliberal economic agenda – in many ways resembling the Christian Democrats in Germany or the Tories in Great Brittan. The AKP won 34 percent of the votes in the 2002 elections and its leader Erdogan became prime minister. The judiciary immediately started a case to ban the AKP on charges of undermining the ‘secular principle of the constitution’ by striving to create a religious state. In 2007 the military leadership published an e-memorandum that opposed the candidacy of Abdullah Gül of the AKP, one of the reason’s being that his wife wears a headscarf. The memorandum also stated that ‘Those who are opposed to Great Leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s understanding ‘How happy is the one who says I am a Turk’ are enemies of the Republic of Turkey and will remain so.’ This warning was meant to stir up fanatical nationalism and targeted the AKP’s attempts to come to a political solution for the conflict in the Kurdish areas and on Cyprus. For an increasing number of Turks, the undemocratic nature of the interventions of the Court and the military were becoming visible and the attacks on religious symbols in a country where the majority is Muslim (but not Islamist), added to the AKP’s popularity. When the AKP called for early elections in July 2007 in reaction to the e-memorandum, it won almost 50 percent of the votes. The worries about the undemocratic role of the army further increased after the police discovered a terrorist network of ultra-nationalists with ties with the military, the secret service and the media, the so called Ergenekon.

After the 2007 elections the conflict between the AKP and the old military and bureaucratic elite continued. During the elections the AKP had promised to write a new democratic constitution. It appointed a committee of academics and jurists, but it dropped the whole project after it was met with severe opposition from the minority in parliament and the Constitutional Court. Instead, the AKP amended the constitution in 2008 to lift the ban on headscarves for university students, while still keeping it for professors and school students. While it should be the right of women to decide whether or not to wear the headscarf, the proposal that was passed by 411 of the 550 deputies in parliament was struck down by the Constitutional Court that again postured to defend ‘secularism’.

The political conflict that seems to center on ‘secularism’ has re-emerged in the referendum campaign. The ‘no’ camp is led by the Kemalist social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In important sentiment in the ‘no’ camp is that the amendments are proposed by an ‘Islamic government’ and that ‘Islam is reactionary’, hence any proposals coming from the government should be opposed. Some on the left, like the Communist Party of Turkey, echo this argument but also oppose the amendments because they do not go far enough. Others on the left acknowledge correctly that the whole constitution should be changed, but argue that a ‘no’ vote leaves the old constitution in place, while a ‘yes’ vote paves the road for more changes. Their campaign under the slogan ‘Not enough, but yes’ has gained huge popularity under secular democrats. Also well known intellectuals and writers, like the Nobel-prize winning Orhan Pamuk, have called for a ‘yes’ vote.

Secularism has become a shield for the old Turkish elite to defend its position

What are the amendments to constitution really about? They loosen the grip of the old elite on the Constitutional Court by adding more judges to it, limiting their terms in office and giving the parliament and the president the main role in their selection. The political influence of the military is decreased by prohibiting the trial of civilians in military courts and by allowing civilian courts to try military officers. One amendment repeals the article that bans the prosecution of the generals who staged the 1980 coup. Other amendments enhance the position of women and children, give civilians the right to information and free travelling and give some employers more rights in collective bargaining.

As this list shows, the amendments represent further steps towards democratization, but they are framed by the old elite as an assault on secularism. In fact their conflict with the AKP is not so much about ‘secularism’, as it is about power struggle. The roots of the old elite go back to the 1920’s and 1930’s when Atatürk created an authoritarian state to modernize Turkey from above. This authoritarian project was based on a ideology (Kemalism) with three main components: the promotion of Turkish nationalism and the repression of ethnic and religious minorities like Kurds, Armenians and Alevis; ‘modernization’, which in reality was ‘Westernization’ as the state enforced Western cultural aspects and banned for instance traditional clothes and music; the principle of ‘secularism’, which for the Kemalists did not simply mean the separation of state and religion, but the intervention of the state in the public sphere against religious expressions and state control over religious institutions. The Kemalist ideology cemented the elite that formed the military, judiciary and bureaucratic leadership. It also found a popular base among the Westernized middle classes in large urban centers. Since the 1980’s, the old elite has been confronted with the emergence of a new Islamic bourgeoisie and middle class, which form the backbone of the AKP. The AKP also finds support among the rural and urban lower classes. ‘Secularism’ has become a shield for the old elite to defend its position in the state bureaucracy and business community against its AKP rivals.

Tehran Review
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