In Turkey, a likely shift toward reforms

In Turkey, a likely shift toward reforms

The adoption of major constitutional reforms by Turkey could formalise the shift in the balance of power in the country from the traditional secular politico-military elite to the moderate Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP). The passage by a narrow parliamentary majority of the package on May 7 initiated preparations for the referendum to replace the 1982 constitution adopted during a period of military rule. Lacking the two-thirds majority required to pass outright the reform bill, the government, which has 335 seats in the 550-member assembly, has been compelled to turn to the referendum option.

For Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the vote in the assembly was a triumph tinged with regret. He failed to get the votes needed to include a key provision which would have made it more difficult to ban political parties than at present. Since the 1980 military coup, 20 parties have been banned, including the Welfare Party from which the AKP emerged. The ruling AKP itself just survived an attempt to shut it down because it was accused of violating the stridently secular constitution. The country’s chief prosecutor is now threatening to make a second try on the ground that the package of reforms is undemocratic.


After Erdogan was forced to drop the banning provision because eight members of his own AKP voted against it, he imposed party discipline to ensure that the 17 other provisions passed. These included reforming the board that appoints judges to ensure its independence from party politics and the constitutional court by allowing president and parliament to choose its members. The new constitution would also curb the power of the military — which regards itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secularism — by permitting the trial in civilian courts of military personnel accused of crimes against state security and the constitution. The AKP was insistent on this provision because scores of officers, including generals, have been charged in civilian courts for plotting to overthrow the present government. The military has staged four coups in the past half century.

Another provision strengthens equal rights for women by ensuring that the state implements legislation in this area.

The adoption of these reforms is particularly important if Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union (EU) is to prosper. While critics of the AKP accuse it of using the reforms to undermine the strongly secular judiciary, they cannot deny that it has been used to ban parties rooted in religion and to bloc laws put forward by the government. The chief opposition faction, the Republican People’s Party, a stalwart of the secular establishment, has threatened to appeal to the constitutional court to annul the reforms. However, legal experts argue that the court should reject such an appeal which would be based on ‘ideological legitimacy’ unacceptable in western democracies. One expert called Turkey a ‘juristocracy’, a country ruled by jurists. Others claim the proposed reforms are not radical enough to overthrow the ‘closed caste system’ in the high judiciary which, they hold, obstructs Turkey’s achievement of full democracy.

The campaign to adopt the reform package by referendum will test the strength of the AKP against its secular rivals ahead of next year’s parliamentary poll. The referendum and the assembly election are major battle grounds in the struggle between the AKP and the elite which ran the Turkish republic from the 1920s until the AKP’s election victory in 2002.

The militantly secular elite is determined to maintain the political system which kept their parties and the armed forces in power for decades. These parties are committed to an ideology which, in short, holds that Turkey is a secular republic where all citizens are Sunni Muslim ‘Turks’ and religion and ethnicity have no place in politics. However, Turkey is a patchwork of ethnic and religious minorities.

Determined to survive army coup or judicial banning, the AKP is seeking to democratise, recognise communal pluralism and confine the military to barracks. The party’s success at the polls can be attributed to the rise of a new middle class of devout conservative Turks and to the identification with the AKP of working class and rural Turks, who are also more comfortable with moderate Muslim politicians than aggressive secularists.

While both the establishment and the AKP give lip service to Turkey’s efforts to harmonise its system with that of the EU, the AKP has actually passed and implemented legislation designed to achieve this objective. The politico-military elite is loath to yield to the EU by adopting laws that would limit its powers and transform the political system.