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- Created on Wednesday, 13 October 2010 12:16
By AlJazeera Centre for Studies
On Sunday, 12 September 2010, a constitutional referendum was held in Turkey on a broad package of amendments. The amendments had previously been proposed to parliament by the government, headed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but had failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to implement the changes. Subsequently, after the proposed referendum had received the approval of the majority, the Republican People's Party (CHP) appealed to the Constitutional Court, objecting to the referendum. However, the court approved the referendum after making minor changes to both its wording and the wording of a small number of the reform package's clauses.
According to official figures, nearly seventy-eight percent of registered voters participated in the referendum. That must certainly be considered a high turnout, especially when bearing in mind that the referendum was conducted during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Fifty-eight percent of voters were in favour of the amendments, while forty-two percent voted against them. In achieving its desired result in the referendum, the current AKP-led government is set to implement the largest constitutional reform package to be applied to the current constitution, which was adopted by a military government following a military coup in 1980. It is significant that this constitution has always been considered a hurdle to democratic development, and a solid basis for the domination of all civic, military, and legal affairs by the state bureaucracy.
This paper will analyse the constitutional referendum, its significance, and the nature of the campaign preceding the vote. The paper will also examine the likely effects of the approved package of amendments on the Turkish political map.
Rectifying the state's relationship with the people
The referendum related to a package of amendments that dealt with twenty-six articles of the constitution, along with a number of other issues. Although the Turkish constitution has been subjected to previous amendments proposed by successive governments – including the current AKP government – since the 1990s, the recent amendments are the most comprehensive and audacious.
They are considered to be the most comprehensive because they deal with various aspects of the foundation of the state, the relationship between the state and its people, the judiciary in general and the Constitutional Court in particular, as well as the rights of individuals in general and those of women, the disabled and labour unions in particular. They are considered the most audacious because they provide for a substantial adjustment to the structure of the Supreme Judicial Council – which is responsible for the appointment, promotion and assignment of both judges and prosecutors – and the Supreme Constitutional Court, which enjoys enormous powers in the arenas of legislation, is able to peddle influence over powerful political entities, and, in effect, exercises power over all things constitutional.
The AKP fought the 2007 parliamentary elections with an electoral platform that included the promise of a new constitution. Despite the party's landslide victory, it could not convince opposition parties, particularly those represented in parliament, to collaborate on realising this objective. The introduction of a new constitution requires a degree of political consensus which is unattainable under the current circumstances. As a result, the AKP government put the issue of introducing a new constitution on hold and resorted to partial amendments.
A question that was raised during public rallies which took place a day before the referendum was whether the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an had made a political miscalculation in seeking to push for the referendum, as its victory in passing the referendum would ultimately prove inadequate fully to respond to the country's apparent need for a new constitution. Furthermore, a failure by the government to win the referendum would have cast a shadow on Erdo?an's opportunities for victory in the parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place by the middle of next year. It is already clear that the objectives of Erdo?an's referendum go beyond the bold constitutional amendments contained therein.
Mapping the votes: AKP's advances
Prime Minister Erdo?an's campaign in favour of the referendum lasted for more than a month. Both the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) spearheaded the opposition to the amendments. Other parties from the centre and the left also called for a rejection of the amendments. Two small Islamic parties, nevertheless, endorsed the amendments. The party which attracted the most attention was the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is regarded as the political front of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with its surprising move to boycott the referendum, claiming that the proposed reforms did not respond to the demands of the Kurdish people.
The second relevant observation is that there was an absence of any substantial discussion over the content of the proposed amendments. Instead, the main focus of the debate was on the political dispute between the ruling party and the opposition. Both the AKP and its leader, Erdo?an, faced enormous political heat from the MHP, CHP, their loyal columnists, newspapers, and television stations. At the heart of the debate was criticism of the Turkish government's economic policies, treatment of the Kurdish question, and foreign relations. It has become clear that all the opposition forces – especially those that claim loyalty to the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – saw the referendum as their final opportunity to tarnish Erdo?an's image and to eliminate his chances for any political gain in the upcoming 2011 parliamentary elections.
The opposition's campaigns also revealed the existence of a grey area of unspoken agreement between the secular opposition parties and the PKK. This conclusion is predicated upon the understanding that the only explanation for the concurrent surge in attacks by the PKK is that they were carried out in an attempt to weaken the government and the ruling party on the one hand, and to express support for the opposition on the other.
The PKK unilaterally declared a truce in the middle of the month of Ramadan, following the escalation of public tensions between ethnic Turks and Kurds in the cities of western and central Anatolia, and after numerous civil society organisations called on the party to put an end to the bloodshed. Perhaps a significant element that often tends to be overlooked in reading the policies and objectives of the PKK leadership is the secular orientation it shares with the majority of the leadership of the traditional secular Ataturkian parties.
Ultimately, however, the failure of opposition forces in their campaign against the package of amendments is indicative of the spreading crisis within the inner circles of the two main opposition parties. Within the ranks of the CHP, the qualification of Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu to lead the party has been subjected to question, especially in light of the intrigue that surrounded his ascendancy after a sex scandal that caused his predecessor, Deniz Baykal, to step down. In the case of the MHP, whose members were targeted in persecution campaigns sponsored by the regime that was installed by the 1980 coup, there is speculation that a large number of its supporters voted in favour of the constitutional amendments. As a result, many observers have called for the removal of the current leader of the party, Devlet Bahçeli, along with the party's leadership circle.
In the Kurdish region, the percentage of registered voters who went to the polls reached fifty percent. This reflects two elements of success. First, it suggests that the AKP managed to persuade a significant percentage of Kurds that the proposed constitutional reforms do cater to their interests and aspirations. Second, more than ninety percent of those who had vowed to boycott the referendum voted in favour of the amendments. Nevertheless, the remaining high proportion of boycotters testifies to how deeply influential the PKK still is in the Kurdish-majority areas.
An analysis of the voting patterns shows that the AKP enjoys the support of a majority of Turks in both eastern Anatolia and the Black Sea region, where conservative Muslim Turks are the majority. This includes not only areas known for more traditional trends, but Istanbul itself, where the majority voted in favour of the amendments, leaving only an insignificant percentage which voted against. As expected, the opposition gained the support of the majority of voters in the cities of the Mediterranean Coast and the Aegean Sea, in addition to the Edirne region, which is geographically part of the European continent, and where a nationalist discourse – with a rather more secular and radical tone – is dominant. This is ultimately indicative of internal division within the nationalist trend, while the conservative vote maintains its unity under the AKP. The constitutional reforms also won support in secular liberal quarters. Some left-leaning voters also voted in favour of the democratic reform envisioned by the amendments, though not necessarily for the AKP itself.
Outcomes and implications: Broader changes on the horizon
One of the most important implications of the referendum is related to the status of the AKP, which has been ruling Turkey since 2002. After a drop in the percentage of its voters in the last local and municipal elections, some observers had started to believe that the party was finally on the decline, and that Turkish voters had begun to break away from Erdo?an and his team. However, we can now cautiously assert that even if a considerable number of those who voted for the referendum did not necessarily vote in favour of the AKP itself, an analysis of the particular votes on the different clauses within the package suggests that the prospect of a boost in the number of votes for the AKP is in the making, in comparison to the 2007 elections. This is especially the case in light of growing signs that the Turkish economy is experiencing significant growth, confirming that Turkey is on its way out of the dire repercussions of the current global economic crisis.
The debate on the package of constitutional amendments witnessed the rise of a strong current of voters who are in favour of the amendments but, in the same breath, decry their limitations. This is seen as an indication of the country's urgent need for an altogether-new constitution. There is no doubt that, if the AKP returns to power after next year's elections, the drafting of a new constitution will be among its priorities. Another outcome of the referendum is that the opposition no longer has sufficient credentials and legitimacy to stand in the way of such an historic feat.
The constitutional amendments weaken the grip of the secularists on the judiciary and the Constitutional Court, and give more power to the civic institutions of the state. These changes are all taking place within a continuing struggle for power between the military establishment and the AKP, a struggle which has been ongoing since the latter's assumption of power. It can now be said with virtual certainty that Turkey has broken from the era and trend of military coups. These changes, even if they don't lead to the drafting of a new constitution, will surely make the process of governance smoother from the day they are implemented.
The victory of the referendum, which was undoubtedly a personal battle for Erdo?an, has thrown the door wide open for a debate on the idea of changing the Turkish governing system into a republican one, perhaps one that is similar to the French republican model. Erdo?an first suggested this idea two years ago, and his suggestion resulted in vocal and spirited objections from the opposition both inside and outside parliament. However, the idea has recently been receiving more serious attention, especially with the prospect of a forthcoming new constitution in 2011. Should Erdo?an accomplish this goal, his stay in office as prime minister might not be much longer, for he might then resign – after one year as prime minister – in order to run as a presidential candidate in 2012, the year that will mark the first presidential election to take place through direct public vote.
The outcome of the referendum has affirmed Erdo?an's position as a statesman and an outstanding politician both regionally and internationally. This is his sixth poll battle since 2002. It will, without a doubt, increase the sense of desperation that some of his opponents experience in their public attempts to reduce his popularity. What is also important is that the referendum took place against the backdrop of tense Turkish-American relations and a serious deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. The opposition attempted to portray Erdo?an as wanting to pull Turkey away from its traditional allies. These factors transformed the referendum into a vote of confidence on Erdo?an's domestic and foreign polices. However, any attempt to disrupt Erdo?an's foreign policy by defeating him domestically has obviously failed.
In its attempt to promote the amendments, the government tried to convince voters that their passage would strengthen Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, as they would set Turkey on the path towards meeting the democratic standards of the EU. The EU has welcomed the amendments and called for their implementation. However, the idea of Turkey joining the EU is proving to be a much more complex issue than that which can be resolved by constitutional reform. It is also related to an adherence to European standards regarding human rights, trade unions, court systems, and political participation. Additionally, there are fears connected to a deep-seated European discomfort with the idea that an Islamic country with the historical legacy and weight of Turkey might join the EU, which already has 30 million Muslims within its borders.
* This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between AMEC and the AlJazeera Centre for Studies.