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Yes to democracy

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in the referendum in Istanbul.-OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in the referendum in Istanbul.-OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS

The government's victory in the September 12 referendum gives Turkey an opportunity to break free of the military-judiciary clasp.

TURKISH voters gave their approval for a radical set of constitutional reforms in a referendum held in the country on September 12. A decisive 58 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the landmark constitutional changes. There was an 80 per cent voter turnout.

The referendum coincided with the 30th anniversary of the 1980 military coup in the country. The authoritarian imprint of the military was evident in the Constitution that had come into force in 1982. The present changes in the Constitution were needed to safeguard democracy and curtail the powers of the military, which has viewed itself as the self-appointed arbiter of the country's politics. The Turkish Army and sections of the establishment allied to it have had no love lost for the Justice and Development (AK) Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has been in power for the past seven years. The unarticulated fear of the Westernised elite, known locally as the white Turks, has been that the democratic churning will once and for all end their grip on key organs of the government.

The constitutional amendments will also help Turkey's case for accelerated membership of the European Union (E.U.). Key E.U. countries had used the non-democratic character of the Constitution as a pretext to stall the Muslim-majority country's long-standing bid for E.U. membership. The E.U.'s Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, said that the constitutional changes were a step in the right direction.

We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of the law, Erdogan said after the announcement of the results. Turkey will now witness important changes in the way it is governed. The new Constitution redefines the jurisdiction of military courts. From now on, civilian courts will have the power to try military personnel for crimes against the Constitution. Officers fired from the military will now have the right of appeal.

Gender equality has been strengthened under the new Constitution. Workers are now free to form more than one union at their workplace. The Constitution recognises the right of civil servants to engage in collective bargaining.

The AK Party's move to hold a referendum was welcomed by prominent Turkish intellectuals such as Orhan Pamuk known for their commitment to secularism and individual freedom. Many of them, in fact, wanted the government to go in for a more radical overhaul of the Constitution. Under the old Constitution, Pamuk and other Turkish intellectuals were threatened with long prison sentences for their writings.

Voters approved 26 constitutional amendments in all. These amendments, besides curbing the powers of the military, will clip the wings of the higher judiciary, which has been closely aligned with the military establishment. Sections of the top judiciary had, in concert with the military leadership, played a dubious role in the country's politics since the 1950s. In 2008, the democratically elected AK government was on the verge of being ousted in a judicial coup orchestrated from the military headquarters. Since 1993, the Constitutional Court of Turkey has banned Kurdish parties on four occasions. Under the recently approved Constitution, a political party can be banned or closed only by a two-third majority ruling of the Constitutional Court comprising 17 members (earlier 15). Turkey will no longer be the graveyard of political parties.

The abolition of Article 15 of the Constitution has opened the possibility of bringing to justice the perpetrators of the 1980 military coup. The coup had resulted in the death or disappearance of thousands of civilians, many of them leftists. Civil society groups have already gone to court demanding the trial of the retired general and former President, Kenan Evren, who led the coup. The vice-chairman of the AK Party, Omer Celik, said that those who engineered the coup were a gang of murderers responsible for crimes against humanity.

The new Constitution will overhaul the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors. Henceforth, the executive branch will select judges from a list put forward by independent bar councils. All first-class judges will be able to vote in the selection of the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors. Under the earlier Constitution, the President made all the 15 appointments to the Constitutional Court. The army and the judiciary had been acting in tandem until now. In Turkey, this nexus, not answerable to democratic institutions, is described as the deep state.

Opposition

Critics of the government's move, led by the Republican People's Party (CHP), had launched a big campaign to defeat the amendments. Powerful media outlets opposed to the AK Party alleged that the constitutional changes would lead to authoritarian rule by the AK Party as they would undermine the independence of the judiciary and threaten the secular character of the modern Turkish state established by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. The CHP said that the constitutional reforms were part of the blueprint of the AK Party to transform Turkey into an Islamist state. The new CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, tried to portray the referendum as the last opportunity to save secularism.

The main legal Kurdish Party, the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), and the incarcerated leader of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKP), Abdullah Ocalan, had also called on their supporters to boycott the referendum, but for different reasons. The BDP wanted the government to make more amendments in the Constitution so that it would be easier for Kurdish parties to find representation in the country's Parliament. Parties have to poll more than 10 per cent of the vote to get representation in Parliament now. The BDP's other demands were the cessation of the military's operations in Kurdish areas and the release of Kurd leaders languishing in jail.

In recent months, there has been a spike in militant activities in Kurd-dominated areas along the border with Iraq. There was a high level of abstention in the Kurdish heartland in the September 12 vote. The Kemalist establishment had used the previous Constitution to ban Kurdish political parties and the use of the Kurdish language. Erdogan and the AK Party allowed the official use of the language and gave autonomy to the Kurdish regions. Kurds are estimated to constitute around 20 per cent of the population. Their participation would have further boosted the yes vote. The Prime Minister, while campaigning for the yes vote in Diyarbakir, the cultural capital of Kurds in south-eastern Turkey, promised to write very soon an entirely new Constitution that would encapsulate many of their demands. All the major parties have agreed that the 10 per cent threshold required for representation in Parliament should be amended.

Facade democracy

One of Erdogan's key aides, Ibrahim Kalin, said that the current struggle in Turkey is not between secularists and Islamists but between reformists and those who want the status quo to continue. Erdogan himself averred that there were no winners or losers in the referendum. He said that strengthening democracy was to everyone's benefit.

A prominent Turkish columnist, Bulent Kenes, wrote in his column in the English language newspaper Today's Zaman that the referendum results marked the end of the facade democracy that had characterised Turkish politics. He said: The facade democracy' that allows the military, the high judiciary, the bureaucracy and elitist capitalists to wield power, with complete disregard for the nation's will, has finally been decoded by the masses. Kenes is of the view that Turkey never was a true democracy. Until 1950, its rulers never even pretended that the country was a democracy, with the army-backed CHP monopolising power. A splinter group of the CHP, which formed the Justice Party and came to power 60 years ago, soon discovered that the real power continued to be in the hands of the military and the judiciary.

When the Justice Party tried to take tentative steps to reform the system, it was overthrown by the military with the backing of the CHP in 1960. The Prime Minister and two of his Cabinet colleagues were hanged in order to send a message to civilian politicians. The army and the judiciary blatantly intervened to subvert democracy many times after that. But in recent years, they have been less successful.

The results of the referendum stand the AK Party in good stead when elections are held by the middle of next year. The Opposition, led by the CHP, was banking on a defeat, or approval only by a narrow margin, of the Constitution reform package. Now CHP leader Kilicdaroglu has chosen to find comfort in the fact that 42 per cent of the electorate voted against the constitutional changes.

At this juncture the AK Party's momentum seems unstoppable and the party seems all set for a third term in office. The referendum results will also give the government the confidence to continue pursuing an assertive foreign policy. Given its strategic location and growing economic and political clout, Turkey is seeking to play a major role in the region. It is in the forefront of countries seeking to break the illegal Israeli blockade on Gaza. Along with Brazil, Turkey is also trying to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear programme.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 22, 2010.)

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