Print options

May 10, 2013

Turkey Mulls Constitutional Reform in Light of Talks with Kurdish Rebels

by Dorian Jones

With fighters from the Kurdish rebel group the PKK withdrawing from Turkey to Iraq, eyes are now on a new constitution currently being written by Turkey's parliament, which could meet Kurdish political demands. But those parliamentary efforts remain deadlocked, with the Turkish president warning this week that the process has reached a dead end.

The start of the withdrawal of PKK fighters is the first step in efforts to end the nearly three-decade-long conflict between the Kurdish rebel group and the Turkish state.

Altan Tan, a parliamentary deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, says now is the time for reforms for the country’s Kurdish minority.

"Turkey should solve the Kurdish problem and make a new constitution and a new democratic rule," said Tan "This is the 'new position' of the PKK and the Kurdish movement."

Tan is a member of an inter-party parliamentary reconciliation commission tasked with writing a new constitution to replace the 1982 military constitution currently in force. Kurdish demands include mother-tongue education, greater power to Turkey's regions and constitutional recognition of the Kurdish identity.

But the drafting of a new constitution remains deadlocked over numerous issues, including key BDP demands. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said this week he feared the process has reached a dead end.

Riza Turmen, a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party who also sits on the parliamentary constitution reconciliation commission, remains hopeful.

"The area of disagreement gets narrower," said Turmen. "There are obstacles in the process itself; we have to reconcile all these views and we should have enough time to negotiate. And there is the proposal by the ruling party on the presidential system: this constitutes a major obstacle [to] an agreement."
 
All the main opposition parties accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of wanting to create a presidential system with few checks or balances, ahead of his expected bid for the presidency next year. This week, a senior member of the ruling AK party gave the parliamentary constitution reconciliation commission a July 1 deadline for completing its work.

Observers expect the government will put forward its own draft constitution.  Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, says reforms have to be introduced to keep the peace process on track.

"No one expects a full-fledged, brand new constitution any more from this commission. Turkey still needs a temporary constitution that would contain key elements to make sure the peace process will proceed," said Aktar.
 
The government will need the support of one other party to ensure constitutional reform is approved in parliament and then in a national referendum. Tan of the pro-Kurdish BDP says a deal could be reached with the Turkish prime minister if he modifies his presidential plans.

"If he [the prime minister] gives all the rights to the Kurds, maybe [we] will discuss the presidential system, not according [to] his idea, [but] according to the United States system with the checks and balances,"said Tan.

So far, Prime Minister Erdogan has rejected the U.S. model, claiming it’s too restrictive. Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, warns any constitution that excludes the main opposition party risks dividing the country and casting a shadow over the document's legitimacy.

"There will be a severe problem of legitimacy for that constitution. It will have the numbers [to pass in parliament] but it will not have the support of [a] significant part of the Turkish population, which will then be dead [set] against it. And legitimacy is not a very concrete thing: you cannot touch it, you just feel it when it breaks down. A constitution that passes solely with AKP and BDP votes is not going to be on very solid ground," said Ozel.
 
The government's July 1 deadine for the parliamentary constitution reconciliation commission to complete its work means it has less than three months to reach an agreement.  Observers warn that with hopes for an end to the nearly three-decade-long conflict hanging in the balance, pressure to reach a consensus on a new constitution can only grow.