News / Europe

Turkey Undertakes Big Push to Replace Military Constitution

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and then-deputy Cemil Cicek listen as Interior Minister Besir Atalay [not pictured] addresses members of parliament during a debate at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, November 2009. (file photo)
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and then-deputy Cemil Cicek listen as Interior Minister Besir Atalay [not pictured] addresses members of parliament during a debate at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, November 2009. (file photo)
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Dorian Jones

The speaker of the Turkish parliament held meetings on Monday with constitutional experts on the writing of a new constitution. There is broad political agreement on the need for replacing the 1982 constitution written by Turkey's then-military rulers. A new constitution is seen as especially crucial to addressing the demands of the country's Kurdish minority. Major problems lie ahead, however, for the government in its constitutional reform efforts.

With handshakes and smiles, Turkish parliament speaker Cemil Cicek greeted leading constitutional experts. Cicek said a new constitution is key to modernizing the country and achieving its goal of European Union membership. The gathering is the first step in the government's bid to replace the current constitution, which is synonymous with oppression and lack of freedoms. There is wide agreement that it needs to be replaced. Building on that consensus, parliamentary deputy and senior member of the ruling AK party Volkan Bozkir said the whole process must be inclusive.

"The main pillar of the whole system is the constitution. The constitution we have now is the product of a military coup d'etat in 1980. The mentality of the constitution is not a liberal one," said Bozkir. "The best thing to do is to have new constitution. But everybody must feel comfortable with the new constitution, and to do that, the sensitivities of everybody should be taken into consideration. And of course it should be decided with a public referendum.

The government has committed itself to consult with all the parliamentary parties. While there is acknowledgement on the need for reform, though, deep divisions remain over the nature of it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is widely considered to want to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, a proposal strongly opposed by all the opposition parties. But with Erdogan having secured 50 percent of the vote in last June's election, political columnist Asli Aydintasbas warns government talk of consensus may just be talk.

"He does not feel the need to compromise, and basically this whole talk of consensus was not really about compromise," said Aydintasbas.  "It was like, 'let's sit around the table and come around to whatever the 50 percent want.' It's a problem. I don't think with the boycott and the kind of mood and rhetoric people are using, we are going to have a big consensus around the new constitution. I don't see it happening."

The boycott that Aydintasbas is referring to is by the country's main pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. Its deputies are refusing to take their parliamentary oaths because six of their colleagues are languishing in jail, despite having parliamentary immunity. The constitutional reform process is already overshadowed by increased fighting between the state and the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. Arrests of BDP members also continue, with 55 over in recent days under anti-terror laws. Political scientist Soli Ozel warns the whole constitutional  process is under threat.

"The central problem is going to be how to redefine citizenship. If it leaves the Kurdish nationalists out, then it will be a lame constitution," said Ozel. "But the government obviously [is] banking on [the] fact that it feels qualified to speak on behalf of the Kurds, as well, because it gets in the country in general almost half of the Kurdish vote."

The leadership of the pro-Kurdish BDP has said it will end its boycott, however, if the government gives a commitment to end cross-border operations into northern Iraq against PKK bases. Also, they want an end to the isolation of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. It remains unclear whether the government will meet those demands. But Parliamentary Deputy Bozkir believes the constitutional process will have wide parliamentary political participation.   

"They might have some tough talks in the parliament, that is understandable. But when it comes to issues which is in the interest of the country, I am really very hopeful we will have just to put the opposition parties into the process and have their views and have the constitution as a common project," said Bozkir.

A new constitution is widely touted as key to turning Turkey into a modern democracy and paving the way to resolving the deep divisions that continue to plague its society. Already those divisions are threatening to overwhelm the government's efforts, though, to finally sever the country's last tie with its military past.

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