by Daniella Kuzmanovic
After the Turkish parliament approved a comprehensive package of amendments to the Turkish constitution late Thursday, all things now point to a referendum on the amendments. What are we then to think of the prospect of a referendum on these changes to the Turkish constitution? No doubt the amendments in themselves are significant steps towards political democratization, and so is asking the voters for their opinion. Nevertheless, I have trouble making up my mind when it comes to whether the referendum is a good or a bad thing under the current circumstances. Let me share some of my considerations on the issue with you.
A referendum on amendments to the constitution where voters actually have something to vote about, will in itself be a significant step in relation to political democratization and liberalization in Turkey. Any step that can potentially increase the Turkish voters’ notion of having-a-say on the future political culture of the country is welcome, not least given that the past couple of years have made more and more Turks ask themselves, whether they actually have any influence on what is going on in their country. There is a real danger of a couple of generations of Turks becoming completely alienated and disengaged from national politics. The last time there was a referendum on the constitution was back in 1982. After the 12th of September 1980 military coup the military junta had a new constitution prepared, which despite a number of revisions is still in function. The constitution was among other designed to control not least civil politics by creating a range of institutional checks and balances that secured the influence of state organs and thus of the kemalist-statist military-bureaucratic-judiciary elite. When the voters were subsequently asked to vote on the constitution in 1982, the vote was de facto a choice between continued military rule or a return to some sort of civil politics, since a return to the latter required acceptance of the new constitution. Hence, the Turks accepted yet another (the third) constitution prepared not through a democratic political process but by an authoritarian elite’s desire to restructure Turkish politics (even the more liberal constitution after the 1960 coup was created in this manner, even though it created an at that time unprecedented political liberalization in Turkey).
Almost needless to say, a likely ‘yes’ to the amendments in a referendum will create a legitimacy around the political democratization process in Turkey, and send a clear signal to the statist military-bureaucratic elite and their supporters. The high-profiled amendments in the package are after all particularly aimed at undermining the ability of the Kemalist statist elite to control civil politics – such as including more members in the Constitutional Court and restructuring the HSYK (Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors) – as well as aimed at continuing the process of bringing military personnel within a framework of the rule of law – such as making it possible to prosecute those involved in the 1980 military coup, or consolidating the civic prosecution of military personnel. A clear ‘yes’ with a good margin of the voters will furthermore signal that the amendments to the constitution are truly the wish of the Turkish nation rather than just the ambition of the ruling party, the AKP. It would be a significant signal of the desire of the Turkish people to move towards more political democratization and liberalization.
In other words, for those of us who hope the future for Turkey holds a development of a more democratic political culture, the amendments in themselves as well as the prospect of a referendum seem like significant steps on the way. On the other hand, I hold certain reservations as to just how beneficial a referendum will be given the circumstances, context and political climate in Turkey today. Moreover, a referendum pushes the prospect of getting a whole new constitution into a distant future.
During this week’s debates on the critical amendments in the Turkish parliament – not least the amendment making it more difficult to close political parties which was rejected and withdrawn from the package – there were at least two kinds of opposition. One (CHP and MHP), reflects a deep-seated skepticism towards the motives of the AKP with regard to carrying through political reforms. Such opponents fear that the constitutional amendments will make it impossible for the state to control the AKP, hence consolidating the power of the party and possibly paving the way for a complete pro-Islamist take-over and an undermining of the founding principles of the Turkish state. The other (BDP), points out that even though the amendments are a step in the right direction more democracy and a consistency with regard to removing anti-democratic passages is needed. Among other BDP suggested that the very problematic ten percent threshold in national elections should be lifted, in return they would have voted in favour of the amendment regarding party closures. (I will not speculate on the motives of the 12 members of the ruling party who also abstained or voted against the party closure amendment).
Even though the above mentioned reservations express different kinds of opposition they both put a question mark behind the motives of the AKP. Are they in fact pursuing national interests or only their own interests? Needless to say that this question will also be the main theme of a referendum on the amendments, just as the so-called true nature of the ruling party has been the main theme in the on-going struggle between various statist and political parties in Turkey. In that sense the referendum will only contribute to further polarization of the Turkish population in a situation where democratic dialogue is already handicapped. I fear that a referendum, which prime minister Erdoğan and AKP will do their outmost to win and where the stakes are high, will not provide a context for improving the possibility for democratic dialogue in Turkey. Fresh in mind is also the attempt of the AKP to draft a new constitution a couple of years back. Even though the people AKP put to design this constitution were highly skilled and aimed to create a democratic constitution, the process around the draft was marked by secrecy and closed-door policy rather than dialogue and inclusion in the draft process. An obvious mistake, if the aim of the AKP was to create a democratic culture and signal the wish for increased plurality and inclusion of the plural in national politics.
An additional issue is that a referendum on the amendments will most likely mean that any notion of getting a whole new constitution will be pushed into an indefinite future. For one you don’t hold referendums on such issues every other day. On top of that next year is election year in Turkey. The need for a new constitution has, though, been pointed to again and again, just as it has been pointed out that amendments, no matter how many, are not sufficient to create the institutional framework necessary to underpin a full-blown democratic political system in Turkey. Keeping in mind that the draft for a new constitution could not make any headways in Turkey due to the way it came into being and the general political climate of suspicion, we have to recognize that a referendum on the amendments are, alas, the second-best option. But at present it is the only option, and when all comes to all better than nothing.