Tag Archives: Democratization

REFERENDUM ON THE HORIZON IN TURKEY – IMPLICATIONS FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF A DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL CULTURE

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.

SPEAKING OF RULE OF LAW AND A GRAND MASTER PLAN

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

The current crisis will be solved within the framework of the constitutional order and the frameworks of the laws. This was the bottom line of the statement from the presidency after the crisis management meeting Thursday the 25th of February in Ankara between President Abdullah Gül, prime minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan and chief of general staff İlker Başbuğ. Considering the serious political crises and the way it has rubbed off on the financial markets, it was about high time to send the message that people in and outside Turkey must trust in the political and legal institutions of the country to be able to deal with the crisis. Needless to say that a repetition of the February 21, 2001 incident, where former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer quarreled with then prime minister Bülent Ecevit in the National Security Council  thereby more than adding to a severe financial crises Turkey if not directly setting it off, must be avoided at all costs. This is seemingly recognized by all parties in the political conflict.

 

That the statement centered round the issue of the workings of rule of law and the institutional checks and balances in Turkey should come as no surprise. Not just due to the recent historical experience of 2001. Rather one has to understand how the judiciary is for better and worse the gravity point of the crisis. The question of whose ideological outlook dominates within the judiciary is a key concern by supporters as well as adversaries of the AKP government. The former explains how the judiciary has traditionally been in alignment with the Kemalist etatist elite including the military. The rulings of the Kemalist stong-hold par excellence, the Constitutional court, serve as prime examples. The closure case against AKP and DTP in 2008, and the recent overruling / annulment in January 2010 of the reform package passed by parliament in July 2009, which would among other have allowed civilian courts to prosecute military personnel. Even though this overruling has had limited practical effects, military personnel do in fact face trial by civilian courts in the on-going Ergenekon-Sledgehammer investigations, it has been seen as a strong symbolic support to the conceptualization of some people in Turkey as being above the law in the interest of the nation-state. Hence, they argue that what is in fact going on is democratization and strengthening of rule of law in Turkey. Those adversaries with a more conservative Kemalist leaning lament, how the whole Ergenekon-Sledgehammer case is nothing but a politically initiated witch hunt on behalf of the current government, thus revealing how the AKP has succeeded in a civilian take-over of not only the bureaucracy but also the judiciary. In this context the problematic structuring of the HSYK (Supreme Board of judges and prosecutors) where the minister of justice among other has a seat is presented as one of many examples of the ways in which government can somehow pressure the judiciary.

 

The current case of prosecutor Ilhan Cihaner really shows the intricacies of these relations (intricacies which can barely be disclosed in the brief section that follows but nevertheless). In mid Feburary 2010 Cihaner was arrested and interrogated as part of the Ergenekon case. The arrest was warranted by another prosecutor, Osman Şanal, with special authorities. Cihaner had launched an investigation into an Islamic religious sect in 2007 and later in 2009 attempted to launch an investigation into the Gülen movement. These acts had put him squarely in the secular Kemalist camp who are fighting what they believe is an anti-secular AKP government. Immediately following upon the arrest the HSYK (Supreme Board of judges and prosecutors) removed the special powers of the prosecutor who had had Cihaner arrested. In the light of HSYK being seen as a Kemalist stronghold, this removal was interpreted as the secular Kemalist elite showing its muscle, an opinion among other aired by the ministry of justice. Yet the very same ministry of justice was accused by critics of intervening in order to slow down the removal of Şanal, something which gave him time to forward the investigation file on Cihaner to the courthouse. Meanwhile AKP critics also saw the detainment of Cihaner in the first place as an attempt on behalf of the government to stop any investigations relating to Islamic religious networks. The underlying assumption is of course that such investigations might hurt the ruling party since they have close relations to the Gülen movement and (excuse the expression) God only knows who else.

 

It is easy to get caught up on either side of the polarized debate. There are however also those observers in Turkey who argue for the necessity of once and for all ridding Turkish politics of the legacy of military influence, while simultaneously criticizing the AKP for replacing military tutelage with civilian tutelage. AKP may say that they are acting in the name of democratization but they are not themselves acting as true democrats. On the contrary they are using the existing rules and regulation aimed at state control with civilian politics to consolidate their own power. Upholding the 10 percent threshold in national elections is but one example of this. In this sense AKP follows in the footsteps of a long and by no democratic standards glorious political party tradition in Turkey. It is also in this context that one can hear speculations as to the extent to which government is able to affect the judiciary. Of course there are problematic areas for example regarding the HSYK. But does this simply mean that the continued politicization of the judiciary is the only reasonable explanation to everything that is going on including the arrest of military personnel, or could it be that part of the explanation has to do with circles in the judiciary who are tired of accusations of lack of independence, and tired of a reputation as somebody’s lapdog? Could it be that there are in fact people in the judiciary who act as they do because they pursue a strengthening of rule of law and the separation of powers?

 

Why is it, one may now ask, that this latter seems as such a naïve idea in a Turkish context? This I believe has partly to be explained by how the current tensions and political struggles between various elites have reasserted the prominent and popular notion that all acts are part of a larger master plan. Be it the plan of etatist elements or the AKP, the notion that acts are symbolic representations of a larger strategy and initiated by somebody for some higher purpose is by now the dominant lense through which all things must be interpreted and understood. As if there are not enough threats against the development of a democratic culture in Turkey, this is for sure one more problem to add to a long list.