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A Win for Turkish Democracy?

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 14, 2010

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AK), which has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, scored a decisive win September 12 in a strongly contested national referendum on changes to the constitution (NYT). "The majority of the Turks want change," says CFR Turkey expert Steven A. Cook, though he observes that while many see the results as a step forward for Turkish democracy, there are some concerns about whether it could instead be "another step down that road of a less democratic, more religiously oriented political environment." Cook adds that if the AK continues to show strong support in next June's parliamentary elections, "those elections and this referendum taken together will leave them in a very good position to begin the process of writing an entirely new constitution, which is something that they have wanted to do." He also notes a recent improvement in U.S.-Turkish relations, as well as a modest lessening of tensions between Turkey and Israel.

What's the significance of this vote?

Beyond the specifics of the amendments, overall the vote says the majority of Turks want change. They want to change the constitution that the military dictatorship wrote for them in 1982. They want to get rid of the authoritarian legacies of that era of Turkish politics. Of course, the referendum was held on the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 military coup, so in and of itself the vote was heavy with symbolism. The question remains whether these amendments improve the quality of Turkish democracy; whether this is another step in the direction of a more democratic, open, and liberal Turkey or whether this is another step down that road of a less democratic, more religiously oriented political environment. I would say that the most controversial of these amendments are the ones that are related to the judiciary, the public prosecutors, and the military establishment.

How does this referendum affect the judiciary?

It gives the government and the parliament the ability to actually appoint judges and prosecutors. Previously it had been reserved solely for the judges to determine who is promoted and who gets to sit in what powerful position. It was a self-regulating body. The judiciary has been dominated by strict Kemalists, secularists, and nationalists. So if you had a position or political view that was perceived to deviate from the strict interpretation of Kemalism, your chances of promotion or, for example, sitting on the constitutional court or being appointed a state prosecutor and advancing in that position were severely limited.

Could you define "Kemalist" views a bit?

These are the principles laid out by the Republic of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal, known more commonly as AtatŁrk. Without getting too much into the details of it, Kemalists these days interpret those principles as ones of strict secularism. This is not, though, a separation of church and state; in fact, it's a situation in which the state controls religion and tries to make sure that religion does not enter into the public sphere. It is a perspective in which Turkish nationalism is very important and plays an influential role in the Turkish world view. It's also a commitment to the unitarian nature of the Turkish Republic. These are the basic tenets to which the judiciary has been attached for quite some time.

This came acutely into the public domain recently when the government tried to eliminate the rule that said women at state universities couldn't wear the hijab?

The opposition sees the constitutional amendments not as strengthening the checks and balances, not as strengthening the judiciary, but actually undermining the checks and balances.

Right. That is a hot-button issue in Turkish politics. In the context of Turkish politics, to committed secular nationalists, the hijab is almost reactionary, whereas in other Muslim societies the hijab goes basically unquestioned and is part of the landscape. In Turkey, because of this ban, and because of the official secularism of the republic, the head scarf has taken on a symbolic meaning well beyond its religious significance. It has taken on a political significance. But it's not just a question of the hijab.

What's happened since the Justice and Development Party has come to power and dominated the parliament is that it passes legislation the opposition is opposed to but can't do anything about, because they don't have the votes in the parliament to stop it. So, the opposition has sought redress in the court system. And because the courts were dominated by these Kemalists, they would as a matter of course declare all or much of this legislation as unconstitutional. So, the Justice and Development Party has taken upon itself judicial reform.

Nobody would argue that the Turkish judiciary isn't in need of reform. It's hardly independent. It hardly meets international standards. But the concern has been that these amendments go too far in the opposite direction--so that the government would have significant influence on the makeup of the courts and the worldview of those judges who are appointed and promoted, and that if the opposition sought redress in the courts, the courts would return friendly verdicts to the Justice and Development Party. This is the crux of the issue for the opposition and those who are deeply suspicious of what the Justice and Development Party seeks. The opposition sees the constitutional amendments not as strengthening the checks and balances, not as strengthening the judiciary, but actually undermining the checks and balances.

The opposition parties are aware that there is supposed to be a general election next summer. Is this vote on the referendum an indication that Erdogan's party is going to win big next year too?

Turkish politics never really crystallizes until three to five weeks before an election. The default position of observers should also be that the Justice and Development Party, which has been in power for eight years, has developed a sophisticated network; it has done extremely well on the economy; it does represent and enjoys the support of a majority of Turks. You see that in the returns on this referendum.

If Justice and Development and Erdogan have another very successful election in which they control a majority of seats in the parliament, those elections and this referendum will leave them in a very good position to begin the process of writing an entirely new constitution, which is something that they have wanted to do.

Was the referendum vote discernible by region?

Although Erodgan supporters won by a very large margin--58 percent to 42 percent--the vote actually went against them in places like Istanbul and Izmir. Its returns were strongest in central Anatolia, which is a further indication that Turkey is actually quite polarized over these issues. The returns on the referendum track very closely to the returns from the local elections in March 2009, in which the Justice and Development Party did not do well in western Turkey and along the southern coast, but really had strong support in central Anatolia. The party represents the people of central Anatolia, which in many ways represents a new social class that is exercising both its economic and newfound political power for the first time. These are people who did not feel that Kemalism and the Kemalist elite from Istanbul and Izmir and Ankara treated them well, whether it's the control of the big holding companies in Istanbul that had shut out rising entrepreneurs in central Anatolia or the perceived political discrimination against the people from central Anatolia. What we're seeing there is a real reversal of fortune, and it is, as I said, quite polarized.

In Turkey--in Istanbul, say--do most of the women wear the hijab or not?

Actually, no. There's been a number of credible studies that show that actually the number of women who are wearing the hijab has not increased with the rise of the Justice and Development Party. It's just that women who do wear the hijab are showing up in places where they've never been before: certain quarters of Istanbul and certain restaurants. All of a sudden, women who wear the hijab are finding it comfortable to do so. One of the things that the Justice and Development Party has done is make it safer for Turks to express their Muslim identity in ways they hadn't done before. It's not that there's been a wave of women taking hijab, it's that they are more visible now than they ever were before.

On the one hand, I guess secularists deplore the rise of religion in society, but on the other hand, it sounds like Turkey is becoming a freer society.

That's exactly what women who wear hijab and their supporters and others say: that this is a question of freedom of expression, and the ability to wear it in different places and the desire to lift the ban on wearing it in state-funded universities is the natural progression of a society that is transitioning from a semi-authoritarian or authoritarian system to a more democratic system.

If the Justice and Development Party wins again next year, what does that mean?

Although it's difficult to draw any kind of conclusion about what the results of the national elections will be, which are scheduled to happen sometime before July 2011, it would seem to me that if Justice and Development and Erdogan have another very successful election in which they control a majority of seats in the parliament, those elections and this referendum taken together will leave them in a very good position to begin the process of writing an entirely new constitution, which is something that they have wanted to do. They began doing that in September 2007, [but] they were thwarted by their political opponents.

Would they rewrite it in a very drastic way?

The draft that they produced in September 2007 was actually quite a liberal document. It was drafted by a Turkish political science professor with a legal background, Ergun Ozbudun, who is a well-known liberal. But there was tremendous concern on the part of secular circles, and this concern was whipped up in part by the press about this specific issue of the hijab. The political situation became too tense, and Erdogan decided not to continue with the process.

Turkey has been at odds with Israel since Israel attacked a Turkish aid flotilla trying to break the blockade on Gaza and nine Turks were killed. There's also been a strain in Turkish relations with the United States over Turkey's and Brazil's support of Iran in the dispute over sanctions. How are relations between the United States and Turkey right now?

Despite the tension over those issues and the flotilla incident, the Obama administration continues to value the relationship with Turkey and recognizes the reality of Turkey as an influential economic, political, and diplomatic actor in the region [and recognizes] it's difficult to ignore Turkey, and it would be wrong to penalize the Turks. And if, in the administration's perspective, these set of amendments were indeed a step toward a more democratic and open Turkey, then they were certainly going to acknowledge that to Erdogan. I don't detect the administration wanting to necessarily punish the Turks. They want to work with the Turks where they can and try to support U.S. interests.

The rhetoric from Turkey against Israel seems to have slackened.

That's true for a number of reasons. The Obama administration made it clear that it was unhappy about this rhetoric and that it was doing no one any good. There's been some effort on the part of both the Israelis and the Turks to find their way back to a place where they are not engaged in an ugly and public spat. Part of that has been the agreement to work on this UN-sponsored investigation of the flotilla incident, where there is an Israeli representative and a Turkish representative. That has ameliorated some of the tension. I don't want to go too far and say that things are back to normal between the Israelis and the Turks. But both sides saw that continuing down the road they were going was not serving either of their interests.

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