There has been a fair amount of media attention devoted to Egypt’s upcoming efforts to write a new constitution as well as a few stories here and there about the Libyan government’s plans to form a constitutional committee. Both projects deserve whatever attention they are getting and much more given how new constitutions will shape the trajectory of Egyptian and Libyan politics. There is another constitutional exercise going on in the region that has received far less attention. Indeed, Turks convened a constitutional commission last October, keeping with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to scrap the 1982 constitution, which was written at the behest of the military junta that took over the country in September of 1980. The drafting of the constitution will unfold in four stages and is supposed to be complete at the end of 2012. The lack of attention—even in the Turkish press—is no doubt a function of both editorial decisions and the sense that Turkey is a good story, already a democracy, and even a model for those countries in the Arab world undergoing transitions.
It is true that Turkey is more democratic than it was a decade ago, yet it is not a democracy. I hear all the time from both Turks and Western analysts that Turkey’s transition to democracy happened in July of 1947 when Ismet Inonu—Ataturk’s successor— recognized the Demokrat Partisi, which four renegade members of the Republican People’s Party had established. Over the following six decades there was a dizzying array of coalition governments, contested elections, actual parliamentary prerogatives, but there were also four coups d’etat and innumerable other military interventions in politics. Once more, despite the fact that the junior officers who carried out the 1960 coup oversaw the drafting of a relatively liberal constitution, they also set the stage for future military interventions by upgrading the status of the National Security Council, which was established around the same time as the multi-party system. The 1971 “coup by memorandum” ordered the government to tighten up the more liberal aspects of the 1961 constitution. And the 1982 version represented a full-blown effort on the part of the officers to protect the state rather than, for example, the rights of individuals as one might expect in a democratic political system.
Despite the AKP’s reforms in 2003 and 2004, which were good enough to get the Turks a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, virtually everyone in Turkey agrees that it is time to dispose of the 1982 document and start over. The matter is particularly urgent given recent Turkish backsliding on political change—why are there ninety-four journalists in Turkish jails?—and serious concerns about Prime Minister Erdogan’s health. The prime minister has revealed illiberal tendencies in recent years, but the fact remains that he is the sun around which the Justice and Development Party as well as Turkish politics revolve. Should he become incapacitated or worse, it would throw the whole constitutional process into question.
As the committee goes about its works there are 4 areas that need careful attention.
1. Basic freedoms—Too often in the “new Turkey,” the government has resorted to authoritarian tactics to undermine personal freedoms. This is a legacy of the past and while the AKP is not responsible for the misdeeds of previous governments and military officers, the party has been all too willing to use undemocratic rules, decrees, and laws to go after its political opponents. When questions are raised about freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression—the notorious article 301 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness” comes to mind here—all too often, the answer from Turkish officials is: “It’s the law. It isn’t us.” Now there is an opportunity to rid Turkey of the authoritarian anachronisms that were developed to ensure Kemalist orthodoxy.
2. Minority Rights—Turkey cannot fairly consider itself a democracy without any change to the status of its Greek, Armenian, and in particular Kurdish minorities. Although there are Kurds who are well integrated in Turkish society, as a community they are marginalized and under threat. This does not excuse the violence of the Kurdistan Workers Party, but it does provide a context for it. This will be a heavy lift as they say for Erdogan and the AKP given the realities of Turkish nationalism, the prime minister’s diverse constituencies, and the likely resistance of the opposition Republican’s People Party and Nationalist Movement Party. Still, Erdogan and the AKP garnered 49.95 percent of the vote in the June 2011 elections. It is time that the prime minister, whose policy toward the Kurds has been purely reactive since the launch of his "Kurdish opening" in 2009, use his mandate and lead on this issue and enshrine safeguards into the new constitution that do away with the connection between ethnicity and rights in the Turkish Republic.
3. Civil-Military Relations—It has become an accepted fact that Prime Minister Erdogan finally resolved the problem of civil-military relations in Turkey last July when four of the five most senior ranking officers in the Turkish Armed Forces resigned en masse. Erdogan moved quickly and appointed new military leaders without a major showdown. With so many other officers in jail awaiting trial for allegedly plotting against the government, the Turkish military as a political actor seems to have gone out of business after eight decades. Turkish and foreign observers have applauded efforts to tame the Turkish armed forces, especially the 2003 constitutional reforms that made critical changes to the Milli Guvenlik Kurulu (National Security Council), but more recent developments have swung the civil- military balance so far in favor of the AKP, to the point that the government risks destroying the Turkish armed forces. Turkey’s constitution writers would be wise to finish the job of subordinating the military to elected civilian leaders through the formal regulations, decrees, rules, and laws that ensure both that the military cannot intervene in politics and also respect the traditions and honor of the officers.
4. Power of the presidency—On the eve of Turkey’s parliamentary election last June, there was considerable buzz that Prime Minister Erdogan whose victory was all but certain would want to use his new mandate to write a new constitution with enhanced presidential powers that would be his when President Abdullah Gul’s term ends in 2014. This was a sure sign to the prime minister’s opponents that he was less interested in transforming Turkey into a democracy than transforming Turkey to aggrandize his own personal power. The debate was, as is often the case when the stakes are high, rife with hyperbole, but it did touch on an important deficiency in current Turkish politics—the lack of reliable checks and balances. That is why some Turks and some Western observers lament the passing of the old days when the Turkish military was an alleged “moderator” of the political system. Turkey needs to change the way it chooses its judges, which currently provides opportunity for court packing, better parliamentary oversight, and clearer safeguards against any particular branch of government from accumulating too much power. If these changes are accomplished in conjunction with new responsibilities for the presidency, they would likely be a positive development for Turkish democracy.
The narrative about Turkish democratic change aside, the need for a new constitution is as critical as ever given recent backsliding on reform that are reminiscent of the old Turkey. The ingredients for this new document are no secret—the protection of basic freedoms, ensuring the rights of minorities, subordinating the military without destroying it, and establishing clear checks and balances among the branches of government. Without these critical factors, Turkey risks becoming an illiberal democracy, which is essentially what it was before the AKP came to power.