Turkish Government Offers Contentious Constitutional Changes

BY Larisa Epatko  April 1, 2010 at 2:07 PM EST

This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a set of constitutional changes that the government says would promote democracy and bolster its bid for membership in the European Union, but critics say would shrink the independence of the judiciary.

The proposed package from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, would overhaul the judiciary by changing the way judges are appointed, allow military officers to be tried in civilian rather than military courts, and make it harder for courts to ban political parties.

The Turkish Parliament is expected to vote on the constitutional changes later this month. Erdogan reportedly plans to call for a referendum in July if Parliament fails to pass the amendments.

We asked Hugh Pope, the Turkey/Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, what the proposed changes would mean for the country:

What’s the impetus behind the proposal?

They’re mainly made to basically improve the survivability of critical parties which can be closed down by the judiciary. I think beyond that, there’s also a symbolic gesture that “we are wanting to modernize the whole constitution but we can’t do it all because we’re being blocked,” and that is a change that Turkey has to move forward to. So it’s not just the small things that they’re doing, it’s also just trying to prove their capacity to get at the root of some of the problems that really are holding Turkey back.

How are the proposed changes being viewed in the country and why are they being offered now?

The current constitution was written in 1982 under military law and it has been changed substantially since then especially in the years of convergence with the EU in 2000 and 2002. Several major revisions ending things like capital punishment and other anti-democratic legislation. The trouble is that since then things have got stuck. And what has happened in political terms is there’s been polarization in Ankara that have not allowed any civilized discussion on how to do a consensual change of the constitution.

And intellectuals are divided about whether it’s a good idea that AKP goes for this partial constitutional change, which is clearly aimed at political self-preservation as well as another small step toward full European standards in Turkish law. Or is this actually just a save-the-day gesture which is wasting ammunition and in fact is trying to consolidate AKP’s grip on power. So there’s been two approaches. I think that the liberal consensus is this small step forward is better than no step at all.

The AKP came to power in 2007 promising that they would change the whole constitution and they never managed to do that. If it were possible to roll back history, I think AKP should have tried much harder to get everybody into the same tent to change the constitution but given the way things are at the moment, it’s good to have this discussion, but it would be even better if they could bring everyone on board and have a constitution that has real majority backing.

Did the recent military arrests in the alleged coup plot and attempt to disband the AKP in 2008 have anything to do with this constitutional proposal?

There is a long-term desire to change the constitution, and there’s a short-term sense in Ankara — and has been for a number of years — that AKP is fighting for survival against those who are trying to bring it down through legalistic means. Indeed, they were taken to court by the constitutional court only a couple of years ago, so these fears are real and therefore there is unfortunately this sense of “we need to do something to make sure that we can continue to survive as a party.”

What are the implications within Turkey?

This is all about how fast Turkey is going to change its governing systems to conform to the highest standards possible under EU law, and I think that there’s a strong movement to extend this constitutional reform to the question of the political parties as a whole and to try and make them more democratic. Because what Turkey needs is a much more vibrant participatory political party system. Turkey is a pretty democratic country and its elections are free and fair, and has a legitimate leader who’s legitimately elected. But the parties themselves are not very democratic and the head of the party has absolute power over the party structure. And this has had the effect of discouraging young people from getting involved in politics. That’s very unfortunate because it means that there’s not a sense that everybody is taking part in the political scene and that gives rise to frustration and means that political energy is getting directed to places outside the system.

Where does Turkey’s application to join the EU stand?

These constitutional reforms are not directly linked to the EU membership, but they would certainly improve the atmosphere in that they would show that Turkey was really working to become a fully European country. The negotiations themselves are a bit stuck, because half of the negotiating chapters — there are about 35 negotiating areas — half of them are blocked by the Cyprus issue.

Currently there are four chapters benchmarks required for EU membership open and are very difficult chapters to deal with in the negotiating process. And it means that unless Turkey can generate some domestic change on its own, such as this constitutional reform, and hopefully in the end broader constitutional reforms than the ones proposed, it’s going to be difficult for Turkey to signal to everyone that it’s continuing to improve its whole institutional framework and is genuinely trying to get into the European club.