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Situation Assessment 13 June, 2011

New Constitution for Turkey: Possibilities for Change

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On June 12, 2011, Turkey is due to hold parliamentary elections. According to the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi - AKP) - the party expected to win a parliamentary majority - the first task on the agenda of  the new parliament will be to draft a new constitution for the Republic of Turkey to replace its current Constitution, enacted in 1982. Several indications suggest that the constitutional amendments enacted by the aforementioned party in 2010, which amended 28 articles in the current Constitution, were approved by 58 percent of voters and were, in fact, an introduction to, and a motivation for, the drafting of a new constitution for the Republic.

It is expected that the new constitution in Turkey will constitute a new social, economic, and political contract between Turkish citizens after some thirty years under the organization of the current constitution. Therefore, it will be a culmination of the political, cultural, and economic dynamics of the major political forces influential within Turkish society, as well as  the efforts of its organized interest groups which have been  relentlessly pressing the process of reform and change which the Turkish politics and society have witnessed since the AKP was voted into office. This paper examines the possible differences between the current and new constitutions, and predicts some of the features and characteristics of the new constitution.


Major Actors in the Process of Drafting a New Constitution

The nature of the relationships and balances of power characteristic of the political arena  in Turkey and the structure of Turkish society indicate that the process of drafting a new constitution in Turkey will be subject to the varying degrees of influence exerted by a number of major political, economic, and social actors. These actors may be categorized into the following three groups:

  1. The four major political parties represented in the current legislature. Firstly, the majority AKP, a liberal Islamist political party, holds 340 out of a total of 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi - TBMM). Following the AKP in Parliament, the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi - CHP), an heir of nationalist Atatürkism, controls 111 seats. In third place, the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi - MHP), a far-right nationalist political party, controls 77 seats. Finally, the Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi - BDP), which is considered to be sympathetic to Kurdish rights, has 22 deputies in the TBMM. Turkey is also home to a number of other smaller parties with no representation in the current legislature.[1]
     
  2. State institutions and agencies not directly involved in the political process - these include the president, Constitutional Court judges and chief of the general staff. The president, according to the Constitution, is the symbolic figurehead of the state and is granted prerogative of "negative rule" according to which he can veto legislation passed in Parliament. The president is also entitled to appointing members of the Constitutional Court and heads and presidents of Turkish universities, in addition to other appointments. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court - which has traditionally and historically been a bastion of the secular movement in the defense of the seculars' political and ideological interests vis-à-vis conservative political currents - has absolute authority to veto any constitutional amendments which are deemed in contradiction to the "founding principles" of the modern Turkish state: "republicanism, secularism and democracy". Finally, the chief of general staff, which is considered the official institution and the historical reference point under which the Turkish army's powerful leaders from various divisions and factions of the Turkish army and Gendarmerie, converge and bow to the enactment of his resolutions.
     
  3. A plethora of civil, interest, and pressure groups, especially industrialists', merchants', and media and journalists' unions.[2]

The framework according to which the new constitution is to be drafted, with its content depending, primarily, on the composition of the new parliament. Public opinion polls[3] indicate that the composition of the upcoming legislature will, in turn, depend on the current ‘truce' between the state and the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan - PKK), given the impact that has on voters' electoral preferences. Consequently, public opinion polls propose two scenarios:

First scenario: if the current "truce" between the armed PKK and the Turkish army is perpetuated, the following partisan configuration of the Parliament can be predicted:

  • the AKP will win 39 percent of the votes and, consequently, control 310 seats out of the 550 seats in the legislature[4];
  • the CHP is expected to gain 28 percent of the votes, thus 200 seats in TBMM;
  • the pro-Kurdish BDP whose candidates often run as "independent" candidates in legislative elections would earn between 30 and 35 seats;
  • the far-right MHP is expected to achieve less than the 10 percent threshold required to claim representation in the Turkish parliament[5].

Turkey can be divided into four main regions in terms of political geography:

  1. The regions of central Anatolia, the capital city Ankara and Istanbul where the AKP maintains a large and traditional electoral presence which is considered the core of the party's support base and constituency (since the onset of democratic life in Turkey in 1950, center-right parties have typically been omnipresent in these regions).
     
  2. The southern and western coastal/Mediterranean regions where the CHP maintains the largest presence and support base in all previous elections.
     
  3. The Black Sea and the northeastern sections of the country, which are considered hotbeds of support for the far-right MHP.
  4. The southeastern regions of the country whose votes are distributed between the AKP and the pro-Kurdish rights BDP although the latter has recently expanded its support base at the expense of the AKP.

Second scenario: if the ‘truce' between the Turkish state and the armed PKK is compromised (which is unlikely, yet possible), then the partisan composition of the parliament might look something like this:

  • the AKP will earn 32 percent of the votes and, as such, control 280 seats of the parliament's 550 seats which reflects a 60-seat reduction in the party's current parliamentary bloc - almost 7 percent;
  • the CHP is expected to secure 25 percent of the total, nation-wide electorate allowing it access to 160 seats in parliament - a 10 percent fall which translates into 17 seats less than its current parliamentary bloc;
  • the far-right MHP would gain 15 percent of nation-wide votes and send 90 deputies to the TBMM which marks a 10 percent increase in the number of parliamentary seats the party previously had; and
  • the BDP will gain 30 seats in parliament as its candidates run as independents in legislative elections.

The predicted distribution of parliamentary seats among political parties following the June 2011 elections if the truce between the PKK and the Turkish army is maintained is described in Table 1 below: 

Party

Political inclination

Predicted percentage of votes

Seats in parliamentary secured by the party

AKP

Center-right (Islamist inclinations)

39 percent

310 seats

CHP

Traditionalist / nationalist (Atatürkist)

28 percent

200 seats

BDP[6]

Nationalist / Kurdish (sympathetic to Kurdish rights)

6 percent

35 seats

MHP

Far-right

Less than 10 percent

None

Table 1 

The predicted distribution of parliamentary seats among political parties following the June 2011 elections if the truce between the PKK and the Turkish army is compromised is described in Table 2. 

Party

Seats in parliament (current distribution)

Percentile quota in parliament (current)

Number of seats in 2011 (predicted)

Percentile quota in 2011 (predicted)

Difference between current and predicted

Percentile difference (current and predicted)

AKP

340

61 percent

280

51 percent

- 60 seats

- 10 percent

CHP

111

20 percent

160

29 percent

+ 50 seats

+ 9 percent

BDP

77

14 percent

90

16 percent

+ 13 seats

+2 percent

MHP

22

--

30

--

+ 8 seats

--

Table 2

Note: Sometimes, there is a significant difference between the percentile quota parties attain in parliaments and their actual presence in the TBMM. This is a result of the nature of the Turkish electoral system which distributes votes gained by parties gaining less than the 10 percent threshold to those parties which have crossed the threshold.


The Political Features of the Turkish Parliament In Both Cases

In the first case, the AKP will possess a comfortable majority in the elected legislature, allowing it to draft a new constitution compatible with its political and ideological visions of the changing social, economic, and political dynamics in Turkey. In the same time, the AKP will, expectedly, be forced to find common ground and reach compromises with only one political party, namely the CHP which constitutes the main oppositional party in Parliament and, to a lesser degree, the pro-Kurdish rights BDP, which is supported by popular and economic forces in the Turkish - Kurdish society.

In the second scenario, the AKP will possess a slim and uncomfortable majority which will force it to make more compromises and concessions to other parliamentary political forces in order to reach national and political consensus. The AKP will also be forced to take into account the risk associated with a parliamentary understanding between two parties with more in common with each other - ideologically and politically - than with the AKP.

A number of observers of domestic Turkish politics suggest that the implicit agreement between the AKP and the PKK to maintain the ceasefire until the legislative elections will contribute to the increased possibility of the first scenario.

Characteristics of the New Constitution

The current Turkish Constitution was enacted in the aftermath of the famous military coup of 1980 which overthrew the country's civilian government under the pretext of saving the country from civil war between leftist and nationalist -rightist political forces at the time. The Constitution was drafted by the military commanders of the 1980 coup d'état and was characterized, in contrast to its predecessor, with the investment of absolute powers in the institutions of the state and the relative limitation of political liberties. Despite the 17 amendments introduced to the Constitution since that time (the last of which was introduced in September 2010), it remains true to its core which can be summarized in four main aspects7:

  • the three perambulatory clauses stress on the values of the modern Turkish state - secularism, democracy, and republicanism;
  • the infrastructural foundations of the Constitution repeatedly emphasize "the state" and "national security" at the expense of the individual and collective liberties of citizens. In other words, in contrast to its 1961 predecessor, the current Constitution is "a constitution of the state and not that of the citizenry," quoting the famous Turkish historian Abdel Rahman Qalkbaya's expression;
  • the Turkish Constitution separates between the authorities and limits executive authorities to the government and the prime minister, but grants the military establishment mandatory trusteeship or tutelage on public affairs through the National Security Council, whose decisions and "recommendations" are considered mandatory for any government; and
  • the constitution reiterates its commitment to the "universalism" of the following freedoms: communication, belief, religion and consciousness, association, thought, opinion and their dissemination.

In contrast to these four general and vague features of the current Turkish Constitution, the proposed constitution is expected to tackle four main issues that are, as a result of dissimilarities amongst political parties, intractable.[7] Other than the three foundational elements of the modern Turkish state - secularism, democracy and republicanism - that all political parties adhere to and promote as foundations for any future constitution, political parties differ significantly with regards to four critical issues at the heart of any future constitution. These may be outlined as follows:

First: the presidential system versus the parliamentary system

Articles 109 to 116 of the current Constitution define the parliamentarian format of the executive authority in the Turkish state and its structures.  Following this, the prerogatives of the executive authority are invested in the Cabinet, whose president, the prime minister, is the leader of a parliamentary majority. In contrast, the president (who is elected by members of the TBMM) retains symbolic prerogatives and exercises protocol.

The AKP would aim to change this political system into a presidential system in which the president would be elected directly by the people, similar to the political system in France. Observers explain this politically arguing that the desire for a presidential system stems from current AKP leader and incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's intentions to extend his term beyond the third term. The AKP however, claims that the urge for a presidential system stems from the party's belief in the need to develop the political infrastructure of the Turkish state. In this context, the party argues that the parliamentary system deprived Turkey of political stability for consecutive periods, prevented the achievement of fundamental reforms, and discouraged bold political stances. This, in the parliamentary system, is a result of the constant threat of parliamentary dynamics and possible ousting of governments by partisan coalitions in Parliament. The presidential system, on the other hand, provides Turkey with a clear hegemonic majority which political forces cannot undermine in every electoral contestation and, as a consequence, allow it to proceed with its political program with little serious opposition. AKP leader, for instance, has been quoted as saying he dreams of seeing Turkey become a bipartisan state much like the political system in the United States.[8]

In this respect, the AKP is supported by the pro-Kurdish rights BDP which sees any such presidential political system a chance for presidents of the Republic to make blunt and brave overtures towards the Kurds. Furthermore, such a political system emphasizes the importance of the BDP as a decisive party amongst contenders despite its small size and support base.

This endeavor is met with stringent opposition from both the CHP and MHP who argue that such a political system negates and marginalizes an entire political current with a significantly large support base in Turkish society. A presidential system would also establish a new era of uncontested AKP hegemony over political life in Turkey.


Second: political and administrative decentralization
[9]

The AKP aims at detangling the current system of "political, administrative, and economic centralization" in Turkey, which is modeled on the classical, bureaucratic and Eurocentric models of the nation-state, especially the French model. The centralization of the political system in Turkey is emphasized upon in the current Constitution which reiterates the indivisibility of the Turkish nation and its territory, the singularity of the Turkish language as the one and only official language of the country, and states that the country's collective symbols and identity markers are unchangeable and unalterable. The AKP aims at breaking this rule, but, in the meantime, admits this endeavor will be faced with major obstacles, including the need to achieve semi-absolute control over the Kurdish-majority regions of the southeast (including the provinces of Diyarbakir, Batman, Mardin, Şanlıurfa/Urfa, Şırnak, Van, and others) since it relies on its ability to suppress the idea of the duality of official languages which may arise if the current centrality of the state and political system is compromised.[10] This will be an important challenge and a significant burden on the Turkish economy, which benefits greatly from the centrality of the state.

A transformation toward administrative, economic, and cultural (educational) decentralization is considered one of the most prominent demands of the BDP which upholds Kurdish rights. The far-right MHP, in contrast, vehemently rejects any notions of decentralization, leaving the CHP in the middle: reluctant toward such reforms. In its political program, the CHP proposes a number of solutions and steps for reforms leading to political decentralization under the auspices of supervisory mechanisms and institutions to prevent local governments and federal units from developing into collectivities based on ethnic, linguistic, or sectarian specificities.

The AKP prefers an administrative and economic form of decentralization while the central state retains control over the cultural, political, and security aspects, along with symbols of collective and national identity.[11]


Third: the 10 percent threshold

By limiting participation in the national legislature to certain political forces, the Constitution is effectively exercising exclusion by the law. The current Constitution, in Article 127, stipulates that political parties unable to gain a minimum 10 percent of total nation-wide votes may not be represented in the Parliament (TBMM). Furthermore, the votes gathered by such parties would be equally distributed amongst the political parties that did cross the 10 percent threshold. This legal condition or threshold has resulted in a political reality that has dominated Turkish politics for decades; the TBMM becomes an assembly of two or three political major forces whereas a large number of smaller parties remain excluded from parliamentary representation. Furthermore, the number of votes gained by parties with less than the 10 percent threshold is often only slightly smaller than the number of votes gained by the parties that did indeed make it to the Parliament, which essentially means that almost half of the population remains unrepresented in the TBMM.

All small political parties in Turkey persistently stress the need to incorporate articles and reforms which guarantee their existence and the integrity and representation of the votes they secure despite their ‘modest' electoral significance. Leftist parties, as well as the far-right MHP and the pro-Kurdish BDP, are amongst the political parties demanding such reforms. Nevertheless, Turkey's two biggest political parties, the AKP and the CHP, reject these demands and consider such reforms counterproductive for a "healthy" political life in the country.


Four: a constitution defending the citizenry, not the state
[12]

With the drafting of a new constitution in sight, the battle is rising in the political discourse of the two political camps in the country. The AKP, on the one hand, insists that constitutions have traditionally been enacted by authoritarian elites and have therefore upheld notions of the state to the detriment of the rights and liberties of the Turkish citizen, downplaying its obligations toward the citizen; effectively, the model of a, all-encompassing, omnipresent state. The CHP, on the other hand, stresses on the centrality of the strengthening the state and its institutions in upholding democracy in Turkey.

The MHP's views resemble those of the CHP rather than those the AKP stands for. However, civil and economic associations tend to support the AKP's position and argue that human development rests upon a constitutional foundation of public, individual, and communitarian liberties which allow society to achieve its potentials.


Conclusion(s)

Following the legislative elections due to be held on June 12, a new constitution is expected to be drafted. This process will be largely determined by the composition of the legislature and the distribution of parliamentary seats among political parties in Turkey, which will reflect the political and ideological dominance of one of the two political currents on Turkish politics, and, thus, Turkey's foreseeable future. Consequently, the importance of upcoming legislative elections is exacerbated as Turkey enters a critical phase in its historical evolution, a, potentially, post-Kemalist phase.

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  • [1] For more on the composition of the Turkish parliament, the political currents represented in the legislature, and the political programs of the different parliamentary blocs, refer to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) website: http://www.tbmm.gov.tr/english/english.html.
  • [2] Professional and trade unions, especially the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce and Industry (İstanbul Ticaret Odası - İTO) and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Central Anatolia, play a prominent role in Turkish political life, as does the strong media apparatus established and widespread around the country.
  • [3] These projections are published by Konda Polling Institute, a prominent Turkish institution working throughout the country that has been conducting weekly polls over the past several months covering the chances of political parties of getting  into parliament. See: http://www.konda.com.tr.
  • [4] According to the current electoral law in Turkey, votes earned by political parties that fail to secure 10 percent of votes nation-wide are distributed amongst parties which did cross the 10 percent threshold. Therefore, it is possible for a party to achieve 39 percent of the votes and yet control 310 seats out of 550 - the equivalent of 56 percent of parliamentary seats.
  • [5] The AKP will be forced to reach compromises and coalesce with other political forces - most of them in the best case - in order to secure minimal consensus in matters pertaining to the drafting of a new constitution, seeing as the process of drafting and enacting constitutions in any country must entail national consensus, especially in a country such as Turkey where a constitution may be annulled or revoked by popular protests on the street, or vetoed by the Constitutional Court even if it secures the required majority in Parliament. Similarly, the president of the Republic, given his symbolic position, will refrain from ratifying a new constitution which fails to secure the support of the vast majority of Turkish society.
  • [6] Although the BDP often gains less votes than the MHP in absolute and percentile figures, its candidates successfully enter the parliament given that they run as independent candidates, whereas MHP candidates run on a party slate. 7 For a detailed reading of the Turkish Constitution, refer to the text of the Constitution available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Turkey
  • [7] For a daily follow-up of political parties' dissimilar positions on the outlook of the expected Constitution, the following are links to the web portals of the predominant Turkish political parties: http://eng.akparti.org.tr/english/index.html, http://www.chp.org.tr, http://www.bdp.org.tr, and  http://www.mhp.org.tr.
  • [8] For more on political parties' different views and perceptions of questions pertaining to Turkey's future political system refer to Cengiz Çandar's analysis available online at http://www.todayszaman.com/news-231386-candar-polls-kurdish-issue-new-constitution-will-occupy-agenda.html
  • [9] The ruling AKP proposed, in 2004, a draft bill for public administration reforms in Turkey which passed in parliament, but was obstructed by then-resident Ahmet Necdet Sezer and has not been frozen since then. The law was primarily a development of late-president Turgut Özal's proposal for reforms directed at transforming the governing structure away from centralism and towards federalism. The law proposed dividing Turkey into seven federal states or provinces (two of which would include a Kurdish minority: Erzurum and Diyarbakir), and granting each province the right to its own parliament and local government which would have strengthened locals' sentiments of belongingness and loyalty to the local governments and, by extension, the federal state. In his outlook and perceptions, Özal was essentially avoiding prompt and temporary solutions. Instead, he emphasized the need to allow local governments to develop naturally throughout the country and, hence, leading to more durable and fundamental solutions. The proposed law would also localize any proposed solutions to the Kurdish question and prevent the need to apply the prerogatives of such a solution on a nation-wide scale. For instance, allowing education in Kurdish and establishing it as an official language would have been enshrined in the constitutions of local governments without forcing the entire country the repercussions of such a solution. The most significant aspect of Özal's proposals, however, were his return to communitarian egalitarianism between the various components of the country as opposed to the individualistic egalitarianism emphasized by proposals for reform brought forth by governments throughout the past decade. Although unannounced, the seven states proposed would allow each ethnic, cultural, and sectarian community with a state: two eastern predominantly-Kurdish states, two central states, one with an Alevi majority (with Elâzığ Province at the center) and the other with a conservative Sunni majority (centered around the capital city, Ankara), a northern state on the Black Sea with an ethnic Laz majority, a western, Mediterranean/coastal state with a Turkish nationalist majority, and an Istanbul state with its inhabitants' European lifestyles.
  • [10] For more on the possibilities of a transformation towards a more decentralized political system in Turkey, refer to this article by Turkish scholar Cenkis Aktar, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=the-real-issue-decentralization-and-regionalization-2011-01-07.
  • [11] Refer to the European Charter of Local Self-Government adopted in 1985. The Charter has never been put into effect in Turkey although Ankara signed and ratified the Charter in 1993.
  • [12] A general characteristic of Turkish politics since the formation of the modern Turkish state has been the dominance of a strong bipolarity between two major political currents in Turkey: (1) the nationalist-secularist political forces (such as the CHP) which adopt and emphasize a discourse mobilizing supporters around notions of "protecting the Turkish state from the various ideological currents" and (2) liberal-Islamist forces (such as the AKP) which have historically upheld the banner of "protecting the citizenry from the tyranny and oppression of the state and its institutions." Traditionally, the former secured the support of approximately 40 percent of the population whereas the latter secured the support of the remaining 60 percent. However, this is only politically customary.