Constitutional Referendum in Turkey: Grand Battle between Traditionalists & Secularists
by Alexander Sotnichenko on 18 Sep 2010 1 Comment

September 12, 2010, a referendum on constitutional reform was held in Turkey. The results are known: 58% for and 42% against the reforms. Turkish citizens voted for the changes in the law of the land proposed by the country’s government. Twenty-six amendments deal for the most part with relations between the military and the civilian government, the role of the Constitutional court in banning political parties, as well as citizens’ rights to join trade unions and take part in strikes.


The introduction of amendments to the constitution is said to be necessary to bring Turkish law into compliance with EU standards. However, in reality, the current referendum is a decisive battle between two political elites in Turkey – secular and religious, and its results will be fateful both for the country and its peoples, as well as for the region as a whole.


Turkey’s current constitution had been adopted in 1982, following the 1980 military coup, and is the fifth in the history of the republic. The previous one, adopted in 1961, was disliked by the new military government for being too democratic. The 1982 document contains a number of provisions which fall under the criticism of the EU. They have to do with limiting the rights of ethnic minorities (Turkish is singled out as the only national language), religion, and also limiting the rights of state workers, who have no right to protest against their employer. However, most criticism falls on the provisions which give armed forces the right to interfere in Turkish politics.


According to Turkey’s constitution, the army is a guarantor of the secular nature of the regime. Article 118 states that the National Security Council, made up of the chief of the General Staff and the heads of four branches of the Turkish armed forces, as well as selected members of the cabinet, determine the country’s national security strategy. In fact, it allows the army to interfere with the country’s domestic politics if several main principles are being violated in its opinion: national unity, secularism and the republican form of government.


The Turkish army has on numerous occasions acted as a regulator in the country’s political arena banning unwanted political leaders and disbanding parties. For example, in 1997 the prime minister Necmettin Erbakan was removed from power and his Welfare Party was banned on suspicion of introducing Islam into politics. In 2001, another Islamic party, the Virtue Party was banned, as a result of which the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AK party) was formed.


By conducting the current referendum, the civilian government is attempting to place the armed forces fully under civilian control and to remove them as a decision-maker in internal politics. Formally, this coincides with the demands of the EU, and for that reason the constitutional reform is being carried out under the motto of Europeanization of the laws, which will allow Turkey to be considered for EU membership.


According to article 175, the Turkish constitution can be modified in two ways – by a parliamentary vote, where a 2/3 majority would be necessary to pass new amendments, and by a national referendum on constitutional reform. The current government chose the second option. Firstly, because the Justice and Development Party lacks more than twenty votes for the constitutional majority in parliament. However, we feel that a more important reason is that a national referendum brings more legitimacy with it, especially since the previous constitution adopted in 1982 was approved by the majority of the country’s citizens. The referendum itself is not simply a change in several articles of the constitution at the behest of the EU or activists of the ruling party trying to rein in the military. Possibly, the referendum will turn into a decisive battle between long-opposing Turkish elites, as a result of which the political course of the country may change in a cardinal way.


Traditionalism vs. Secularism


The current reign of the Justice and Development Party can be called accidental. Secular forces and the military guarding the secular regime did not let parties with leftist and Islamic platforms gain power. After the formation of the multi-party system in Turkey in 1946, the country experienced three major military coups (in 1960, 1971 and 1980). Also, there were numerous occasions on which the military intervened into the civilian affairs of the country, banned political parties, took odious political leaders out of power, and revoked laws passed by parliament. The modern republic was created by the secular nationalist military elite in 1923. Up until the very last moment, it remained in power, defending the country from radicals. Before the end of the 1980’s, communists were considered the main adversary, but in the 1990’s, the main opponents of the regime start to appear from the bottom of society, connected with the tariqats.


The growth of the population of Turkey originated mainly from the traditionally oriented population of Anatolia, which voted for Islamic parties. Starting in the 1970’s, the percentage of those giving their vote to Islamic parties steadily increased despite administrative resistance by secular forces holding key positions in power. In 2001, the Virtue Party faction in parliament, which was banned by the Constitutional court, split into two parts, one of which formed the Justice and Development Party. In the following year, it would win elections, gaining 34% of the vote and forming a single-party government because many potential leaders could not mount the 10% electoral barrier. That moment became the starting point for the unfolding drama of conflict between secular and traditionalist elites.


In 2002, secular forces twice initiated court action to ban the party and some legislation passed by parliament was rejected by the Constitutional court. In response to pressure from secular forces, the Justice and Development Party launched a loud campaign to discredit the party and secular institutions, accusing its opponents of plotting a military coup and assassinations of party leaders. Right now, dozens of people, including retired officers, journalists, professors and leaders of political parties are being investigated as part of the Ergenekon affair.


The media keeps reporting new details of the case, revealing hidden political projects of the secularists. In the course of 8 years in power, the Justice and Development Party government was able to reorient a lot of mass media outlets towards supporting it, replace the leadership of most universities and win influence with the police force. The secular forces are still led by the army, which does not wish to lose its political influence, the courts, which are traditionally comprised of a high number of Alawites, and the diplomatic corps.


A real war is playing out in the economic sphere. Traditionally, in the Turkish republic the public sector had a very influential role in the economy, and was controlled by officials with a military past. Justice and Development Party is carrying out a privatization campaign, as a result of which major resources end up in the hands of holdings with close links to the party. A similarly heated conflict is playing out between universities and scientific and analytical centers divided along political lines.


So far, the supporters of the Justice and Development Party are winning. It was their government that was able not only to take the country out of a prolonged economic crisis and guarantee a steady growth of the GDP, but also to successfully remove opponents from public institutions. The majority of the people support charismatic prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is proved by the results of 2007 parliamentary elections, when the party got 46.6% of the votes (12.5% more than in 2002) and local elections in 2009 (39%). However, as long as the Turkish constitution allows for a special role for the armed forces, which basically have a right to carry out a military coup, the situation cannot be called stable. The constitutional referendum on September 12 should forever take away the army’s right to intervene in the country’s domestic politics and put the army under civilian control.


Electoral Map Ahead of the Referendum


The ballot at the constitutional referendum contains only two words – yes and no. It is around them that all campaign ads and events were built by various political forces. The ruling Justice and Development Party, whose leadership basically initiated the referendum, campaigned under the “yes” slogan. Party leaders organized a powerful information campaign in support of changes in the constitution that included rallies, ads in the press and pickets in the streets of towns and villages.


The Justice and Development Party’s initiative was supported only by former comrades from the Virtue Party, who organized the conservative Happiness Party, which promotes Islamic unity. The threats from secularists concern them even more than the ruling party and it was natural to expect their support.


Opponents, who campaign under the “no” slogan are much less unified. Among them are liberal Westernizers, leftists and nationalists. The campaign against changes to the constitution is led by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (20.1%), which is presently going through rough times. It was able to unify a significant part of the secularist electorate around itself, but earlier this year, its former leader Deniz Baykal was forced to resign as a result of a sex scandal, and the new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has yet to win the trust of the electorate. The Republican People’s Party believes that changes in the constitution will allow the Justice and Development Party to abandon principles of a secular state and Islamize Turkey.


Nationalists from the Nationalist Movement Party, which also opposes changes in the constitution, occupy a very powerful position in Turkey (14.7%). Nationalists believe that the new constitution will give more rights to ethnic minorities, especially Kurds and Armenians, which will have a negative effect on Turkey as a secular nation-state.


In this sense, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (20 members of parliament, elected from single-mandate districts) has not taken a clear position. It has the support of 6% of the population of Turkey. The party’s leadership has called on the Turkish Kurds to boycott the referendum as it is not conducted in the interests of the Kurdish people.


According to the results of the poll conducted on September 4 and 5 by Konda Public Opinion Institute, about 56.8% of the voters will cast their ballots in support of constitutional reform, and 39.2% will vote against the reform. 17.6% of the population did not form their opinion at the time the poll was being conducted. In this sense, the position of the Kurdish minority, which comprises up to 20% of the population, will be of most importance. A significant number of Kurds supported the Justice and Development Party in 2002 and 2007, as it was able to pass a number of reforms that strengthened the rights of the Kurdish populace. However, the secularists are also seeking support of the Kurdish population for their position, claiming that in this way the Kurds would be able to thwart Turkish leadership’s plans.


Former minister of culture (2002-2003) and minister of education of Turkey (2003-2009), a Justice and Development Party member of parliament from Van district Huseyin Celik, is currently responsible for the party’s press and propaganda, and has told the author of this article: “We have concentrated all of our efforts on the last weeks before the referendum and hope that the people will support us. However, for the Justice and Development Party, it would not be enough to win by an insignificant margin. In that case, our reforms would in a sense not be popular. We will attempt to achieve victory with a margin of more than 20%.”


A well-known Turkish historian and leftist politician Mehmet Perincek is convinced that the secularists will come out victorious from the referendum: “Of course, the people will vote against the reforms directed from across the ocean. But even if Islamicists win, it is necessary to remember that they will not be in power for long. The situation in Turkey is such that the current government will not be in power more than three-four more years.”


Forecasts and Perspectives


This referendum has become the highest point in the political career of the ruling Justice and Development Party. They were preparing for it for a long time, methodically discrediting political opponents with the help of court action and revelations in the media. The date for the referendum is not accidental either. The holy Muslim month of Ramadan, during which even people who are not very religious try to fast and go to mosques, which frequently serve as Justice and Development Party’s PR outlets, has just ended. But most importantly, September 12, 2010 is the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 military coup, which is remembered by many for its unprecedented violence and clampdown on all rights and freedoms. On September 12, 1980, the previous democratic constitution adopted in 1961 was revoked, and in 1982 the participants in the coup created the current law of the land. It would be very symbolic if after 30 years, the most anti-democratic articles of the constitution would be voided.


After the likely victory of Justice and Development Party supporters, a quick Islamization of Turkey is not to be expected, just as the accession into the EU, promised by the government. The party in power will receive a mandate from the population for further reforms, among which, we suspect, will be a law on wearing veils by women in public buildings. This law was already adopted by the parliamentary majority in 2008, but was soon taken down by the Constitutional court as not being in accordance with the secular character of the Turkish state.


The pressure on the armed forces will mount, the Ergenekon affair may possibly expand, ending with tough sentences for the accused. The Erdogan government will act without fear of a possible stab in the back from the military and will show its true face. However, it is unlikely that Turkey will turn from a secular state into an Islamic country. The introduction of Sharia law does not have the approval of the majority of population, and the supporters of Justice and Development Party are not willing to give up many achievements of European civilization, such as interest banking, prohibited in Islam, secular education, and wide cultural, economic and political ties with Europe, Russia and the United States. Some form of Islamization will certainly occur: there may be a limit on the sale of alcohol in public places, which is already starting to be enforced, and there may also be an introduction of mandatory religious courses in schools and universities.


As for joining the EU, nobody in Turkey believes in it. The decisions on this matter are made by the European, and not the Turkish MPs. But will this be a defeat for Turkey? Should a dynamically developing country like Turkey aspire to join a club of developed nations, which have lately been known for unprecedented financial, demographic and social problems?


Following the referendum, Turkey will take a tougher, decisive position on the international arena, will attempt to take a leadership role in the Middle East, to reconstruct the cultural space of the Ottoman Empire, and become a full-fledged independent pole of the forming multi-polar world.


The author is from St Petersburg University, a great expert on Turkey

[Courtesy shamireaders]

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