Turkey’s current constitution is a product of military coup (1980-1983). It was ratified by popular referendum (91% approval) in 1982 and has been amended by 17 times since then with changes to 113 articles. The last modification took place in September 2010 through a popular referendum (with 58% approval), yet the demand to replace the military government’s legacy has not eased. During the June 2011 elections, it was not only the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP-Justice and Development Party), which has been a long-standing critic of the 1982 constitution but all the four major political parties of Turkey campaigned on the promise of a “civilian constitution”. With the electoral victory for AKP in 2011 elections, it became apparent that Turkey would enter a constitution-making process.
Despite an overwhelming victory for AKP, the party failed to get 2/3 of the seats in the Parliament, which would make it possible for AKP to unilaterally draft and ratify a constitution. Thus, soon after the elections a commission charged with drafting a new constitution was established. The commission, called a Constitutional Conciliation Commission, convened first in October 2011; it includes three members from each of the four parties represented in the parliament. Therefore, regardless of the distribution of the seats in the parliament, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have equal representation in the commission. And all the reports coming out of the commission indicate that there is great harmony between the members, which is remarkable compared to daily tension between the parties in parliament.
Although party leaders, including Prime Minister Erdogan have not mentioned the new constitution for months, the commission has been working studiously and it is estimated that the commission will start drafting the substance after May 1st. Cemil Cicek, the current Speaker of the Parliament who is leading the commission stated, “We have an obligation to reach consensus…. If we do not make a new constitution, we would end up giving an additional 30 years to this constitution that we have been complaining about for the last 30 years. Because I am not sure whether such composition will ever be possible for Turkey. Today 95% of the citizens is represented in the parliament. Over 80 percent of the population has participated in forming today’s parliament. Four parties declared that they will do this job.” He also pointed to the fact that there are upcoming elections in 2013 and 2014, and therefore it would be difficult for the constitution to remain on the agenda.
Although the parliament reflects a relatively fair representation of the population and therefore could be assumed to have political legitimacy to produce a new constitution, everyday politics there show the underlying tension between the incumbent party AKP and the opposition. Fist fights among the members of the parliament are a regular part of the evening news which makes observers question whether the political environment is conducive to prepare a new constitution.
Turkey’s process of drafting a new constitution was the main topic of discussion in this week’s European Parliament meeting. The meeting brought together Deputy Director-General in the Enlargement Directorate-General Joost Korte with Friends of Turkey, members of Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists and intellectuals from Turkey. The meeting highlighted the importance of the constitutional process, the support of European Union for Turkey’s endeavor for a civilian and democratic constitution and the important elements that need to be incorporated in the new constitution. The expectation is that Turkey’s new constitution will be in line with European Union norms and will help Turkey’s aspirations to become an EU member.
The commission also reached out to hear the demands of civil society organization, most importantly its religious minority. In December lawmakers met with a Jewish group and this February Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople addressed the parliament and representatives of Syriac Orthodox Christians also attended the parliamentary hearing. The representatives met with the Constitutional Conciliation Commission and outlined their expectation from the new constitution. This has been celebrated as an important step for Turkey’s small religious community which for the most part of the Turkish state’s history has been marginalized politically.
Turkey’s constitution-building process is an on-going one and the upcoming months will demonstrate whether it will prove to be a product of genuine compromise among the political parties, enriched with the demands of civil society organizations and capable of addressing Turkey’s thorny issues (including civil and political rights for the Kurdish minority, religious minorities and the remnants of military tutelage) or whether it will be put to rest because the political parties are unwilling to compromise.
–Oya Yegen, Boston University, Department of Political Science