WASHINGTON DC: Turkish foreign minister and chief negotiator for the EU Ali Babacan, speaking at a NATO foreign ministers meeting recently, mentioned that the Turkish Constitution as it stands now will not help Turkey move forward with its reform agenda.
This resonates with a statement in September by the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, that constitutional reform would greatly accelerate Turkey s EU accession process and could break the cycle of political crises in the country – such as last year s presidential election crisis and this year s Constitutional Court case to disband the ruling political party.
Although debate over changing the constitution has waned immensely over the past year, Babacan has rightly called attention to an issue that has important implications for Turkey. The current constitution, which was implemented under Turkish military rule in 1982, has caused some serious headaches. Many elements within Turkey argue that the current constitution limits basic rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech, religious expression and association.
Both for internal steadiness as well as greater EU compatibility, debate has focused in the past on creating a new constitution that functions more democratically and better ensures the rights and freedoms of all Turkish citizens. A renewed energy must emerge from Turkey s political parties and civil society for action to take place anytime soon. However, recent history and the government s current workload also make this a challenging task.
Turkey s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), made an effort to draft a new constitution after the 2007 elections, but the party made some serious missteps. They attempted to create a draft in secrecy without involving other political parties or institutions. The draft was then leaked to the press.
Soon thereafter, the constitutional amendments to allow headscarves in universities and the trial charging the AKP for violating secularism created a major distraction.
Meanwhile, other events have taken centre stage: increased violence from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Russia-Georgia conflict, renewed ties with Armenia, mediation between Syria and Israel, the global economic crisis and the scandal surrounding the clandestine group Ergenekon, which some allege was plotting a coup and others believe was an excuse used by the government to arrest its critics.
As a result, debate over a new constitution has been left sitting on the shelf.
More conservative Turks have argued that the current constitution has been amended so frequently (79 articles have been changed and 13 amendments added in 26 years), that only some additional amendments would be necessary. Others, particularly in academia and civil society, insist that a Constitutional Convention should be called and a complete revision generated, claiming that the spirit of the document needs to be renewed.
A new draft would most likely strengthen the parliamentary system, reduce powers of the presidency, reform the judicial process and clearly define individual freedoms.
An attempt to renew Turkey s constitution could be as daunting, and perhaps as dangerous, as open-heart surgery. However, many sectors of society have been calling for change, claiming that Turkey has progressed far beyond its days of military rule and that its constitution must reflect this.
Yet, convincing political leaders that such reforms are necessary sooner rather than later, and sustaining the political will to carry them out, will be challenging. Still stinging from the embarrassment of the recent attempts to change the constitution, those in power are unlikely to risk taking up this issue again in the near future. Additionally, there are many regional issues involving Turkey that will keep the government occupied.
However, judging from the comments of Foreign Minister Babacan and other leaders, addressing challenges and moving ahead with reforms must be done within a solid constitutional framework, and a renewed and vibrant debate over the constitution would be healthy for Turkey s future.
Liam Hardy is an independent researcher on issues related to Turkey and the region. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.