Turkey on the eve of the referendum

Will the September 12 referendum be another tumultuous chapter in the modern political history of Turkey?

Prime Minister Erdogan may have the capacity to rally significant support for his proposed constitutional reforms, however with a complex referendum, confusion could well hinder his ambitions [Reuters]

In the last decade, due to the well-known democratisation endeavour of the Middle East under the leadership of the United States, Turkey has been the subject of analysis by many Western scholars and journalists. As the only democratic and secular Muslim country, it has been presented as a model for other Middle Eastern regimes. Most of these analyses neglect the unique characteristics of Turkey and fail to take into account the complex problems experienced by Turkish politics in the last sixty years. 

In 1946, when the Republican ruling elites decided to shift the political regime of Turkey to a multi-party system, they limited the capacity of the opposition, which was confined to the role of a minority party in parliament in opposition to the Republican Peoples Party (CHP) founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

However, in the first free and fair elections in 1950, Turkish voters turned down the ruling elite’s scheme of guided democracy by overwhelmingly voting for the opposition, namely the Democratic Party.

In the last six decades, the crucial dilemma for the Republican bureaucratic-military elite was to obtain the support of the majority of the voters in free elections, but at the same time to maintain their elitist stance in the society and the distance between themselves and the ordinary people. This secularist bureaucratic-military elite and its party CHP has never been able to come to power through elections and has always been confined to the minority position in parliament, except under the leadership of populist Bülent Ecevit in the late 1970s.

Nevertheless, they did not hesitate to shelve democracy by initiating three military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 and two military interventions in 1997 and 2007, transforming politics and the constitution according to their interests.      

The constitutional reform package that will be the subject of the public referendum on Sept 12 is going to be the last battle between the secular bureaucratic-military elite and Justice and Development Party (AKP), which considers itself the true successor of the Democratic Party and its political stance. The AKP was formed in 2001 as a reaction against two important developments in Turkey: corruption and military tutelage.

Even the party’s name was a response to the troubled political and economic environment in the 1990s and early 2000s. Whereas the word ‘development’ in the title of the party was chosen in reference to the large scale corruption and economic crises, the word ‘justice’ referred to a return to democracy and lawful politics that had been ruined because of the increasing interference of the military in politics. An example of the bureaucratic-military elite’s hard-line attitude towards Islamism was Tayyip Erdogan’s imprisonment for eight months after reading a poem regarded by the court as a violation of secularism and Kemalism.

When Erdogan and his party came to power in 2002 with a landslide victory in the general elections, the confrontation with the bureaucratic-military elite took a new form. Over the course of the last eight years, the hardliners in the military sought to intervene in politics through several coup plots. Moreover they tried to curb Erdogan’s power by using their allies in the judiciary.

In 2007, the Constitutional Court under the pressure of the military favoured CHP’s claim and decided to annul the election of Abdullah Gül by members of the parliament to the position of president. The decision was a legal blunder and against the established political conventions. Moreover in 2008 the Constitutional Court announced that the AKP was “a focal point of anti-secular activities” and halved the party’s funding as a penalty.

In the last two years, Erdogan restored parliament’s power vis-à-vis the military as the leaders of the hardliners were imprisoned and charged with participation in coup plots to destabilise the AKP government. Erdogan’s second move was the reform package to transform the judiciary and democratise the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. These two judicial institutions banned a number of leftist, Islamist and Kurdish parties and imprisoned any voice critical of the status-quo.

In the last two decades they were extensively used by the bureaucratic-military elite to preserve its tutelage over politics. In order to stall the reforms, the bureaucratic-military elite and two leading opposition parties, namely Turkish nationalists and extreme secularists, joined forces.

Although the reform package aims to improve the conditions of women, children, the elderly, veterans, orphans and persons with disabilities, grant civil servants the right to collective bargaining and enhance the privacy of personal life, the opposition claims that the AKP sugarcoated crucial changes to Islamize the higher courts.

Whether the AKP aimed to form a democratic judiciary which is independent of the bureaucratic-military elite or transfer the control of the higher echelons of the judiciary from extreme secularists to its own conservative clique is the most controversial point of the reform package. Indeed Erdogan’s resistance to lower 10% threshold in the general elections and to reform the Council of Higher Education – an authoritarian institution overseeing universities currently under the control of the AKP – mounts doubts about his real intentions. The Kurdish party is going to boycott the referendum by arguing that the reform package will not substantially improve Turkey’s democracy and not ease the strict pressure over Kurds. 

Turkey is approaching a referendum on Sunday that will be a turning point in the battle between the AKP and the bureaucratic-military elite. While the AKP claims that the reforms are necessary to bring Turkey closer in line with the EU, the opposition parties assert that the prime objective of the reform package is to establish Erdogan’s control over top judicial appointments and therefore it will undermine Turkey’s secular democracy.

The “Not Enough but Yes Platform” formed by prominent intellectuals such as Orhan Pamuk appears as the most democratic position in the referendum, since it does not favour limiting reforms within the judiciary, but supports expanding democratisation to other areas including universities, Kurds, and parliamentary participation.

Dr Behlül Özkan currently teaches at both Hacettepe University in Ankara and Bogazici University in Istanbul, having completed his doctoral studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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