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Aug 26, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

Constitutional Reform: A Change Turkey's Parties Can Believe In

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gather in Ankara Aug. 7, 2016, to show their opposition to the military coup attempted a few weeks earlier.
(ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights
  • Turkey's shifting foreign policy is helping to reduce friction between the country's ruling and opposition parties.
  • After the failed coup, Turkey's political parties will be even more united in their efforts to increase civilian oversight over the military, but amendments to increase presidential control will remain too contentious to pass.
  • Kurdish political participation will be even further sidelined from mainline Turkish politics, a unique departure from prior rounds of AKP-led constitutional amendments.

Since the Republic of Turkey became a multiparty constitutional democracy in 1946, its governmental institutions have been used as tools of patronage in a highly polarized political system. The arduous process of rewriting the Turkish Constitution offers a prime opportunity for parties to co-opt Turkish political institutions to advance their agendas. Sometimes, these agendas coincide. The constitution of 1982, for instance, was in many ways drafted around various protections for the military. But in the years since its adoption, civilian political parties have rallied around the common goal of redacting those protections to keep Turkey's democratic system from descending into martial law.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made rewriting the constitution, which it considers too tutelary, something of its own cause throughout the nearly decade and a half that it has held power. Now, the air of compromise that has prevailed among Turkey's main three parties — the AKP, Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — since the attempted coup will help bring some constitutional amendments to fruition, particularly changes to effect greater civilian oversight over the military or bolster national security. Nevertheless, the process will inevitably get caught up in the thorns of Turkey's political patronage system.

Turkey's Constitution History

A Change for Every Season

Turkey's Constitution has undergone 17 major amendments since 1982. During its time in power, the AKP has assumed the task of pushing more amendments through to augment its own power. Throughout the 2000s, Turkey's efforts to join the European Union became the biggest enabler of the AKP's constitutional reform initiatives because the issue brought all the country's fractious parties together. In drafting several amendments based on Europe's demands for greater personal liberties in Turkey, the AKP accomplished a couple of goals. Amendments such as the one overturning a ban on certain languages in the media (a veiled 1982 attempt to keep Kurdish interests in check) satisfied secularist opposition parties. Others, such as the amendment allowing military personnel to stand trial in civilian courts for crimes committed off-duty, undermined the dominance of military-based institutions, thereby removing an obstacle in the AKP's path to greater power.

In 2010, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a series of landmark amendments focused on judicial changes and, to a lesser extent, lifting protections for military officers deemed to be involved in coups. Because accession to the Continental bloc remained a goal (albeit a distant one) across the political spectrum, the proposed amendments continued to draw on EU suggestions. But in truth, the EU accession process functioned as a convenient excuse for the AKP to assert civilian authority over the military to ensure that it would not interfere in the ruling party's efforts to consolidate power.

As the AKP tried to break down secular, military control with its raft of amendments, the main opposition party, the CHP, saw a chance to preserve its own power. Like the AKP, the CHP favors constitutional provisions to prevent the military from attempting coups. Even so, the party struggled with the erosion of the military, which intermittently served as an important ally and also provided a defense against the Islamist-led political system that the opposition feared the AKP was striving for.

Despite their diverging politics, the four major Turkish parties at the time — the AKP, CHP, MHP and Peace and Democracy Party (the predecessor of today's People's Democratic Party, or HDP) — all shared a desire to maintain autonomy as political parties. This common goal unified them on some of the 2010 amendments, such as a proposal designed to protect political parties from being dissolved at the hands of the Supreme Court. But that agreement was not enough to bring them to the two-thirds majority necessary to pass many other constitutional reforms. Consensus, always a stumbling block in Turkey, was difficult to achieve among the disparate parties, and the changes were put to a public referendum. Turkish voters approved the referendum by a wide margin, passing a set of amendments that, perhaps most important, enlarged the size and representation in Turkey's highest judicial board and removed judicial protections for coup leaders.

Today, redistributing the power of the Turkish judiciary remains the focus of the "constitutional mini-package" currently under consideration, but EU accession is no longer the primary motivator. Though talks with the European Union are still on track, and though the deal between the bloc and Turkey on migrants — however stressed — is still intact, the latest amendments are being advanced in the name of national security. In the spring, a parliamentary committee comprising deputies from each of the four main parties convened to discuss drafting a new constitution. But the AKP's demands for converting Turkey's government to a presidential system — a prospect the opposition parties oppose for fear that it would lead to a more authoritarian state — stymied the talks.

A Rare Opportunity

In the aftermath of the attempted coup, most of Ankara's main political parties have banded together in an unusual display of unity. The leaders of the CHP and MHP held a meeting with Erdogan days after the coup. On Aug. 7, a rally in Istanbul brought over a million Turks — including representatives from the three parties — together in a nationalist ceremony at which no party insignias were allowed. Though the solidarity demonstrated at these gatherings does not herald a significant political realignment for the parties involved, it nonetheless suggests that the AKP may have a rare opportunity to act with greater support from the opposition.

Even before the insurrection, Ankara's politicians were creeping closer to accord, thanks to a foreign policy recalibration. The CHP has long criticized the AKP's foreign policy as reckless, accusing the ruling party of miring Turkey in regional conflicts and inviting confrontations with the Islamic State. But now, Turkey has changed tack, reviving its relationships with Russia and Israel and communicating with Iran. Ankara is even entertaining more normalized relations with President Bashar al Assad's government as Turkish troops enter the fray in Syria, hoping to end the conflict there in Turkey's favor. Among Erdogan's opponents, this new approach has helped to build consensus on possible constitutional changes, and it will also smooth the bumps that may arise in Turkey's path as it deepens its involvement across the border.

But the AKP's efforts at consensus building go only so far.

The ruling party appears to be forging ahead with its amendment package without much input from Kurdish opposition party HDP, which was not even invited to the unity meetings and ceremonies that followed the coup. When the AKP first came to power, and even during the 2010 referendum on constitutional amendments, the party depended on the Kurdish vote. As the fight against the Islamic State persists just beyond its borders, however, Turkey feels more threatened by its Kurdish insurgency. The Kurds' prominent role in the efforts against the Islamic State has empowered Pan-Kurdish forces across the region. Though the groups are still far from being able to form independent states, the threat is no less concerning to nations with significant Kurdish minorities such as Turkey.

By focusing on national security in its latest proposed constitutional reforms, the AKP is appealing to the nationalist sentiments of the right-wing MHP and center-left CHP. In doing so, the ruling party not only limits Kurdish autonomy in Turkey but also ensures support for its agenda among main opposition parties. Now that the Kurdish threat has returned to the fore in Turkish politics, the CHP, which was once neutral on the issue of resolving the insurgency, is less inclined to support a peace process with the Kurds. Of course, sidelining the Kurds politically may only add to Turkey's security problems in the long run; the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is suspected of an Aug. 25 assassination attempt on the CHP's leader.

Points of Contention

In addition to uniting Turkey's main political parties, the coup attempt started a debate on some aspects of Turkish governance, including reinstating the death penalty and increasing oversight over the military. Regardless of the unusual atmosphere in Ankara, constitutional amendments on those controversial matters would be difficult to pass. Since even AKP leaders are divided on the death penalty, it is highly unlikely that the ruling party would try to revive capital punishment in a piece of legislation. After all, reinstating the death penalty would even further reduce Turkey's chances of extraditing Fethullah Gulen, the coup's alleged organizer, from the United States. It would also derail the country's aspirations to join the European Union. Still, the party has raised the issue at rallies recently to incite nationalism.

Extending civilian oversight over the military is an even trickier subject among the AKP, CHP and MHP. Because the latest coup was the first in Turkey to be quelled by civilians, the country's main political parties are especially interested in maintaining that check over the military. But the opposition parties, concerned about inadvertently weakening the military, will fight the AKP's attempts to pull military institutions under the president's purview. A solution more acceptable to the opposition would be to put institutions such as the intelligence service and Joint Chiefs of Staff under greater civilian control, for instance, by giving the Interior Ministry control over them. Transferring the coast guard and the gendarmerie to the Interior Ministry's control — as the Supreme Military Council advised during a July 28 meeting — should therefore not pose too great a challenge.

Notwithstanding the considerable costs of the coup, the spirit of compromise that it has inspired among three of Turkey's principal political parties could serve the government well in its efforts to amend the constitution. Even so, the ruling party will hit some snags along the way. Turkey's patronage politics make its institutions inherently weak and susceptible to political exploitation and monopolization. Though the constitutional reforms that the president and his party have advanced are designed to fortify Turkey's institutions, they, too, could get co-opted by competing political agendas.  

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