Monday, December 14, 2009

Constitutional Crisis

The troubling closing of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party by Turkey's highest court can be blamed on a number of actors and factors. Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European Parliament who now writes a column for the Hurriyet Daily News, notes that the closure is not really a matter of Turks versus Kurds, but really part of a battle between "Turks and Kurds who are willing to find a political compromise on one side and Turks and Kurds who are not interested in finding a solution on the other side....The decision by the Constitutional Court to close down the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, is just the last domino that is falling over, set in motion by a perfidious coalition of Turks and Kurds who are willing to do everything to stop the process of reconciliation that was recently started by the government."

(You can read the whole column here.)

But also behind the closure case is the same problem that lies at the root of so many of the other roadblocks standing in the way of Turkey's democratization process: the need for a new constitution.

Turkey's current constitution, written after the 1980 military coup, is essentially designed to defend the state and its institutions. The rights of individuals or minority groups (especially those that are perceived to threaten the state and its integrity) take a back seat to preserving the statist status quo. In that sense, enacting major reforms in Turkey without first significantly changing the constitution could be very difficult. It's a bit like trying to run sophisticated software on a computer that's still running an old operating system -- the applications won't run and trying to run the machine with them could even lead to a crash.

Constitutional reform was actually a major part of the 2007 national election campaign in Turkey, with both the AKP and the DTP talking about it's importance. The AKP even gathered a group of legal experts who drafted a new constitution, but the issue was dropped soon after the elections. Disappointingly to many, the only thing the AKP did after the elections with regards to the constitution was pass an amendment (with the help of the ultra nationalist MHP) that removes the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities and public offices (Turkey's top court annulled the amendment, ruling that it violated Turkey's secular system). For many, the move seemed more like an opportunistic political effort, rather than a real attempt at constitutional reform.

Perhaps realizing that completely changing the constitution will require waging a major battle, the AKP government has decided to take an incremental approach for Turkey's reform project, frequently through administrative -- rather than legislative -- moves. But as Yavuz Baydar, a columnist with Today's Zaman, notes in a column in today's paper, the government may find serious constitutional reform unavoidable. From his column:
As I wrote recently, all roads inevitably lead to a new constitution and adoption of all major laws to that. Ever since the erratic pattern of partially changing the Constitution, the AKP seems determined to avoid a full challenge (a new leap for seeking consensus on a new constitution), and it also seems doomed to face enormous hardships that threaten to weaken it. It refuses, or is too afraid, to see that unless you replace the main denominator with a modern one, the judiciary will continue to base its decisions on the worn-out texts of law; its top court will continue to close parties; all the segments of society, whose demands for reform remain unchanged, will continue to feel suspicious, fearful or angry; the maximalist opposition will continue to seek ways, in law, to block all efforts for change; and politics, as it has always been, will be ruled by instability, raising hopes for the sworn enemies of democracy to consolidate for good the system of tutelage.
(You can read his full column here. His previous column on the same subject is here.)

(Photo -- members of Turkey's Constitutional Court, standing in front of Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara)

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