Thursday, August 12, 2010

A (not so) Simple Yes or No Will Do

Constitutional reform is tricky business. Fortunately for the average Turk, who is being asked to vote on a constitutional reform package in a national referendum on Sept. 12, Turkey's political parties are making things simple. Rather than talking about what's in the package, they have turned the referendum into a vote of confidence on the ruling AKP government and boiled down the whole thing into a simple matter of "yes" versus "no." Like the government? vote "evet." Don't like the government? Vote "hayir."

Or maybe things are not so simple. Writes Andrew Finkel in Today's Zaman:
In a nation already susceptible to polarization, who, one might ask, was the bright spark who came up with the idea of a political mechanism where the issues could only be decided with a nod or a shake of the head. It has already got to the point, the press reports, where brides and groom are falling out even before they leave the registry office over whether to take their vows with a government-leaning “yes” or the more contrary “I do.”
So what's in the reform package (which was passed in parliament a few months ago, but not with enough votes to avoid going to referendum)? Like many other AKP initiatives, it's a strange confection, layers of sweet-tasting and sensible-sounding enticements wrapped around a core of harder to swallow and clumsily disguised political self-interest.

What's causing the most debate in the package are the amendments that would change the way judges are appointed to Turkey's top court and to the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European parliament, takes a look at some of the criticism that's being leveled at that part of the reform package in a recent Hurriyet Daily News column.

Turkey, of course, is in dire need of constitutional reform, currently burdened with a constitution that was drafted by the military after the 1980 coup. The current document is designed to protect the state, rather than individual citizens -- a mindset that still permeates much of Turkish law. The AKP had actually campaigned in 2007 with the promise of a new civil constitution, but backed off on that promise once it got into office, using the political capital of its 47 percent victory and large parliamentary majority to pass a single constitutional amendment, one which would allow for headscarves to be worn at universities (and which was promptly annulled by Turkey's Constitutional Court).

The current package, which has some 20 articles, is again being delivered with a promise that this is only a prelude to further amendments, if not the long-awaited complete overhaul of the problematic current constitution. But there is good reason to worry about if more constitutional reforms will be coming any time soon, if at all, especially after all the effort that will be spent on passing (or killing) the current reform package. Hard to imagine anyone in the government having the appetite to go through the process again. One group of liberal intellectuals, who are supporting the package, are running a campaign called "Not enough, but 'yes'" -- not quite a ringing endorsement and one that struck as carrying a whiff of resignation to it.

For those interested in the actual details of the package, SETA, a government-leaning think tank based in Ankara has a rundown of the reform package, which can be found here (pdf).

Friday, August 6, 2010

Turkey and Israel, By the Numbers

The New York Times' Dan Bilefsky has a piece out looking at how on the commercial front its been business as usual between Israel and Turkey, despite the post-Mavi Marmara incident tensions. The article paints a fairly rosy picture of trade-driven pragmatism trumping nationalist sentiment.

I recently had a chance to speak with a major Turkish businessman who has been active in trade with Israel and got a less positive sense of things. Private sector dealings are perhaps not as affected right now, but he said that many Israeli companies he spoke with were deeply worried about being shut out of government tenders in Turkey and losing access to local financing for projects. Tourism figures, meanwhile, tell a very troubling story: this past June, only 2,605 Israelis visited Turkey, compared to 27,289 the year before (a figure which was already lower than previous years, since Israeli tourism to Turkey started dropping after the early 2009 Gaza war and the subsequent harsh Turkish response). There was a 44 percent drop in Israeli tourism to Turkey between 2008 and 2009 and one can only imagine how low 2010's figures will be.

On the other hand, Turkey and Israel appear to be making furtive moves towards restoring some semblance of normalcy in their relationship. The three Turkish ships involved in the flotilla incident, including the Mavi Marmara, have been released by the Israeli government and are currently being towed back to a port on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Israel has also agreed to participate in a United Nations inquiry into the flotilla incident, although the committee seems designed less to get to the bottom of the affair and more as a way of offering both Turkey and Israel a chance to step back from the maximalist positions they have taken on the issue.

In general, I get the sense that Ankara is still searching for a workable game in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident. Threats and harsh rhetoric against Israel have not worked, and the whole affair (combined with Turkey's "no" vote in the Security Council on Iran sanctions) has worked to strain relations with Washington. In many ways, Turkey makes me think of a stylishly-playing soccer/football team whose game falls apart upon encountering a rival with a hard-nosed and rough-playing defense.

Analyst Semih Idiz takes a look at this in today's Hurriyet Daily News, in a column entitled "Govt's Mavi Marmara Frustration Deepens." The column can be found here.