Constitutional Reform in Turkey

Entrenched Fronts

In the Turkish parliament a package of constitutional and statutory amendments is currently under discussion. A central issue is whether the ban on wearing headscarves at the universities should be repealed, as Erdogan's ruling AKP Party has proposed. Günter Seufert reports from Istanbul

Prime minister Erdogan with his wife Emine Erdogan (photo: AP)
Anti-secular and backward or modern and emancipated? The headscarf worn by Emine Erdogan is controversial

​​The constitution in place in Turkey today dates from 1982 and is a creation of the military, drafted and put into effect under the guardianship of the generals who seized power in 1980. It was designed to curtail political rights and free-doms so that the military forces could return to their barracks confident that society and politics would not soon escape the confines of the pens set up for them.

Politics, in other words the government and the political parties comprising it, has been forced ever since to share its power with a whole series of authorities with only minimal democratic legitimacy: The National Security Council, in which no decision is made against the will of the generals, establishes the ba-sic political line and until 2003 was officially entitled to intervene in the actions of all government offices.

Interface between state and military

The military is a state within a state and governs its own budget and appoint-ments. The Supreme Council of Universities dictates the academic landscape and the Supreme Council of Justice presides over the fates of public prosecu-tors and judges. In charge of staffing all of these councils and appointing the head officials of the ministries is the Turkish President, a kind of interface be-tween the head of government and the military.

This pivotal position commanded by the head of state helps to explain why the election of Abdullah Gül caused such a stir last year. The military threatened a putsch, and the constitutional court annulled Gül's election by the parliament, so that new elections had to be held.

Not only that: In concert with a series of laws, the Turkish constitution of 1982 politically paralyzed major portions of Turkish society. Political parties were forbidden to set up associations for women and youth, clubs were not allowed to express political opinions, and the unions were limited in their right to call strikes. Speaking Kurdish was now against the law, and religious instruction in the schools became mandatory.

The educational and cultural policies pursued a "Turkish-Islamic synthesis," an effort to make everyone commit to the same Turkish-Islamic identity. Every other alternative orientation was quickly suspected of representing treason and separatism.

Cultural uniformity

Although the adjustments undertaken for Turkey's EU candidacy rid the coun-try of many of these restrictions or at least reduced their power, the govern-ment's latitude vis-à-vis the bureaucracy or Nomenklatura is still limited, and significant pressure is still exerted toward effecting cultural uniformity.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP (Justice and Development Party) has its problems with both. It is hoped that a new constitution would strengthen the power of parliament and the government to stand up to the Nomenklatura as well as protecting the rights of citizens vis-à-vis the State.

At the beginning of January, Erdogan also wanted to use the new constitution to give his loyal constituency, who are often devout Muslims, two religious pol-icy gifts that would be difficult to realize without a constitutional amendment.

Ideological gifts

The obligatory religious instruction would be changed into religious studies so that optional Islamic studies could be incorporated. Secondly, the headscarf prohibition at the universities that has been in place for twenty years would fi-nally be lifted. These would be, after more than five years of an AKP regime, the first ideological gifts the party gave to those who vote for it primarily out of religious conviction.

Prime minister Erdogan taking part in a vote (photo: AP)
The "headscarf ban" is based on an edict handed down by the Supreme University Council on the Dress Code of 1997. There is not a separate law concerning this issue. Now the AKP wants to solve the problem through a constitutional amendment

​​However, for the social nationalist parties in parliament, the CHP and DSP, these plans were more than enough reason to nip any discussion of a possible new constitution in the bud. The plans to suspend the headscarf ban in particu-lar made the Kemalist faction prefer to stick with the status quo – even though it was itself demanding a new constitution just a short time ago.

Now Erdogan is forging an alliance with the right-wing nationalist MHP, which has also been protesting the ban for several years now. Not a new constitu-tion, but a constitutional amendment is scheduled to overturn the prohibition against headscarves, perhaps as soon as the next few days or weeks. Politi-cally speaking, this is not a problem, because the AKP and MHP have more than two thirds of all votes, and 70 percent of the population is in favor of the reform.

Tightly knit constitution

Nevertheless, the project could still come up against an obstacle, because the old constitution is very tightly knit, legally speaking. The headscarf ban at the universities is based on a ruling of the Constitutional Court that is derived di-rectly from the principle of secularism. And the constitution itself specifies that tampering with this principle is unconstitutional, which is why the Supreme Court could overturn the parliament's resolution, at least in theory.

This brings Turkey right back to its old familiar dilemma. The protection of a 'Western lifestyle,' whatever that is taken to mean – i.e. no headscarf at the universities – goes against democratically legitimized conservative politics, and everything stays the same.

Whether the reform goes through or not, whether headscarves reappear at the universities or remain forbidden – no matter what happens, the end effect will be for the fronts within parliament and between government and military to become even further entrenched. What's lost here are the nascent democratic reforms, while the possibility of a new constitution recedes even further into the future.

Günter Seufert

© 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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