A Background To The Constitutional Referendum: Reinforcing The Politics Of Polarization

By İlter Turan

Turkey’s politicians usually take a break from their routine in August and enjoy a vacation. But in a departure from tradition, they are on the campaign trail these days, speaking at several rallies a day under the harsh summer sun.

The issue that has driven them to town squares in provincial centers is a campaign to influence voters to support or reject amendments to the constitution through a referendum scheduled for September 12. The proposed changes are numerous, but the voters have been asked to vote a blanket “yes” or “no.” The opposition, which questions the desirability of some of the changes, has turned the occasion into a test of support for the ruling government, hoping to challenge its electoral mandate if the outcome is a rejection or weak approval.
The Legacy of Military-Devised Constitutions

The Turkish constitution is rigid by nature, a detailed document characterized by highly-specific provisions. This rigidity is the legacy of military governments that have twice — in 1961 and 1982 — devised constitutions with several goals in mind. The first is the routine function of describing the institutions of government, their relations to one another, and their functions, powers, and limits. The second objective relates to the fear that unrestricted liberties might lead to chaos. Therefore, while individual liberties are acknowledged, there are detailed restrictions on exercising them. Until 1995, for example, the 1982 constitution barred civil society organizations from political activity. Appropriately, the section on individual liberties is entitled “Rights and Obligations of Citizens.”

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The third goal is preventing elected politicians from sacrificing the fundamental values on which the republic was built for votes. In particular, secularism is to be defended against the “ignorant” masses who can easily be deceived by politicians trying to exploit religion for political gain. This is achieved by creating institutions outside the scope of governmental intervention, including some with powers to correct the “problematical” outcomes of electoral politics. The Constitutional Court, for example, whose members are appointed for the most part by judges and state agencies, has the power to bring to trial and sanction parties that are alleged to have used religion for political ends.

The fourth goal is preserving the political autonomy of the military to allow it to exercise general oversight over politics. To that end, the military is given powers to defend the system against “internal” as well as external threats while the National Security Council enjoys greater powers than it would in other democracies. Finally, the military addresses the concern that it should not become the target of political retribution after a return to civilian politics. The 1982 constitution, for example, contained provisions that exempted the junta from judicial accountability.

Bogged down in detail and designed to ensure that political problems that precede military interventions do not recur, Turkey’s military-devised constitutions have often come under criticism immediately following the restoration of civilian politics. Some have criticized them for not being sufficiently democratic, while others, on more practical grounds, have alleged that they do not meet specific needs. While consensus often emerges on the need for constitutional change as civilian rule is consolidated, there is never a corresponding consensus on what is to be changed or how. Amending the constitution requires a qualified parliamentary majority, necessitating sustained efforts to achieve consensus between the government and opposition. It is to the credit of the Turkish parliament that, despite difficulties in achieving inter-party agreement, it has amended the 1982 constitution seven times between 1993 and 2007. Most of these modifications were intended for it to conform more closely to the European Union’s standards of democracy.
Amending the Turkish constitution

There are two ways in which the Turkish constitution may be amended. If a change is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly, it takes effect once the president signs it into law. On the other hand, if the vote is more than three-fifths but less than a two-thirds majority of the whole house, the amendment is submitted to a public referendum. Most recent amendments have been ratified in the parliament. In 1987, however, the governing Motherland Party of Turgut Özal opted to submit the restoration of political rights to pre-1980 political leaders to a referendum, which passed.

In 2007 the Justice and Development Party introduced an amendment to have the president of the republic elected in a popular election after the parliament failed to choose a president. The Constitutional Court had ruled that a quorum of two-thirds of the house was needed for the first two rounds of voting. The opposition boycotted the initial rounds, thereby preventing the parliament from getting past the first two rounds, after which the requirement became a simple majority. The governing party called for elections in July 2007 and won an impressive victory. The election was then concluded in the manner the government party desired, but the constitutional referendum was nevertheless held and the change ratified.

Erdogan In retrospect, the experience of the 2007 presidential election may have been a watershed event. After this initial experience, Prime Minister Erdoğan chose appealing to the voters as a way of overcoming the resistance against his political choices by both the parliament and such state institutions as the Constitutional Court. Inclined to think that a party enjoying parliamentary majority should reign unconstrained by other institutions and confident of his appeal to voters, Erdoğan proposed further changes to the constitution. Although it is said to be good politics for constitutional changes to be prepared by consulting with the opposition, all sides have been uncooperative. The result has been the reconfirmation of the basic bifurcation of Turkish society between the modern-secular-statist and traditional religious-anti-state camps.
The Proposed Changes: A Mixed Bag

The set of proposals under consideration are of three kinds. Some are aimed at broadening the constitution’s democratic content. These include, among other things, positive discrimination in favor of children, women, and the handicapped; the introduction of ombudspersons; collective bargaining for public servants; and the removal of some restrictions to which labor unions are currently subject. Other changes relate to the expansion and reorganization of the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the two major institutions of the judicial system. The role of the president and the government is enhanced in the appointment of individuals to these bodies. Finally, the architects of the 1980 military intervention become subject to prosecution.

After these proposed changes were made public, the Republican People’s Party’s wholesale opposition became more nuanced. Deniz Baykal, then the party president, said that he would be willing to support all the changes, except those pertaining to the judiciary. Provisions aimed at democratization could then be ratified in the parliament without a referendum. The RPP argued that the changes concerning the judiciary gave the government and the president (who generally agrees with the government) the ability to reorient the judiciary to make it more compliant with government preferences. The prime minister has often complained that the courts narrow down the mandate electoral majorities have given him. Conversely, the opposition has employed the court system as a means of frustrating government policies.

Eventually, the prime minister declined cooperation offers, insisting on submitting the entire package to a vote. This may have been borne out of fears that a referendum focused exclusively on the judicial system would not generate sufficient interest, possibly even facing defeat. However, more likely, Erdoğan may have wanted to exploit the constitutional changes to further polarization, which he feels has worked well for him. This logic has been supported by other events. There are few references to the constitutional provisions in the campaign. Instead, low-level personal attacks between the prime minister and the new leader of the RPP Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu dominate the headlines, with the prime minister trying to frame the debate in the traditional mold between “state elites” and “elected politicians.” The RPP leader, for his part, has tried to show that Erdoğan’s coterie has enriched itself through politics.

How do the voters view this campaign? While it is tempting to say that the referendum appears to be a popularity contest between the government and opposition, polls indicate that each party has non-negligible minorities who plan to vote against traditional party positions, defying easy analysis. The ‘yeses’ have the upper hand but not by much. The head of the polling agency, Adil Gür, has cautioned that in a highly polarized environment, voters may be reluctant to reveal their genuine preferences, and that developments in the interim that have little bearing on constitutional change may affect the voters’ mood. The ongoing trial of several retired and serving high-ranking officers for allegedly plotting a military takeover, the intensification of acts of violence by the PKK, and the demands of “democratic” autonomy by the ethnic Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party are but some of the factors that may influence public sentiment.

The need to change many features of the 1982 constitution so as to render it more democratic might have provided the opportunity for the government and opposition to demonstrate that they could agree on the basic characteristics of the political system, even while disagreeing on policy matters. As it has turned out, they are in agreement on very little. Irrespective of the outcome of the September 12 referendum, constitutional reform, rather than serving as an opportunity for integration, has created yet another occasion for reinforcing the deep cleavages in Turkish politics.
Editors Note: İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001.
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