In Turkey, Proposed Changes Aim at Old Guard

By Sabrina Tavernise and Sebnem Arsu, New York Times, April 2, 2010

Turkey’s governing party moved this week to further reduce the power of the country’s staunchly secular old guard, submitting a series of amendments to Turkey’s military coup-era 1982 Constitution, but passage is far from assured.

A number of the 26 amendments, if passed, would strike at a center of power for the old elite, the judiciary, by opening up its appointment process and expanding its membership.

For generations, Turkey’s judiciary has been controlled by a small class of hard-line secularists with a rigidly nationalist ideology, and the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, has long urged that it be changed. The amendments require 367 votes out of 550 to become law, more than the governing party has. At the same time, the secular opposition party is having trouble gathering the 110 votes needed to kill the package in the Constitutional Court.

Some liberals criticize the measures for falling short of what is needed for deeper democracy in Turkey, while opponents of the party, Justice and Development, say the amendments are an effort by its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to consolidate his power. But supporters say the changes would start to bring Turkey in line with European countries.

“When you actually look at what the amendments propose, you see that all changes are copied from examples that function quite well in E.U. member states,” said Joost Lagendijk, senior adviser at the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabanci University and a former European Parliament member.

The current constitution, which enshrines Turkey’s secular mandate, has been amended several times since it was put in place, and most Turkish intellectuals argue that it should be scrapped entirely.

But Mr. Erdogan’s past efforts to change it have met with ferocious criticism. His party commissioned a new draft in 2008, which was written largely by a group of intellectuals, but was forced to scrap it after the secular opposition party filed suit against Justice and Development, which is Islamic-inspired, and a high court threatened to ban the party.

The government argues that the changes are necessary to break away from a troubled past of military coups and strong control of the state by a small coterie of unelected officials in the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Critics of the newly proposed amendments fear that the key changes — the way appointments are made to the constitutional court, the main watchdog of secularism in Turkey, and to the Senior Council of Judges and Prosecutors, responsible for judicial appointments and monitoring court officials — would damage Turkey’s founding principles. They do not trust Mr. Erdogan, whose party arose from a class of Muslim entrepreneurs that upper-class secular Turks long looked down upon.

“The secular democratic state in Turkey is in danger,” said Sabih Kanadoglu, the chief prosecutor of the Court of Appeals, another powerful court.

Other changes include trying military officers in civilian courts and making it harder to ban political parties.

If Mr. Erdogan fails to pass the changes in Parliament, he has said he will bring them to a nationwide referendum, though some have criticized that approach as too black and white for the complexity of the amendments.

The disagreement follows a long-running divide in Turkish society between the broad sector of society that supports Justice and Development and secular Turks, who believe Mr. Erdogan is dismantling the old system to establish a new one that empowers him.

At the same time, liberals who were hoping for bolder change expressed disappointment. One of the principal authors of the 2008 draft, Ergun Ozbudun, a professor of law at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, noted that the amendments offered no concessions, for example, to ethnic or religious groups, whose rights in Turkey have been routinely abused.

“The desire deep in their hearts was probably to go more courageously,” Professor Ozbudun said by telephone, “but they are maybe afraid of the opposition and constitutional court.”

Nor do the amendments lower the steep 10 percent threshold that political parties must meet to claim seats in Parliament, one of the liberals’ central demands. The threshold keeps smaller political parties, including those that represent ethnic groups like Kurds, out of Parliament.

Ibrahim Kaboglu, a professor of constitutional law at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said the changes would expand the president’s powers, for example by allowing him to choose more members of the constitutional court, and he said he worried that the court, a bastion of secular resistance, would soon be packed with Mr. Erdogan’s allies.

“They seem to be in a rush to fill both institutions with judges and members who are closer to their political line to secure their future,” Professor Kaboglu said, referring to the Constitutional Court and the Senior Council.

Advertisements