Monday, 04 April 2011

Will Turkey's Next Constitution be a Societal Covenant Imbued With Respect for Differences?

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By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 4, no. 7 of the Turkey Analyst)

Agreeing upon the rules for how they are going to live together, with mutual respect for differences, is the fundamental challenge that faces the citizens of Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pledged that the authoritarian constitution will be replaced with a new, “civilian” constitution following the general election in June. Yet a truly “civilian” constitution must be a societal covenant, of which Turkey has had no prior experience. The question is if the people of Turkey will be able to surprise each other with restraint and generosity.

BACKGROUND: Turkey’s current constitution is the product of the military junta that ruled at the beginning of the 1980s. In fact, none of Turkey’s constitutions has been civilian – that is, the result of democratic deliberations, expressing a resulting societal consensus; all three constitutions (from 1924, 1961 and 1982) have been expressions of the will of the state elite to rein in societal diversity and to tailor a pliant society. None more so than the constitution of 1982, which is imbued with the overriding imperative of protecting the state from its citizens, imposing a Turkish nationalist and Sunni Muslim straitjacket on society. Although the constitution has been amended several times, its authoritarian spirit has not been expunged.

After nearly ten years in power the AKP has succeeded in establishing full control over the state apparatus, pushing the old state elite aside; as the state has changed hands, the question increasingly becomes if this change will also entail a reversal of the ways of the state, if in other words, the system of state tutelage will be abandoned. Will a new constitution merely reflect the change of guard at the helm of the state, or will it be a societal covenant – rather than a decree by the rulers – that expresses the consensus of an empowered citizenry?

The representatives of the AKP have been meticulously evasive, not divulging any details about the contents of the “civilian” constitution, except, notably, concerning the question of the presidency. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is generally assumed to be coveting the office, has repeatedly argued for the introduction of a presidential system, even though the president is already endowed with wide-ranging powers under the current system. First, Erdoğan referred to the Russian model as something that might be emulated. Perhaps sensing that he was unnecessarily inviting inauspicious comparisons, he has lately chosen to refer to the American system as a role model. Yet that does not alter the impression that the AKP – or at least Erdoğan personally – sees the introduction of a “civilian” constitution principally as a lever to further empower those who wield power at helm of the state.

Last week, Erdoğan reiterated his preference for a presidential system, and suggested that the matter might be decided in a referendum, to be held after the June elections. However, Erdoğan was immediately rebutted by President Abdullah Gül who stated that the matter is not on Turkey’s agenda.

Meanwhile, TÜSİAD, The association of Turkish businessmen and industrialists, has made a widely publicized attempt to boost the cause of a liberal constitution. The organization, which represents Turkey’s old, Istanbul-centered business elite, had commissioned a taboo-breaking blueprint, authored by a group of prominent constitutional and other scholars. The proposal, which was presented by Ümit Boyner, the chairwoman of TÜSİAD, two weeks ago, in essence took aim at the three main pillars upon which Turkey’s political and social order has rested since the founding of the republic: Turkish nationalism and statism, militarism and Sunni Islam. What was most controversial was that it challenged the notion that Turkishness must be the norm of society. It spelled out what a liberal constitution would look like: it would not demand that every citizen identify himself or herself as a Turk, it would ensure that the military is kept under civilian, democratic tutelage, notably allowing for parliamentary audit of military expenditures, and it would not mandate compulsory education in the tenets of Sunni Islam, which is the case under the current constitution. Concurrently, the use of the Islamic headscarf in most public functions would be permitted.

Not surprisingly, the initiative was vehemently denounced by the nationalist opposition; Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), deemed it inacceptable to tinker with the Kemalist foundations of the republic, while another deputy of the CHP asked TÜSİAD to refrain from “provocations”, and went on to claim that “it’s up to us politicians to write constitutions”, which has in fact historically seldom been the case.  Meanwhile, the reactions from AKP quarters were markedly more circumspect; Ahmet İyimaya, the chairman of the Justice committee of the parliament, declared that while he looked favorably on the proposal, a more detailed assessment of its contents had to be postponed until the popular will had expressed itself. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers’ party (PKK) was alone among the leading political actors to unequivocally endorse the proposal. In the face of mounting criticism, the TÜSİAD board back-tracked and disowned the blueprint a few days after it had been presented.

"We Want Constitutional Change"

IMPLICATIONS: As she presented the blueprint for a liberal constitution TÜSİAD head Boyner observed that a constitution “must above all be a societal covenant that expresses the will of the citizens to live together with mutual respect for their differences.”  Agreeing upon the rules for how they are going to live together is indeed the fundamental challenge that faces the citizens of Turkey; and it is the very issue of whether or not they really can imagine living together in mutual respect and tolerance that remains to be settled.

Like so many other Middle Eastern countries, Turkey lacks a powerful sense of citizenship; the “sectarian” divides of the country – between Turks and Kurds, between secularists and Sunni conservatives and between the latter and the heterodox Alevi minority – need to be transcended, with each group recognizing the others as equals. That in turn depends on overcoming the one feeling that more than anything else has underpinned authoritarianism in Turkey: fear.

It is not only the state elite that has been tormented by a visceral fear of differences, which historically have been perceived as mortal threats to the integrity of the state. The same kind of fear has haunted the population at large as well. The state has been revered as the rampart against ever-threatening internal strife and the subsequent dissolution of society. A senior AKP parliamentarian told this author that “we all suffer from the predilection of acquiescing to the supremacy of the state. We simply cannot imagine being able to survive as individuals without the state.”

Yet that may be changing as a result of growing prosperity; several Turkish observers claim that the rising middle class in Anatolia, which is the main base of the AKP, is becoming detached from the age-old state fetishism. The result of the constitutional referendum last fall did indeed suggest that a less statist-nationalist mind-set is evolving among the pious middle class in the Anatolian heartland; the calls of the ultra right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) – which appeals to the same base as the AKP – to punish the government for its conciliatory stance towards the Kurds, and not least for its negotiations with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, went unheeded. It is also noteworthy that leading representatives of the AKP refrained from condemning the liberal heresies of TÜSİAD. Indeed, the fact that the proposal was endorsed and hailed as courageous in the columns of pro-government dailies like Yeni Şafak and Star is an encouraging sign.

However, its reformist inclinations notwithstanding, the AKP nonetheless remains beholden to statism and nationalism. Indeed, Berat Özipek, a leading liberal intellectual and scholar, predicts that the AKP is now faced with the specter of an internal battle against its own statist, nationalist reflexes and fears. He observes that the AKP has a strong nationalist-statist current, which most recently asserted itself when the matter of subjecting the military’s expenditures to audit was briefly considered, and which succeeded in derailing the proposition.

Yet while it is certainly possible that the temptation to become the party of the state will prove too strong and prevent the AKP from embarking on a journey toward a liberal constitutional order, there are also forces that may pull the rulers of Turkey in another direction: liberal intellectuals such as Özipek maintain that a statist and nationalist AKP would risk falling behind its own base, the Anatolian middle class, which they point out is not indebted to the state, and thus less deferential to state authority. Nur Vergin, a prominent professor of sociology and a member of the committee that drafted TÜSİAD’s constitutional blueprint, similarly predicts that the Anatolian middle class will increasingly call for freedom from state interference. “Ultimately, it is the Anatolian bourgeoisie that will found a democratic state governed by law”, she assures. However, it is far from certain that the newly empowered religious conservatives will speak out in defense of the rights and freedom of others; in fact, there is a growing apprehension that the most powerful of the Islamic brotherhoods, the movement of Fethullah Gülen, is denying even the members of other Islamic brotherhoods access to power and privileges.

CONCLUSIONS: The fate of TÜSİAD’s liberal constitutional blueprint is instructive: the reactions to it underlined that merely raising the issue of a liberal order is sure to exacerbate the tensions in a society in which statist and nationalist sentiments remain strongly entrenched. And the fact that it was disowned by TÜSİAD itself underlines that Turkey’s old, “westernized” bourgeoisie has normally desisted from performing the role as a vector of freedom. TÜSİAD represents a bourgeoisie which was fostered by the state, and which has therefore identified with its benefactor, rather than demanding more freedom from the state as bourgeoisies historically have been known to do. 

The pressure for a liberal constitutional order in Turkey may – if the historical analogies hold – indeed eventually come from the new middle class in Anatolia, which does not owe its ascendancy to the state. It will certainly continue to come from the Kurdish minority. Yet authoritarianism will retain its appeal in Turkish society as long as the current polarization – and the mutual fears and the contempt for “the other” that feed it – are not overcome. In order to be able to write a “civilian” constitution, the people of Turkey will have to surprise each other with restraint and generosity.

Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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