The Turkish public’s approval of constitutional reform takes that country to a critical moment. The impetus for changing the national charter was the desire to build a stronger democracy, a change that would better align Turkey with Europe and eliminate another obstacle in the drive to join the European Union.
Critics warn, however, that the reform has a darker side, and that it represents the first steps toward the creation of an Islamist state. The critics are probably wrong. But while the changes are to be applauded, attention must be paid to signs of the consolidation of power in the country’s executive — a dangerous temptation, no matter whether the government is secular or religious.
Turkey’s current constitution was drawn up in the 1980s by a government installed by a military coup. Thirty years later, the country has been transformed. Most notably, the power of the military has receded and a more pluralistic political society has emerged. Urged on by the European Union, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid out a package of 26 measures that would reduce the role of the military in Turkish society and better protect human rights and put them to the Turkish public for consideration.
The referendum was seen as both a test of the specific measures and Mr. Erdogan’s government.
When put to a vote on Sept. 19, the referendum passed by a vote of 57.88 to 42.12, with nearly 74 percent of Turkish voters casting ballots. The outcome was not only an approval of the reforms, but was also a vote of confidence in Mr. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). After the results were announced — and the changes were approved by a higher percentage of the public than anticipated — the prime minister said that his government would start working on drafting an entirely new constitution.
The changes bolster civil liberties, protect personal privacy and bar gender discrimination. They lift a culture of impunity that the military had enjoyed by ending the immunity awarded to former coup leaders and halting military courts’ jurisdiction over civilians. Members of the military who endanger state security can now be tried in civilian courts.
Those changes are all applauded (except by diehard conservatives). Other revisions are more controversial. They include a restructuring of the judiciary that gives more say to the president and Parliament over the appointments of senior judges and prosecutors, as well as increases the size of the constitutional court. Mr. Erdogan and his supporters say those changes are needed to increase efficiency in government and eliminate obstacles that the old guard in Istanbul had used to block the will of the majority of the people, particularly the judiciary, which has halted many of the proposed reforms.
The opposition sees the reform as a dangerous consolidation of power in the executive branch. They continue to insist that Mr. Erdogan and the AKP are dangerous radicals who are biding their time before they impose an Islamist state on Turkey. The evidence for those suspicions is thin. Since taking office in 2002, they have evinced little appetite for political fights over the imposition of Islam. There was an attempt to criminalize adultery that failed and a call to allow women to wear headscarves at university. That too failed.
The Turkish state remains secular and will remain so if the AKP is the Islamic version of the Christian Democratic parties that flourished in Western Europe after World War II, as it claims to be.
Turkey is divided. The split manifests itself geographically, religiously and socially. The geographic split — between the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts and the hinterlands — mirrors a secular-religious divide. The secularists, continuing the vision of the founder of the modern Turkish state Kemal Ataturk, have ruled the country since that time; the more religious (and Muslim) inhabitants of the interior have been largely marginalized, until the AKP took power. Since then, they have become more confident and assertive of their political and social rights. The battle in Turkey is as much about the distribution of power as it is about religion. Ironically, Mr. Erdogan is a modernizer but cloaked in more religious clothing.
As always, the proof of Mr. Erdogan’s intentions will be revealed in how the changes are implemented. After winning the vote, the prime minister acknowledged that the 42 percent who voted “no” were “worthy of respect too.”
What is needed, now, is a genuinely transparent and consultative process as the government in Ankara turns its new mandate into law. The government needs to reach out to the opposition to ensure that their views and concerns are heard and respected as much as possible.
That will ensure that the constitutional reforms are respected throughout Turkey and that a genuine dialogue of all parties earns Turkey the respect of the world. That will ease Turkish concerns about their country’s future as well as demonstrate the commitment that is needed to win membership in the EU.
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