Turkey’s Most Important Agenda Item

By Liam Hardy

In recent weeks, Turkey has been internationally reappraised after a Turkish Gaza-bound aid ship raided by Israeli troops led to nine deaths, and a Turkish-Brazilian brokered deal foreshadowed a “no” vote on sanctions in the UN Security Council over Iran’s nuclear programme.

These events have incited media commentary over a “shift in axis” in the country’s outlook, from West to East, stirring debate from Washington to Ankara, and even beyond. But constitutional reform, an agenda item that lies at the heart of the “shift in axis” debate and could have the deepest impact and longest lasting repercussions for Turkish society, has been eclipsed in public discourse by these recent issues.

Turkish politicians, and the public, need to refocus their attention on constitutional reform.

Most agree the country’s military-imposed constitution is flawed, containing restrictions on basic freedoms of speech, religious expression and association. The European Union has repeatedly called for its reform as part of Turkey’s accession bid, and Chief Negotiator for EU Affairs Egemen Ba??? as well as many other high-ranking Turkish officials have voiced this need. In fact, a constitutional reform package has been proposed and will be voted on by public referendum on 12 September, though it faces possible annulment by the country’s Constitutional Court due to a case opened by the opposition Republican People’s Party.

Some argue the package takes positive measures to address issues related to fundamental rights and freedoms and the jurisdiction of military courts. Others say the amendments are not nearly drastic enough to afford Turkey with the genuine democratic changes that are needed. For example, it does not lower the ten per cent election threshold for political parties to be represented in Parliament; it does not require primaries for party elections; and it does not effectively decrease the ability for the ruling party to ban other political parties. Other changes concerning a restructuring of the judiciary have been criticised as political opportunism by the ruling Justice and Development Party, in effect limiting the separation and balance of powers and the judiciary’s independence.

Risking being charged as a meddlesome foreigner, I can offer some insight into how to inspire intellectual debate on this issue by referring to the history books of my country, the United States. While debating the ratification of the US Constitution, intellectuals in 1787 and 1788 put forth 85 essays outlining the philosophy and motivation of the proposed system of government, as well as many essays against the proposals.

The essays have become commonly known as the Federalist Papers and anti-Federalist Papers, and their authors intended to influence the ratification process of the Constitution as well as shape future interpretations of it.

The result of that process did not produce a perfect document, as the US Constitution left in place the capacity for the institution of African-American slavery. But it did produce the most stable and long-standing charter for a system of government in the world’s history, with a clear definition of rights and freedoms outlined in its first ten amendments, and a distinct balance of power between the government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Although the conditions of colonial America and modern Turkey differ greatly, Turkish legislators and intellectuals can perhaps replicate the successes of the US experience and avoid its failures by making constitutional reform the top priority in the public forum, as the framers of the US Constitution did.

Years from now citizens of Turkey will look back to the current time period and question how their social structures and system of government were cultivated. They will ask: what did our leaders get right? What did they get wrong?

Those with a vested interest in creating a sustainable, democratic framework for Turkey’s political system must now display a serious level of foresight when it comes to constitutional reform and put it back on top of the country’s agenda. With satisfactory democratic institutions in place, perhaps the country can continue building on the increased freedom and prosperity these changes would welcome, making the age-old debate over its ”Western-ness” or “Eastern-ness” obsolete.

Liam Hardy is a freelance writer and independent researcher based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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