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How To Dismantle a Bad Constitution

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments] Turkey is heading towards general elections, which are to be held on June 12. There is some excitement in the air, but everybody is pretty certain that the winner will be the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The only question is how great the AKP victory will be. Some polls show that the party’s votes are around 45 percent, others suggest even higher figures fluctuating around 50 percent. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, therefore, must be feeling like one the securest leaders in the world. He is also walking towards becoming “historic.” On the morning of June 13, he will probably wake up as the second prime minister in Turkish history who was able to win three elections in a row. (The one before, Adnan Menderes, was executed in 1961 by thugs in uniform — a junta — before his fourth victory.) Unamendable constitution One of Erdoğan’s important tasks, as he has been promising, will be to make a new and “civilian” constitution. The latter term is much emphasized here, for the past two constitutions in Turkey, the 1961 and 1982 documents, were made under the auspices of military juntas. (The ones before, those of 1921 and 1924, were more democratic in nature and less authoritarian in content.) I have been among the supporters of the “civilian constitution” cause, for the current one is not just drafted by generals but also is a very illiberal text, despite all the amendments. I still am a supporter of that cause. But I also feel that it might be a very messy and challenging task. Here is the basic problem: The 1961 and 1982 constitutions were designed for a regime with an official ideology, which is none than Kemalism. Therefore, Kemalist principles were inserted into these documents as “unamendable articles.” The 1982 Constitution, for example, refers to “Atatürk’s nationalism” as one of those untouchable foundations of the Turkish Republic. That nationalism is best expressed in Atatürk’s famous motto, “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’,” and Article 66 of the Constitution, which declares that every citizen of Turkey “is a Turk.” Being a Turk, I am not terribly offended by these concepts, but other citizens of Turkey, such as the Kurds, feel understandably different. They simply don’t want a constitution that dictates “Turkishness” on them, and I think they are absolutely right to feel so. So, can we just abandon “Atatürk’s nationalism” as a constitutional principle, and instead accept an ethnically neutral definition of citizenship? That would have been a common sense solution for many people, but not for many Turks. First of all, Turkish nationalists, represented by the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, are very passionate about keeping “Turkishness” intact. Moreover, the the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, also has a nationalist side and a very firm attachment to “Atatürk’s principles.” That’s why a “civilian constitution” which skips the every-citizen-is-a-Turk credo will probably face a lot reaction from the opposition parties — and perhaps even some of the more nationalist elements within the AKP. But a constitution which still keeps that credo would be illiberal, because of the imposition it brings onto Kurds and other citizens who do not define themselves as Turks. What shall we do? Bones of contention There are many bones of contention like this. The constitutional principle of secularism (“laiklik”) is another one. Currently, the Constitution say Turkey is “laik,” but it doesn’t explain what this means. Traditionally, it has been the generals’ and the judges’ job to make that explanation, and make it according to their anti-religious biases. Many others, including me, would prefer a constitution that defines what “laiklik” is, and defines it in a way that respects religious freedom as well. But I am sure millions of die-hard secularists would rise up in anger then, and denounce this move which would “help religion creep into public life.” That’s why I am afraid that a truly liberal-democratic constitution, that the AKP has been promising, would face fierce reactions both in Parliament and in the society. If the AKP wins more than 367 seats (two-thirds of Parliament) they can still pass the new document, or bring it to a referendum if they have between 330 and 367 seats. In either case, the opposition would denounce the new constitution as “an AKP Constitution,” and Turkey’s never-ending political wars would only get more intense. Besides, we have reason to be concerned with the AKP’s own motives. Erdoğan is obviously the leader who carried Turkey to a post-military (and thus more democratic) phase. But this gave him a lot of power, and too much power is good for no one. He just hinted that he wants a “presidential system”— and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that his candidate for presidency is none but himself. But without the checks and balances present in the U.S., such a one-man system might reinforce Turkey’s traditional patrimonialism, rather than making it evolve into an advanced democracy. So, although I still fancy the “new constitution” idea, I just don’t know how we will be able to pull that off in a way which will strengthen our democracy and relieve our nation. If you have good ideas, please let me know.
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