Turkey’s constitutional reform brings hope amid renewed western hostility


A watershed moment for Turkey


The constitutional reforms have been a long-cherished aspiration of the ruling AK Party that had repeatedly made promises about it to its constituents in every election that it contested

Last week, Turkey’s parliament approved a raft of new and far-reaching reforms to the country’s constitution. While an overwhelming majority in Turkey approves the move, it has rekindled western hostilities and provoked a renewed campaign against Turkey and its incumbent president. The consultation process for the reforms that adhered to a set of painstakingly thorough democratic practices, hitherto unknown in Turkey’s history, are being discredited through a barrage of negative media reports full of ‘post-truths’ that claim Turkey’s imminent fall into the hands of a ‘totalitarian’ government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The most popular ‘post-truth’ targets President Erdoğan in person and suggests he would enjoy dictatorial powers without any meaningful oversight. In the current constitution, the president enjoys extensive authority and cannot be called to account for any of his digressions but treason that is hard to establish and must be approved by 367 deputies out of the 500 member house. In the proposed reforms, judicial action against the president can be initiated for any act by a vote of 360 deputies. This assumes significance as the new constitutional measures seek expansion of the membership from the current 500 up to 600 deputies, bringing down the aggregate percentage of members needed to initiate an action against the president.

Disregarding the western propaganda, Dr Necati Anaz, an academic at the Istanbul University, emphasises the new draft is “a civilian one in contrast to the current constitution which is a product of a coup”. Countering the western narrative, he also reiterates the fact the reform package is a work of the two political parties out of four in the parliament and therefore “it is a sort of consolidation made by two main parties in the main Turkish political spectrum”.

A steady stream of news is appearing the western newspapers — from the Washington Post to The Guardian — to foment alarm that parliament’s powers are being eliminated and that it will have no meaningful role left and will be at the mercy of a president who is not only ‘authoritarian’ but also harbours tendencies of the autocratic sultans of the Ottoman era. Interestingly, the parliament retains the power to enact, amend or revoke laws. It will also have the right to appoint members to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, something it does not have at the moment. The power to ratify international agreements or wage wars will be vested with the parliament. The president cannot issue a decree that is contrary to laws passed by the parliament. Any presidential decree that is deemed unacceptable can be revoked by the parliament. Also, the president will have to submit the budget at his disposal to parliament’s approval. The reform package also envisages bringing down the age of candidacy to become a deputy in the parliament; it will be decreased from 25 to 18, empowering the youth that form a large section of Turkish society. The move will encourage them to actively participate in the decision making process.

The agreement on the reforms is a watershed moment for Turkey as this change, if approved, will make a qualitative transformation of the political system that was foisted upon the people by an unelected elite who despised a vast majority of the Turkish public for being too backward and therefore worthy of being constantly ignored and reviled. For the last fifteen years of the AK Party rule, a majority of Turkish people have flourished and their incomes doubled as sweeping reforms, both political and economic, created new opportunities for a mass of people who remained on the fringe and previously ignored and discouraged to own a stake in their country’s future. This is why despite a sustained campaign by the western media against Erdoğan and his party, his popularity has grown as testified by the increase in the share of votes in successive electoral contests. “The western media in particular oppose anything that rescues Turkey from political and economic stagnation”, says Dr Anaz.

The draft reform package that is being characterised as ‘dictatorial’ and prelude to a ‘one man’s rule’ was supported by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which allowed its passage by 339 votes in the 500-member house. Devlet Bahçeli, the chief of MHP, who was a fierce opponent of the reforms, changed his position after the July 2016 coup that killed hundreds of Turks and damaged the parliament building in the bombing raids by the Gülenist coup plotters. Dr Anaz believes the change of heart within the MHP came following the July coup “as they understood that the recent security and economic challenges that the nation is facing necessitated a strong decision making in the government. Because the current system has been slow in responding to such emerging challenges in the times of need, such a change is thought inevitable”.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party that is supported by the old guard, the outmoded Kemalist elite who traditionally viewed popular public opinion with suspicion, opposed the reforms. The members of the CHP resorted to open abuses and brawling during the parliamentary debates which caused injuries to several deputies including those supporting the reforms. In one incident, an artificial arm of a woman deputy was pulled. Not surprisingly, the CHP even voted against the amendments that called for an impartial and independent judicial system.

The constitutional reform bill will now be put to a referendum in early April to make it a law and must be supported by more than 50pc of the electorate. Given that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, enjoys wide support, there are indications the public will approve the change. Dr Muharram Hilmi Ozev, assistant professor at the department of political science and international relations at the University of Istanbul, believes the July coup rekindled the nationalist sentiments and resulted in a surge of support for Erdoğan as the coup was seen as a handiwork of the western powers. This belief is supported by a large section of Turks who witness ever rising hostility against Turkey in the western world for it is unwilling to accept a confident, assertive and powerful Turkey that Erdoğan has shaped in the last 15 years. Tired of the coups and weary of any guardianship or tutelage over their politically chosen leaders, “most of the Turks believe the new system will bring stability, economic growth, welfare and prosperity”, Dr Ozev believes.

The constitutional reforms have been a long-cherished aspiration of the ruling AK Party that had repeatedly made promises about it to its constituents in every election that it contested. Although the party wanted to draft a brand new constitution, it was unable to pursue its stated aim for want of the required numerical strength. As a result, it had to negotiate an arduous process of consultations with the opposition parties that finally culminated in discarding portions or accepting several amendments as suggested by the opposition. The approved draft, argue supporters, is still a massive improvement over the current constitution which was given by a fascist junta that always looked up to the west and guarded their interests rather than that of the Turkish people. The supporters believe the reformed constitution will render Turkey more stable and well-governed, and will cut the unnecessary bureaucratic flab, streamlining and enhancing decision making mechanisms.

The parliamentary approval has injected a new confidence in the Turkey that was otherwise bruised by the coup and battered by the terrorist violence both inside the country and in the near neighbourhood in Syria and Iraq. According to Dr Ozev, “the new Turkey will not allow westerners to intrude and manipulate it, a thought they cannot tolerate”. Amid the growing western hostility towards Turkey, the people are determined to seek a mandate for stronger constitutional mechanisms. The opinion polls suggest more than 60 percent of the voters will approve the changes. But there are concerns the path remains precarious as the western powers are determined to meddle and frustrate the process. In a recent article, Sadkik Ünay, a Turkish analyst, wrote: “There is widespread agreement that the period from now to April-May when the constitutional amendment might be taken to a popular referendum for approval will be one of the most difficult periods in Turkey’s Republican history”. Like many other Turks, he believes this systemic transformation is too important for the country and therefore, “all the stress and difficulties for its adoption must be worth enduring”.