Thursday, September 16, 2010

Turkey’s referendum: creating constitutional checks and balances

by Aslı Ü. Bâli

Foreign Policy
September 15, 2010

In recent months, commentators have given warning of creeping Islamization in Turkey's domestic and foreign policy. Descriptions of the new "swagger" in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's approach to the Middle East are paired with allegations of an increasingly authoritarian style of government by the ruling AKP party. Many have seized upon this weekend's constitutional referendum in Turkey as evidence that the country's secular establishment has been displaced and Islamist forces are consolidating power. While the referendum followed a period of intense political polarization, this simplistic account of Islamist forces arrayed against embattled secularists is both wrong and dangerous.

The twenty-six constitutional amendments at issue in the referendum are difficult to criticize on substance. They include provisions that: empower civilian courts while reducing the jurisdiction of military courts; strengthen gender equality and protections for children, the elderly, veterans and the disabled; improve privacy rights and access to government records; expand collective bargaining rights; and remove immunities long afforded to those responsible for the 1980 military coup. The overwhelming effect of these provisions amounts to civilianizing the military coup-era constitution, strengthening individual freedoms and undertaking much-needed judicial reform. Unsurprisingly, then, the European Union gave its strong support to the amendment package and President Obama called to congratulate Prime Minister Erdogan on the outcome of the referendum.

Why, then, should these amendments have been treated as controversial? The main objections centered on two elements: procedurally, the amendments were offered as a single package rather than allowing the electorate to vote on each provision individually. More importantly, opposition groups saw provisions for changes to the composition and selection process of the constitutional court and a board to oversee judicial appointments as an attempt at court-packing that would undermine judicial independence. While procedurally it might have been preferable to offer the amendments for referendum individually, the substantive concerns about the judiciary are the core of the controversy and they are largely baseless.