Turkey’s referendum: a democratic dynamic

The popular endorsement of constitutional amendments is a small but positive step towards Turkey’s democratisation, says Gunes Murat Tezcur.
Gunes Murat Tezcur
15 September 2010

Turkey’s constitutional referendum on 12 September 2010 saw a clear majority of voters endorsing a set of amendments proposed by the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) government. The reward of this government’s energetic campaign on behalf of the package was a “yes” vote of 58%, on a 77% turnout.

The impact of the result appears only to be heightened by the fact that it took place on the thirtieth anniversary of the military takeover in Turkey in 1980. This is because several of the now-accepted amendments place new limitations on the authority of the military and its personnel. These include introducing civilian trials of members of the army who are accused of violating the constitutional order; subjecting decisions of the high military council to judicial review; and lifting the judicial immunity of the leaders of the 1980 coup.

The most contested articles in the amendment list increase the size and open up the appointment procedures of both Turkey’s constitutional court and the judicial organ that supervises judges and prosecutors. There is also a new provision for citizens to apply directly to the constitutional court.

Overall, these changes augment the power of Turkey’s presidency and parliament over the bureaucratic institutions of the army and high judiciary, by reducing the political autonomy of the latter. Their passage by a popular vote looks like a triumph for the AKP and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and (with qualifications to be made below) the government can indeed claim a political victory. But in briefly discussing the implications of the referendum for the expansion of rights and the current phase of democratic struggles in Turkey, I suggest that its significance goes further.

The limits of democracy

Turkey has been an electoral democracy since 1950, though its political system has suffered from three structural deficiencies.

First, the army has long remained beyond the control of elected politicians. At regular intervals - 1960, 1971, 1980 - it intervened in the political arena; the military coups of 1971 and 1980 were in particular followed by periods of emergency rule characterised by gross human-rights violations and restrictions on civil liberties.

The outbreak of the Kurdish insurgency in 1984 and its mobilisation of mass support in 1990 found the civilian authorities unable to establish order and curb the appeal of the militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). This reinforced the continuing political autonomy of the army. A series of European Union-induced reforms managed to decrease the institutional prerogatives of the armed forces, but failed to establish undisputed civilian control over them.

It is only since 2007 that the army’s position as the hegemonic institution of Turkish politics has started to erode, as a result of the exposure of several coup attempts against the AKP government (first elected in 2002) and growing public criticism of its performance against the Kurdish insurgents.

Amid this military-political history, Turkey’s high judiciary with its extensive powers of judicial review has lacked strong commitment to the expansion of civil liberties and political rights. The constitutional court has since its establishment in 1961 dissolved twenty-four political parties. The supervisory judicial organ often sided with the army and disciplined judges and prosecutors who were pursuing human-rights violations committed by the security forces.

In this context, the argument that the current amendments - which, after all, increase the the army and high judiciary’s accountability - threaten liberal-democratic gains in Turkey looks hollow, if not indeed hypocritical.

Second, Turkey’s political system discriminates - legally, symbolically and economically - against citizens who refuse to subscribe to the predominant ethos that promotes Turkish ethnicity and Sunni Islamic beliefs over other cultural identities. The Alevis, a “heterodox” Muslim sect with millions of followers in Turkey, are refused official recognition and deprived of state aid; they also face various forms of unfair treatment.

The Kurds, who are concentrated in the eastern provinces, have been subjected to period waves of repression; these intensified during the fight between the Turkish security forces and the insurgents in the early 1990s. Many Kurds have been assimilated (voluntarily or forcefully) into the officially sanctioned Turkish culture, and the channels of Kurdish political expression are restricted: since 1982, a parliamentary threshold of 10% effectively disenfranchises millions of Kurds by hindering their parliamentary representation and depressing turnout. Kurdish nationalist parties, who command around 6% of the national vote, continue to demand constitutional recognition of education in the Kurdish language and autonomy for Kurdish-inhabited regions.

The current amendments do not address issues that are of primary concern to the Alevi and Kurdish communities. The Alevi groups, not surprisingly, have tended to oppose the amendments out of fear that the AKP’s increasing control over the judiciary would aggravate their grievances. The Kurdish groups adopt a more ambivalent position. Many Kurds have supported the amendments as they empower popular forces at the expense of bureaucratic institutions that oppose any concessions to Kurdish identity; but the main Kurdish nationalist party also called for a boycott of the referendum on the grounds that the amendments do not directly address Kurdish demands.

The result of this complex of attitudes is that heavy majorities in Kurdish provinces approved the amendments, though most citizens of voting age in six Kurdish-majority provinces in the east heeded the boycott call (such that turnout there was under 50%); and turnout in Kurdish areas overall remained well below the national average.

The third structural deficiency is that Turkey’s electoral democracy has been dominated by political parties that cultivate extensive and corrupt patronage networks. The AKP itself is built around the personage of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; he alone makes the final decisions on a wide range of issues, ranging from the selection of the country’s president and the speaker of the parliament to judicial investigations (the so-called Ergenekon) into military-led conspiracies. His absolute control over a party that hardly tolerates any dissent allows him to command parliament - and much more.

In addition, the AKP’s growing control over the media fuels fears that the reduction in the power of bureaucratic institutions that historically countervailed civilian government would result in an illiberal democracy. The merit in this view is to highlight the fact that a reform of Turkey’s political-parties and elections law to make party leaders more accountable and increase parliament’s representativeness is necessary to advance Turkish democracy; but in general, these fears often say less about actual political trends than about the opposition’s inability to develop effective electoral strategies.

After all, the amendments empower the president and parliament - not the AKP as such - over the high judiciary. If opposition parties win the national elections in 2011, it is they who will decide on judicial appointments. More generally, a number of vigorous developments in modern Turkey - the proliferation of civil-society organisations, increasing diversity in media sources, and consolidation of the market economy in a way that continually erodes the state’s power to shape society - cast empirical doubt on the case that the country is marching towards illiberal democracy.

The logic of change

The quality of the AKP’s democratic commitments have been central to analyses of Turkish politics since 2002. The party may have abandoned the Islamist ideology of its predecessors, but in other areas - respect for the rule of law, protection of minority rights, respect for individual liberties, and labour and environmental policies - it has often failed to meet minimum liberal-democratic expectations.

Yet there is no perfect correspondence between democratic commitment and action. If the democratisation of Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries provides any guidance, the expansion of rights (such as the extension of suffrage and welfare provision) are often by-products of political struggles among leading political and social actors. Democratisation was a messy and non-linear process characterised by uncertainties, stalemates, and zigzags.

The current political struggles in Turkey indeed have some resemblance to this earlier era of European democratisation. True, the AKP’s self-interests do not always coincide with a liberal-democratic agenda. For example, electoral considerations constrain its willingness to further ease the restrictions on the Kurdish language; it rejects the opposition’s demand for a lower electoral threshold and for reform of parliamentary immunities; and it tolerates (if not actively encourages) repressive practices by the security forces in order to contain political dissent.

Yet the AKP’s attempts to increase its power vis-à-vis bureaucratic institutions (which are also, let it be recalled, motivated by self-interest) also contribute to the consolidation of civil rule, expand the scope of popular politics, and generate opportunities that are exploited by historically marginalised political actors. Moreover, the AKP’s vote-maximising strategies translate into policies that are partially responsive to Kurdish demands for greater rights.

These considerations suggest that the popular endorsement of constitutional amendments on 12 September 2010 is a small but positive step that contributes to wider struggles for democratisation in Turkey.

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