A New Era for Turkey?
The Prime Minister as President


The results of the presidential election signify the end of the decade of coexistence among competing visions for Turkey’s future. It is, however, still too early to predict what kind of alternatives will emerge and what impact the events will have on the new constitution process, the Kurdish initiative, domestic calculations and the balance of political parties and the economy in Turkey, writes Anita Sengupta, in the first instalment of a two-part series on the rise of ‘new Turkey’

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the country’s first popularly elected president on August 10, marking his ninth consecutive electoral victory during 12 years in power. He received 52 percent of the vote averting the need for a run off. In his victory speech at the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) headquarter in Ankara, Erdogan declared that this was the start of a ‘new era’ signalling not just a transformation of the presidential post, but also a boost to the process of constitutional change. He went on to say that the ‘national will’ would now find its voice in a ‘new Turkey’ in which all citizens would be embraced irrespective of their ethnicity or creed. It is expected that the ‘new Turkey’ that would take shape with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would prioritise the formulation of a new constitution and transform Turkey into a regional player.

‘Write Your Own Constitution’

A significant part of the changes within Turkey have been reflected in the process of constitutional amendment, which was given precedence by the AKP in its second term in power. Although the AKP asked a panel of legal experts to draft a constitution, its inability to garner broader support for constitutional reform and resistance from the opposition put the issue on the backburner. It is in this context that the June 12, 2011 parliamentary elections assume importance. In the course of the campaign, both the AKP as well as the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi - CHP), committed themselves to introducing a democratic ‘civilian constitution’ after elections. Although on the surface there exists a broad consensus on the need to draft a new constitution, contradictory opinions dominate issues of contention that have plagued Turkish politics over the years – the Kurdish issue, the question of the place of religion in society and the role of the military.

The AKP launched its election campaign with the slogan, ‘Vote for AK Party, Write your own Constitution’ (Oyunu AK Parti’ye ver kendi anayasanı yap!) - clear reference to the AKP agenda for a new constitution to replace the one that came into force in 1982 during a period of military rule, and which has been widely criticised for limiting individual rights.

Contentious Issues

The new constitution is expected to strengthen democracy and pluralism. Among the changes that would be sought include a directly elected president of seven years, restriction on the political role of the military, and a change in the headscarf policy – all issues that have led to debates between the government and the opposition. The headscarf remains at the core of the continuing battle between overtly pious and pro-secular Turks. The former insist that it is an expression of faith. The latter retort that it is a symbol of political Islam and contrary to the secular policies of Ataturk’s Republic. The EU has also repeatedly called on the AKP to reform the Turkish legal system, including restructuring the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges (HSYK). This is one of the 26 changes that the AKP has proposed for the new constitution. However, the constitutional reform package has been criticised by the opposition who complain that it increases the power of the government and president over the choice of members of the HSYK and the Constitutional Court, and thus reduces the independence of the judiciary.

The AKP required 367 out of a total of 550 seats to approve a new constitution on its own. The 49.9 percent vote that it received gave it 326 seats, requiring it to seek agreement from other parties. Erdogan admitted that the election results indicated that the new constitution should be created through agreement and negotiation and that the AKP would be respectful towards the rights of all sections of the state. As a part of this process of ‘democratic opening’, there was the beginning of a dialogue with jailed Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. A new round of negotiations started in the spring of 2013 known as the Imrali Process. However, the proposals put forward by Öcalan seemed to warrant not only a resolution of the Kurdish issue, but a redrawing of the entire Middle East. Kurdish demands included the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the right of Kurds to receive education in their mother tongue and the constitutional recognition of Kurdish identity. In March 2013, the AKP announced a list of 63 handpicked public figures, the so called ‘Wise People’ who were divided into groups to tour the country and explain the peace process to the people. The resolution of the Kurdish problem would impact the outcome of a number of elections scheduled for 2014 and the new constitution that is proposed for the Republic. The Imrali Process would also impact the balance between the Kurdish and Turkish nationalists in Turkey.

Similarly, Erdogan would have to take note of the 13-million-strong Alevi population in the country. The Nusayri Alevi community of Turkey, which constitutes the majority of the population in parts of south-eastern Turkey bordering Syria, has been negatively impacted by the Syrian conflict. In addition to the sectarian rhetoric in the political arena, the influx of large number of refugees in the region has led to ethnic and religious tensions. Most recently, the Alevis received a blow when the government announced that the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the construction of which is already underway, would be named after Sultan Selim I or Yavuz ‘the Grim’. It was under Selim’s reign that the Ottomans conquered the Hijaz in the 16th century. The Ottoman Sultans, thus, became the protectors of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and claimed the title of caliph. It was also under his rule that the conflicts between the Ottomans and the Safavids and their Anatolian Kizilbash supporters escalated. The Ottomans persecuted and resettled the Kizilbash in a series of events that is remembered by the Alevis in continuity with the Karbala tragedy as large scale massacres. From the Alevi perspective, the fact that the government named the bridge after a sultan whose legacy is so divisive was unacceptable. During the initial days of the Gezi sit in, Alevi organisations of Istanbul organised rallies against the naming of the bridge.

Commitment to ‘Democratic Ideals’

Certain other actions of the government have also been problematic, among them the arrest and implication of a large number of individuals in what is termed as the ‘Ergenekon’ affair. Following five years of legal proceedings, the court delivered life sentences to 17 formerly prominent figures of the military establishment along with politicians, academics and journalists raising concerns about freedom of speech and media and the independence of the judiciary. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Gezi Park events, there were reports of adverse action against a number of journalists who had reported on the events in the media. This has brought into question Turkey’s commitment to ‘democratic ideals’.

Similarly, the decision of the government to implement urban transformation through sudden top-down decisions that many argue do not sufficiently account for environmental protection or consultation with citizens has been criticised as making the emergence of a consensus on the pace and nature of economic development difficult. The period of economic growth following the 2002 general elections led to major advances in Turkey’s public services and infrastructure including airports, roads and highways, high speed railroads, utilities, hospitals, universities and museums. Simultaneously, vast process of urban transformation and renewal has taken place in many Turkish cities. Boosted by economic success, the AKP government launched a number of initiatives, the most emblematic of which were in or around Istanbul. Some were presented as indispensable for Turkey’s economic growth like the third bridge over the Bosphorus and a third airport for Istanbul. This urban transformation was criticised both for the excessive centralisation of the decision making and the lack of consultation with citizens before the commencement of projects. In a number of instances, there have been substantial amendments to legislative, regulatory and administrative frameworks for these projects. Attempts by civil societies to introduce local consultation mechanisms for urban transformation projects have been largely overlooked.

Being ‘Marginal’

In late May 2013, a sense of frustration at the government’s reactions to a range of issues and style of governance as well as anger at the disproportionate use of force and the failure of mainstream Turkish media to cover the same erupted in what came to be known as the Gezi Park protests. In the aftermath of the protests, new definitions of the ‘margin’ have been created with state recognition of a sharp differentiation between supporters of the AKP and those who have opposed its policies in the course of the recent protests throughout Turkey. Erdogan claimed to govern for 50 percent of the population who have repeatedly voted for the party, thereby marginalising the rest who are frustrated about the government’s stand on issues ranging from property development and media rights to the role of religion and access to alcohol, all of which is viewed as attempts to impose conservative values on a secular society. Being ‘marginal’ has, thereby, acquired political overtones that define belonging in terms of ideological convergence. This majoritarian notion of democracy, which venerates ballots but disregards civil liberty and press freedom, has proved to be problematic though its impact on the electoral process has been practically non-existent. A number of writings in the immediate post-Gezi Park period stressed that what the protesters wanted was a guarantee that the Turkish government would respect the difference among its citizens and there would be no AKP inspired behavioural norms on Turkish citizens. Similarly, the handling of the Soma mining disaster by the government, which left 300 dead, was seen by many to be unacceptable.

In all likelihood, recent events and the results of the presidential election signify the end of the decade of coexistence among competing visions for Turkey’s future. This goes beyond the duality of secular versus religious inclinations, although it remains as the major fault line. Also at play is resentment over visible disparities that have accompanied a sweeping increase in overall prosperity. It is, however, still too early to predict what kind of alternatives will emerge and what impact the events will have on the new constitution process, the Kurdish initiative, domestic calculations and the balance of political parties and the economy in Turkey.

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Anita Sengupta

Anita Sengupta is Fellow at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. She may be reached at anitasengupta@hotmail.com

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