Overview on Turkish constitutional referendum process

Turkey has passed very controversial process about constitutional referendum and actually, we, firstly, should look at the base which led up to changing in constitution.

Overview on Turkish constitutional referendum process

By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin

As is known, Turkey has passed very controversial process about constitutional referendum. As of yesterday, referendum campaigns has replaced with comments on Turkey’s new future. While some people who support ‘yes’ vote welcome this result, opponents are very troubled and worried about uncertain future.

Actually, I think we, firstly, should look at the base which led up to changing in constitution. In its history, The Turkish Republic has constantly been exposed to an intervention of the army into fields of politics. We come across many coups or coup attempts in Turkish political history. They are as follows:

“• The first coup was in 1960 when the army arrested all members of the ruling Democrat Party and put them on trial.

• In 1961, Adnan Menderes, the overthrown prime minister, was hanged together with his foreign and finance ministers.

• In 1971, the army forced the conservative prime minister, Suleyman Demirel, to resign. Martial law was declared and a government of "technocrats" installed.

• The army's last major intervention in politics came in 1980 when the generals took over Turkey after violence between Left- and Right-wing students brought them to the brink of civil war.

• The Junta leader, Kenan Evren, elevated himself to the presidency and rewrote the constitution to guarantee the army's power.

• In 1997 the army forced the Islamist-led coalition of Necmettin Erbakan to resign on the grounds that he was steering Turkey toward religious rule. But the army refrained from seizing power and allowed secular politicians to form a new government.”

Need to change in the Constitution

So, 1982 constitution was ‘coup constitution’ and as Ihsan Dağı has said in his book entitled "Turkey between Democracy and Militarism: Post Kemalist Perspectives", “there is an important relationship between militarism and the spread of the culture of (in)security and fear in society, as well as the role of the insecurity culture in politics”. In this way, Turkey needed some amendments in the constitution so as to solve problems of restriction of status quo. As Özgür Erkan mentions in Turkey’s ‘Today’s Zaman’ Newspaper, “The AK Party rightfully aimed to put an end to this series of political crises through a new ‘civil’ constitution that would limit the powers of the judicial branch and curtail the powers of the military through several measures, for example, by bringing its budget fully under the control of the legislative branch.”

In the end, people voted the constitution on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 military coup. According to unofficial results issued late Sunday night, the package of 26 constitutional amendments passed with 58 percent of the vote, the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency reported. The turnout, among an electorate of just under 50 million, was put at 77 percent.


Okay, I think, before we mention comments on victory of AK Party and supporters of a changing, we should look at the amendments to articles of the constitution. Here are details:

“* Article 10: Equality before the law

This would be amended to say that measures favoring children, the elderly, the disabled, widows and orphans of martyrs and veterans do not violate the principle of equality.

* Article 20: Right to privacy

The changes would protect individuals' personal information. Such information could only be obtained with an individual's permission or in certain legal circumstances.

* Article 23: Freedom of movement

The changes say the right to travel abroad may be restricted only during ongoing criminal probes and upon a judge's order.

* Article 41: Children's rights

The article would contain the following sentences: "Every child has the right to adequate protection and care and the right to have and maintain a personal and direct relationship with his or her parents unless the relationship is explicitly contrary to his or her best interests.

"The State shall take measures to protect the child against all forms of abuse and violence."

* Article 51: Right to organize labor

The amendment would repeal a clause that bars membership in more than one labor union.

* Article 74: Right to petition

The amended version allows individuals to file complaints and requests for information to a government-appointed ombudsman.

* Article 84: Loss of membership in parliament

The changes would end the practice of expelling members of parliament whose actions were cited by a court as grounds to ban a political party.

* Article 94: Administration of parliament

The amendment would change the length of the parliamentary speaker's term in office.

* Article 125: Recourse to judicial review

A new version would allow soldiers discharged by a Supreme Military Council decision to appeal against such decisions.

* Articles 128, 129: Public service

The articles would include giving civil servants the right to collective contracts and to appeal disciplinary action.

* Article 144: Inspection of judicial services

The proposed amendment requires Justice Ministry reviews of prosecutors to be conducted by judicial inspectors and internal auditors, who must be judges or prosecutors themselves.

* Articles 145, 156, 157: Military justice

Crimes against state security and the constitutional order allegedly committed by military personnel would not be tried in military courts but in civilian courts. Civilians shall not be tried in military courts.

* Articles 146, 147, 148, 149: Constitutional Court

The changes would overhaul the top court to consist of 17 justices, instead of the current 11, each chosen for a 12-year term. They face mandatory retirement at age 65.

Parliament, the president and the Higher Education Council would nominate judges to the court, which will function as two chambers and a General Assembly. The assembly would be empowered to try party-closure cases, as well as prime ministers and other cabinet members. Individuals may appeal directly to the court.

Top generals will be tried for offences related to their duties by the Constitutional Court, acting as the Supreme Court.

* Article 159: Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors

The amended article would change the format of the council and the way its members are selected. It creates 22 regular and 12 substitute members on the board.

* Article 166: Economic planning

The change in the article would establish the Economic and Social Council as a constitutional institution.

* Provisional Article 15:

The package would repeal the article barring prosecution of members of the National Security Council and technocrats who had legislative and executive power following a 1980 military coup.” (Compiled by Ayla Jean Yackley, Editing by Ayse Sarioglu and Kevin Liffey/Reuters)

Comments on Referendum Results

Turkish referendum process has been followed by many newspaper, news agencies and columnists/writers/politicians. While some people consider these results as a victory of democracy and they see this step as a key for EU, other people describe them as an orchestrated power grab aimed at undermining the secular order established by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1923, and giving religious conservatives power over the military and judiciary.

While Radikal daily is saying “'Yes', but it is not enough”, "Turkey cleans away the shame of the coup," said a headline in Sabah daily.

"We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law," the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters in his victory speech.

On the other hand, The European Commission has welcomed the results.

"As we consistently said in the past months, these reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey's efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria," Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said in a statement.

Mr. Obama called Mr. Erdogan to congratulate him.

The US president "acknowledged the vibrancy of Turkey's democracy as reflected in the turnout for the referendum that took place across Turkey today", a statement released by the White House said. (BBC)

According to Robert Tait, The Guardian, the army, which has staged four coups in 50 years, faces a further reduction in its once exalted status, with serving officers subject to trial in civilian courts, in line with EU norms.

On the other hand, Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, sees the package's acceptance as a major landmark that should pave the way for an entirely new constitution in future. "It's the beginning, not the end. Turkey is moving finally towards the normalization and de-militarization that it needs in order to become a worldly and self-confident country.... This is not just a government victory, it's going forward to a new constitution" he said.

Hidden Islamist Agenda?

In recent months, there is a very important discussion between intellectuals/columnists. It is that is there any axial dislocation in Turkish foreign policy? Some people discussed referendum results in this context.

Once again, New York Times open this issue up for discussion. Sebnem Arzu and Dan Bilefsky has written so: “In the past year, Turkey has conducted its own negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, resulting in an agreement that Western officials said undermined international efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In May, a Turkish organization led a flotilla that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza; while the flotilla ended in bloodshed at sea, the attention it drew to the blockade helped force a softening of Israeli policy and cast Mr. Erdogan as a hero to the Muslim world. It(Referendum) is in the domestic arena, however, that the constitutional changes will have the deepest repercussions”.

On the other hand, secularists have constantly used same arguments as an opposition. They accuse the AKP of trying to seize control of the judiciary as part of a back-door Islamist coup.

After Mr. Erdogan’s speech, "The people who benefit from dark powers will be disappointed. This is the result of the desire for democracy.", opponents campaigned against the reforms warning that they would allow the government to push religious based policies that would diminish the secular nature of the Turkish constitution.

Moreover, there are very interesting reader comments in websites. In Hurriyet Daily News, nicknamed ‘Brazilian’ reader invite Turkish secularists to Brazil with bizarre excuse: “Everybody knows that those reforms, a.k.a. as "Iranisation of Turkey", will allow the AKP government to push tough religious-based policies that will diminish (and eventually eliminate completely, probably in less than a year) the secular nature of the Turkish constitution. It will be a long, long dark night, full with bad dreams. I suggest to all my secular friends to have their passports ready; if you decide to move to Brazil, we will gladly welcome you and help you to establish yourselves here”.

Is it Polarization?

According to Faruk Logoglu, an analyst and former ambassador to the United States, this process would polarize opinion: "The ruling party will become even less receptive to the opposition, and the opposition will use tougher words and approaches to undermine the government".

“Despite the clear win for the AK Party, the vote is unlikely to bridge the religious/secularist fault-line in Turkish politics. The military, self-appointed guardians of Turkey's secular values, have seen their power clipped by EU-driven reforms and the high courts have become the last redoubt of a conservative secularist establishment. Analysts are not expecting any untoward reaction from the military, which has removed four governments in the past. Secularist opponents are deeply suspicious of the AK Party, which they accuse of harboring a secret plan to roll back Turkey's secular principles, a charged denied by the AK Party.” says Ibon Villelabeitia, Reuters.

Status Quo Lost Its Reputation

“This referendum has been called to introduce some small changes to the constitution. It’s insufficient to bring any significant and important changes. I’ve no doubt the result of the referendum result will be a yes. The main changes relate to the guardianship of the highest courts: the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Magistrates. The military’s supervision of these institutions will be somewhat reduced. It is a small step towards democracy. After that, we have to continue to work and campaign for a wider revision of the entire constitution”.(Roni Margulies)

“The referendum has clearly shown whether the public favored maintaining the status quo or whether they supported change.” says Bulent Keles, Today’s Zaman.

By approving overwhelmingly the constitutional package, people have overcome the power of the status quo. They voted ‘yes’ in order not to live with a fear of military power. People prefer to use their civil rights more openly. Or they want to guarantee their positions in the courts. They want to be equal with others. After this period, the barriers such as the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and the Constitutional Court, which have so far prevented all attempts for deeper democracy, civilian administration and freedoms, will be abolished.

As Bulent Keles said, “The courts hearing the most critical cases relating to Ergenekon, the Sledgehammer (Balyoz), Cage (Kafes) and other coup attempts will no longer feel themselves threatened by the despotic HSYK and will be able to perform their duties within the legal framework. For the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, everyone will be equal before the law. The offenses -- including treason -- committed by some military officers and generals will no longer go unpunished.”

Wall Street Journal portrays amendments in judicial bodies with these words: “But two changes have proved controversial. One expands membership in the Constitutional Court to 17 from 11, and a second expands the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors to 22 members from seven. Turkey's parliament, where the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, enjoys a majority, and President Abdullah Gul, of the AKP, would play important roles in the appointments.

Both judicial bodies currently are controlled by a small group of self-described secularists. In 2007, the Constitutional Court struck down legislation passed by parliament that would have lifted a ban on wearing headscarves at Turkey's universities. Mr. Erdogan's daughter Sumeyye is among the thousands of daughters of wealthier conservative families who studied abroad rather than take off their headscarves. In 2008, the court came within one vote of banning the AKP as a threat to Turkey's secularist foundations”.

In this issue, "The judicial branch — the last secular fortress, as many call it — will be neutralized by the new appointees," predicted Ilhan Tanir, a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News.

On the other hand, when Patrick Cocburn, The Independent, discusses new changes in the constitution, he evaluates AKP’s power process as a gradual de-militarization period: “The changing of the constitution will make possible to try officers in civilian courts, stop the judiciary banning political parties (the ruling party was almost banned in 2008), and allowing the President and parliament to have a say in the composition of the powerful constitutional court. Since coming to power in 2002, the AK, led by Mr. Erdogan, has been cutting back the power of the army and is being accused by the CHP of covertly undermining secularism.”

“For this very reason, for many years the Kemalist elite tried to hijack power from the people through authoritarian means. They produced hundreds of excuses not to give the right to choose to the people who were treated by the Kemalists as uneducated and unable to make decisions about their lives” saying İhsan Dağı, Today’s Zaman and he adds: “The referendum results shows once more that the Kemalist elite in media, politics, academia and business are incapable of reading the new dynamics of Turkish politics and understanding the democratic aspiration of the people…….. This is a step forward to a post-Kemalist republic. A republic that is not ruled by the state elite but by the people like in all democratic regimes; a republic in which power is not monopolized by a few high bureaucrats and judges but shared by the people. This is a move from a republic under the tutelage of a civilian-military bureaucracy to a fully functioning liberal democracy.”


There were many scenarios about economic situation after referendum. But, results has become as an expectable. So, according to Ibon Villelabeitia, investors will greet the outcome as a fresh vote of confidence in the government, credited with bringing in record foreign investment and managing economic growth that has almost tripled Turkey's GDP in the last eight years.

Now we will look at the opinions of Ozlem Bayraktar, economist, and today we do not see very different portray about economy than forecasted: "This is much higher than expectations and what we saw in the opinion polls. It will certainly fuel a positive response on markets on Monday, and we could see the benchmark yield on the secondary bond market fall to below 8 percent. Equities will also show a strong response. But then I think from Tuesday data from the United States could be a focus for further support. This result shows the AK Party has strong support ahead of the parliamentary election next year. I am sure they will present it as a large victory."

Are Referendum Results Guarantee for The Next General Election?

The outcome boosts Erdogan's hopes of a third successive poll victory in a parliamentary election set for July 2011.

According to Reuters, a deep recession last year reduced AK's election hopes, but a robust recovery has restored voters' faith judging by the outcome of Sunday's plebiscite.

"The comfortable margin of the "yes" vote is market positive as it indicates that the AKP has good prospects of winning a third tern at the general elections due by July 2011," Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst at Eurasia Group consultancy, said in a note.

While The Daily Telegraph comments so: “The result, and particularly his margin of victory, will be a big boost to his campaign for re-election next year, and a major disappointment to the secular opposition parties, who campaigned strongly against the package”, Ibon Villelabeitia looks at the issue from different perspective: “the margin of victory may tempt Erdogan to call early elections although he has repeatedly rejected the idea”.

According to analysts, the vote will have profound consequences for general elections in the spring, buttressing the government, whose popularity has waned in recent months as the economy has faltered, and improving Mr. Erdogan’s chances of winning a third successive election victory.(The New York Times)

Although there are very optimistic comments on general elections in spring, in order to forecast about election results, this time is very early. From this picture, we can only say that AKP has regained its power.


After this referendum, for the first time, the Turkish army faces a further reduction in its once exalted status. On the other hand, for the first time, now, serving army officers can be tried in civilian courts, rather than at military tribunals as at present.

On the other hand, as a second important changing, increases in the number of judges on the constitutional court from 11 to 17 gives parliament and the president a greater say in their appointment. This is very crucial for civil politics because there are many examples that are precluded by the constitutional court.

Today, some opponents fear that an emboldened AK Party will unleash a hidden Islamist agenda if it wins another term in an election due by next July, though Erdogan denies any plan to roll back modern Turkey's official secularism. (Reuters)

Many people now expect the fault line between AK Party supporters and secularists to deepen and it is suggested that politics will polarize.

Additionally, as Patrick Cocburn said that “preparing the ground for EU membership has helped Mr. Erdogan clip the powers of the army and make it next to impossible for it to launch another military coup; there have been four since 1960”. So, EU membership is very important agenda for AKP and liberal politics become important element for them in order to create necessary conditions. As is known, the European Union has criticized the government for rushing the reform proposals and of stifling public debate over the issues, so this victory is a boost to Turkey's ambitions of EU membership.

So, there are different groups who will follow new developments about application of these amendments. Opponents are very worried because they claim that AK Party will monopolize the state and government bodies. Secondly, liberals have some expectations because they want to be more liberalized and some of them see EU membership as very crucial. Hence, they will follow next process carefully. Finally, we can mention Islamists. As is known, Islamists has suffered from the army in different times. So, they became more active supporters of this demilitarization process. As is said in The Washington Times, the military had served as a bulwark against religious influence since the establishment of modern Turkey, at times overthrowing governments — as recently as 1997 — when the military leaders thought it drifted too far from the secularist vision of the republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk. Thus, they have some different expectations. Actually, one of the most important questions of the Islamists is ‘the roots of demilitarization process’. Akif Emre, a columnist in Turkey’s Yeni Safak Newspaper, asks this question: If there will be no harmony between society’s values and the texts which guide the society, how/what do these modifications/changes serve other than strengthening status quo?

In this way, we can see that there are different groups who will look at the process more deeply. Lastly, we should say that the most controversial issue in today’s fields of politics is Turkey’s role and position in Middle East/Europe. Because of this fact, The Daily Telegraph concentrates on this issue: “It greatest effect may be to strengthen the hand of Mr. Erdogan in his attempts to reposition Turkey's traditional political stance from being pro-western and secular, if authoritarian, to a more populist engagement with its neighbors, including Iran”.

Coming days will clarify blurred picture...

Last Mod: 02 Mart 2011, 09:44
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