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Turkey Reforming Itself

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

By Eleanor T. West

Turkey presents a challenge to modern scholars in the form of myriad external and internal factors that result in a complex foreign and domestic policy. “Every time I think I understand Turkey, something changes,” said Halil Karaveli, a Turkey expert who participated in an April 13 panel discussion on the Turkish constitution hosted by the World Policy Institute and the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Indeed, that very complexity is one reason the panelists found themselves unable to agree on the meaning or implication of basic terms—such as “Turkish secularism”—much less larger issues, like the impact of the recent constitutional reforms.

Karaveli, a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, was joined by Emiliano Alessandri, a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States; and Nuh Yilmaz, director of SETA Foundations for Political Economic and Social Research. Belinda Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, moderated the discussion, which focused on the history and future of Turkey’s constitution and the potential for and implications of constitutional reform and democratization.

In September 2010, a large majority of the Turkish electorate voted on a set of amendments designed to bring Turkey’s constitution more closely into line with those of the European states it hopes to join as a member of the European Union. The constitutional reforms are seen by some as a step toward further democratization in Turkey. Others view it as a way for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose roots are in political Islam, to assert greater control and diminish the influence of more secular-minded opponents.

Turkey, for decades a strong ally of the United States, has been touted as a model for emerging democracies in the Middle East.  As a potential member of the EU, Turkey could cement its traditional role as bridge between the West and the Middle East. However, the ongoing conflict over Cyprus and the slow pace of political and economic reforms is impeding the application process.  Moreover, Turkey currently appears less concerned with its Western alliances, instead seeking to position itself as a regional hegemon.

Nuh Yilmaz began the discussion by focusing on Turkey’s long history of constitution-writing, beginning in 1876 during the era of Ottoman rule. Constitutions were written in 1908, 1960, and 1982, with major amendments in 1995, 2001, and 2005.  Of importance was a constitutional assembly formed by state elites and controlled by civilians in 1960, a check on the power of political elites including in the 1982 constitution, and, in 2007, the beginning of the end of the tutelary system, which was established in 1982 and gave the military a significant amount of influence over civilian government.

Nuh stressed the significance of the 2010 referendum particularly, as it restructured the constitutional court, thereby allowing the AKP to write a new constitution under a new parliament. He noted that the question of who is eligible to draft a new constitution had been a major focus of Turkish politics in the years prior to the referendum. Nuh emphasized that the 2010 amendments to the constitution were part of a long Turkish tradition of writing and revising constitutions.

Halil Karaveli noted that this constitution like others before it was an expression of the state not the civilians.  In his presentation he argued that the Turkish constitution had yet to unite the divisive sectors of Turkish society. Halil emphasized the existence of a “fractured” Turkey in which a declining secular elite cannot come to terms with an emerging Sunni conservative political power.

Halil suggested that the terms “secularism” and “Islamicization” did more to obscure the debate about Turkish politics than explain them. Fear of the “other” in Turkey was a strong motif throughout his presentation and he suggested that ethnicity—not democracy— was the deciding issue in current Turkish politics. He proposed that Turkish people would have to trust one another in an unprecedented manner in order to compose a civilian constitution.

Emiliano Alessandri examined the role of the EU in Turkish politics, arguing that the EU’s influence in Turkey, especially on domestic issues, has declined in recent years. Emiliano observed that in the late 2000’s over 70 percent of Turkish civilians wanted EU membership. That number dropped to less than 50 percent in recent polls.

Emiliano suggested that in the beginning of the 21st century democratization and Europeanization were inseparable in Turkish politics.  He posited that elites embraced Europeanization sincerely, but also with the aim to gain more political power as they needed the EU to support them in their struggle for domestic political influence. After the AKP asserted its dominance as a political power, democratization and specifically Europeanization became less central to the party message. Emiliano further noted that the old elite in Turkey was not competing with the AKP on issues of increased democratization, and thus was not forcing the issue of democracy to the forefront of Turkish politics.

While the speakers could not agree on the future of Turkey’s constitution they could agree on the extremely complex nature of Turkish society and politics. Turkey’s size and growing economy are additional factors in their relations to the west and their neighbors in the Middle East. Issues like minority rights, the emergence of a middle class, and the aims of the secular elite contributed to the panelists’ debate over the uncertainty of Turkey’s changing foreign policy. Ultimately, democracy and ethnicity emerged as the determining factors for the future of Turkish policy.

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Eleanor T. West is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

Photo courtesy of flickr user World Economic Forum.

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