Referendum in Turkey

The fragile ties with Israel remain in the background as a Turkish referendum approved a package on constitutional reforms

Referendum in Turkey (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Referendum in Turkey
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
ANTI-GOVERNMENT MEDIA outlets are being closed down, journalists and intellectuals are being thrown into jail, and political opponents of Turkey’s Islamist-reformist government are harassed in the courts. On the other hand, supporters of the government claim that ministers, politicians and artists were victims of illegal eavesdropping carried out by Turkey’s military intelligence against hundreds of the country’s citizens over the last few years. The wiretaps (with equipment purchased from Israel) were supposed to be used in order to combat the Kurdish underground in the southeast of the country.
And if that’s not enough, a pro-government media outlet recently released the content of a tape of a purported conversation between three Supreme Court judges, in which they discussed how they could destabilize the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and sabotage its plans to change Turkey’s judicial system.
In this highly-charged atmosphere, on September 12 Turks participated in a referendum to decide whether or not to embrace far-reaching changes to their constitution that the Erdogan government has proposed. The referendum took place on a particularly symbolic date – the 30th anniversary of Turkey’s third military coup, which led to the adoption of the current constitution. Over the years, about a third of its clauses have been amended in order to reduce the power of the military and broaden control by the civil authorities.
In the new reform package, 26 clauses of the constitution were slated for change. Against all predictions, the vote was not even close – 58 percent of Turks approved the government’s proposal. The referendum was seen as a significant test of strength between government and opposition, a step forward towards true democracy and future acceptance by the European Union according to Erdogan’s supporters, and a step backwards towards an Islamic theocracy according to his opponents. According to Western observers, Erdogan’s impressive victory in the referendum may encourage the government to claim that the public has expressed support for its overall policies and advance the date of Turkey’s national elections, currently scheduled for next summer.
Three core changes stood at the heart of the struggle between both political camps. The first was increasing the number of judges in the Constitutional (Supreme) Court and vesting the president with the power to appoint a large number of them. Second was transferring the election of members appointed to the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the body in charge of appointing judges and prosecutors, to the full community of Turkish jurists, thus making the decisions of the Council more democratic and transparent. And third was cutting back the powers of the military courts and opening the way to put on trial those responsible for past military coups.
The primary purpose of these changes, presented by the government, is to limit the power of the “judges’ guild,” which the AKP (Erdogan’s governing party) contends is controlled by Turkey’s traditional elites – the Kemalist secularists, who are backed by the leadership of the army and are opposed to the current government.
The opposition maintained that these changes will enable the executive and legislative branches to overstep their bounds and interfere in the judicial process – especially since the ruling party controls the parliament and thus chooses the president. The opposition, comprising the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is convinced that Erdogan has dangerous plans in mind: Now that the reforms have been approved, he will try to get himself elected as president, after which he will, legally, smoothly and rapidly, turn Turkey into an Iran-type theocracy.
“WE KNOW THERE ARE problems with the current constitution,” Merve Petek Gurbuz, Republican Party member responsible for international relations, tells The Jerusalem Report. “But the government’s proposals are worse. They weaken the independence of the judiciary, an institution that is absolutely critical for democracy to exist.
The government wants to appoint judges of its own liking to the constitutional court. No one can then guarantee that these judges will be objective. Thus, the government will deny its citizens the right to trust their own courts. We objected to such changes, but promise to institute a new constitution if we win next summer’s national elections.”
“First and foremost,” Gurbuz continues,” we want to limit the immunity given to parliamentarians. If they commit a crime, there’s no reason they shouldn’t stand trial. Today, they can do anything they feel like.
There are more than 600 investigations into the corruption of members of parliament, but none of them can be prosecuted. No one can touch them. That includes the prime minister. Erdogan promised to change this state of affairs – and we’re still waiting. Why won’t he get rid of immunity? What’s he scared of?
“No political party can institute constitutional changes on its own, as the AKP has done,” asserts Gurbuz. “The government didn’t seek consensus. A constitution is a reflection of a society, so the government should have sought common ground. To change a constitution, you need to work with the people, with non-governmental bodies, with universities. A new constitution can emerge only after a dialogue with all these participants.”
“We want a totally new constitution, but in the current parliament, we lack the absolute two-thirds majority to enact one,” AKP parliament member Haluk Ozdalga responds to the criticism leveled by Gurbuz. “The two opposition parties simply refused to discuss any and all changes to the constitution. So we had to proceed by ourselves, and revise just some of the constitution’s clauses. The opposition claims it approves of all the changes, except for the parts it finds problematic. But the opposition’s words don’t jibe with its deeds. And the proposed reforms affect the liberties of many citizens,” he tells The Report.
“The opposition claims the revisions damage the separation of powers and the rule of law, and that the AKP wants to rule over the judicial system. But they brought those charges before the constitutional court – and the court rejected them. The court made a few changes and, in fact, pointed out that the reforms will strengthen the courts and diminish the power of the executive branch. And note, this court is known to hold views close to the Republicans,” Ozdalga adds.
“In the USA, one individual – the president – makes appointments to the Supreme Court. In Sweden, it’s the prime minister. The opposition is terrified of elected bodies, because it knows it would leave it zero chance of returning to power – and that’s why they oppose all reforms. That’s why we decided to put distance between the government and the appointment of judges. In the future, though, the judicial system must have popular political legitimacy. And there were further revisions to the constitution that were put to referendum to which the opposition couldn’t have objected: Today, it is possible to try civilians who get into trouble with soldiers in a military court. We put an end to that.”
“The opposition did not address the substance of the reforms; rather, it chose to make the referendum a test of confidence in the AKP. European observers say the reform package is good for democracy but isn’t enough. We think so, too, but couldn’t do more because of the opposition. After the next elections, we hope to institute a new constitution that will be backed by all the political parties,” continues Ozdalga.
TO A GREAT EXTENT, OZDALGA represents the changing face of Turkey. He started off as a member of the democratic left, but later joined the Republicans, where he worked with its leaders and watched the party decline. Three years ago, he, and many of his colleagues, decided to leave the Republicans for the AKP, which they considered the only real alternative to the intellectual stagnation of the secularist camp.
“The AKP is not an Islamist party,” he says, defending his drastic switch. “It’s a conservative-democratic party. Our platform is no more religious than that of the German Christian Democrats. Back in 2002, we were invited by Erdogan to join the AKP, but we refused. Later, we realized there’s no choice. Today, my friends and I are social democrats within the AKP. I have a great deal of freedom and I don’t hide my positions or my beliefs. All my political life, I’ve defended certain issues and I continue to do just that, but with the greater power of the AKP. I support a strong military because of our history and geography, but the army must stay out of politics and be under government supervision.
“And I’ve always supported political reforms that would help the Kurds. It’s a vital issue for Turkey and it’s not a problem that can be solved by military means alone. We have to give the Kurds full rights and the freedom to organize politically. And we must respect their cultural heritage. The Republicans keep trying to sabotage progress on all these fronts,” he claims.
“In this country, when a party like the Republican People’s Party declares itself social democratic, it should lead the struggle for the right of all people to dress as they see fit. They should have accepted the right of women to cover their heads, if they choose to do so. You cannot forbid young women from attending university simply because they wear a headscarf. These women come from the most conservative corners of Turkish society, and we prevent their exposure to more liberal practices by barring them from university!” concludes Ozdalga.
THE REFERENDUM WAS THE biggest test to date – and represents the greatest failure – for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, new leader of the Republicans and great hope of the secular camp to take control of government in the next elections.
Quite symbolically, in what might be considered an omen, the opposition leader suddenly discovered on referendum day that some unknown hand had changed his registration address. For years, Kilicdaroglu – a former bureaucrat – has lived and worked in the capital, Ankara, but was elected later to parliament as a representative of Istanbul, where he expected to cast his vote. Too late, he discovered the registration mix-up and so missed his chance to vote no on the package he had so ardently campaigned against.
Supporters of the opposition are now asking themselves how the Republican leader will recover from his disastrous defeat and how to put together a formula to cope with Erdogan’s political success.
Kilicdaroglu, 61, an economist, began his career as a lackluster civil servant, including a stint as head of Social Security. He went into politics about a decade ago and, since then, has been waging a crusade against the endemic corruption in the ranks of the AKP. Last year, he failed in his bid to become mayor of Istanbul, although he came close. Viewed as uncorrupt and untainted, Kilicdaroglu was chosen to be chairman of the party last May, after a sex scandal that obliged his predecessor to resign. The new leader has two additional trump cards: ethnically, he is a Kurd, and religiously, he is an Allawi. Both the Kurds and the Allawis (who are not related to the Allawis of Syria) are still suffering from discrimination, despite new overtures by the current government.
Kilicdaroglu caused a sensation when he campaigned in Kurdish areas long neglected by his party and spoke about a general amnesty for the Kurdish resistance, as long as they agreed to forgo armed force.
“He is very close to the people,” points out Gurbuz, a member of his party. “They feel he doesn’t represent the political elite and doesn’t use religion as a political tool. He’s a genuine social democrat without a speck of corruption. The public likes him, and likes his policies to fight poverty, to bring economic development, to put an end to graft. Under the current government, economic progress has entailed incurring debt. That’s why our economy is vulnerable.
“There are tremendous wage gaps in Turkey,” Gurbuz points out. “A few select groups divide nearly all the wealth among themselves. Most people earn very little. Unemployment is a tremendous problem – over 14 percent. We want far greater government investment in the poorer regions and interest-free loans for companies that agree to invest there. A proper economic policy will also be the solution to the Kurdish problem. Kilicdaroglu doesn’t use his ethnicity for political gain. The ethnic roots of each one of us are a source of personal pride, but not something we talk about. People see him as a hope for change simply because they are fed up with the government. Young people are also now supporting our party in greater numbers.”
But the AKP’s Ozdalga doesn’t believe that Kilicdaroglu constitutes a threat to the ruling party. “He’s better than his predecessor, but not good enough to bring his party to power. First he says that the military should be under government supervision, then, a month later, he criticizes the government when it opposes changes among the top brass. He promised that his party will solve the problem of women’s headscarves, but now suggests they only partially cover their heads… And on the Kurdish question, he says good things, but when it comes to actions and implementation, he’s afraid to suggest solutions that aren’t acceptable to the majority of Turks.”
Zeynep Gürcanli, a commentator of the popular pro-opposition daily, Hurriyet, tells The Report, “The opposition leader represents hope, because he is relatively new on the political scene. People are beginning to tire of the AKP. Eight years is a long time to be in power. In the past, the AKP attracted the younger generations.
“Kilicdaroglu isn’t young, but he is a new face and he’s very clean. He doesn’t reveal his personal life to the public. His family lives modestly. That’s their strength. People call him ‘Kemal Gandhi’ after Mahatma Gandhi. Actually, he even resembles him a bit, but the connection is Kilicdaroglu’s perceived modesty.
“He’s not charismatic, but he represents hope for change. He’s not expected to win a majority in the next elections, but there’s already a sense of the coalition that the Republicans and the Nationalists could form, which could be an alternative to the current government. He’s no expert on foreign affairs, but he’s a moderate. If elected prime minister, he’ll listen to the advice of the Foreign Office. He won’t make enemies as Erdogan does, and will try and smooth things out with Israel – although that will depend on the Israeli government, too.”
INDEED, ISRAEL BECAME, involuntarily, an issue in this referendum. The opposition is convinced Erdogan deliberately sought a confrontation with Israel in order to improve his standing at home. But the opposition made use of Israel, too, by trying to prove that Erdogan is inconsistent in his stands towards the Jewish state.
“To a certain extent, I agree that Israel was used for political needs,” says the Republican’s Gurbuz. “[Germany’s] Merkel and [France’s] Sarkozy also use Turkey’s bid to join the EU for domestic purposes. Erdogan does the same regarding Israel.
Still, in the eight years the AKP has been in power, Turkey has signed the largest-ever military and business contracts with Israel.
It’s hard for us to make sense of it.
“It’s hypocrisy. At times, we bitterly criticize Israel about the settlements, the roadblocks, the suffering of the Palestinians. But that’s an international matter. It doesn’t mean the Turks have a problem with Israel. Reasonable people can mend relations between the two countries. I agree that Turkey made errors, but in the case of ‘the Mavi Marmara’ [the lead ship in the flotilla headed for Gaza, on which nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos], Israel also made mistakes. It will take time, but this crisis between us will pass.”
“If the anti-Israeli stance was an attempt to increase public support, then we have to ask why Erdogan and his party have maintained normal relationships with Israel for years and why they have been so active in mediating between Israel and Syria,” counters Abdulhamit Bilici, political commentator for the daily Zaman, which is close to the government. “There’s no question that most of Turkish public opinion is opposed to Israel because of Israel’s aggressive policies towards the Palestinians. But the AKP, despite its Islamic roots, never called into question the good relations between Turkey and Israel until [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert’s government began the military campaign against Gaza – just four days after Olmert had visited Ankara, and a breakthrough in the negotiations between Israel and Syria seemed possible. This led to a breakdown in the talks with Syria. Erdogan was deeply disappointed and felt betrayed.
“In my opinion,” continues Bilici, “that’s the key to understanding Erdogan’s reaction towards Israel. He personally invested a lot in trying to broker between Israel and Syria. Maybe his expectations about his ability to put a deal together were too high. I agree that Turkey needs a more balanced policy towards all players in the Middle East. Turkey’s veto of new sanctions against Iran in the Security Council and Erdogan’s statements about Hamas have all created the impression that Turkey has embarked on an Islamist foreign policy. But it would be hard to contend that all these incidents are the result of the intent to change Turkey’s foreign policy.
“I think that Turkey’s good relations with the West and with Israel are an asset for Turkey, even within the Muslim world. I want to believe that the shapers of the country’s foreign policy, in particular, Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, are aware of this. When I talk to them, they claim that the Western powers encourage Turkey to develop relations with Iran and others in the Middle East. Turkey, with its ability to talk to Iran, Syria and Hamas, can be a positive force for the West and Israel for achieving peace in the region.
“That said, it’s a very fine line Turkey must walk and, if the correct balance is not maintained, it will instead send a message that Turkey is changing its alliances.”
BILICI STRESSES THAT THE current tension between Israel and Turkey won’t abate unless Israel responds to Turkey’s demands regarding the “‘Mavi Marmara’ affront.” “All of Turkey,” he emphasizes, “and not just Erdogan, expects Israel to apologize and pay compensation.”
A high-ranking official in the Turkish Foreign Office agrees, in a conversation with The Report on condition of anonymity. “The best way to save relations between the two countries is for Israel to apologize in some way and compensate the victims’ families. The US has done so with other countries. It’s in Turkey’s, Israel’s and the US’s best interests that the former levels of cooperation be restored.
“But Turkish citizens were killed in an operation carried out by a friendly country. We can’t just go back to business as usual, unless Israel does something. Israel has the means to put things right.” The official refused to state how large the compensation that Israel should pay the Turks should be, stating that the decision is in Israel’s hands.
The official stresses that should Israel find an elegant solution through the investigatory committee established by the UN secretary general, his country would be happy to host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “After all, Netanyahu has never visited Turkey, even as a private person.” The official attests that Israel’s increasingly warm ties with Greece do not bother Turkey at all. “Both countries are our friends. If anyone in Israel thinks Turkey and Greece are enemies, he’s mistaken. The way out of this crisis is not to make allies against us, but to make an effort to improve relations.
“We need to get through this difficult period and then people will see Turkey has not changed its basic policies. People have short memories. They forget that Erdogan visited Israel, that Shimon Peres – as president of the State of Israel – delivered an address to the Turkish parliament. We’re now in this weird situation because of an incident between friends. If Israel were an enemy, we wouldn’t be that concerned. Right now, we have to make sure not to escalate the situation. Our government is doing everything to right the situation. If we’d wanted to cut diplomatic ties with Israel, we would have already done so. All we’ve done is to recall our ambassador for consultations.”
The high-ranking official pointed out that in the covert meeting in Brussels, in late June, between Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu and Trade Minster Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a declaration of apology by Israel had been formulated. But according to this source Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman nixed the deal.