Global Insider: Turkey’s Constitutional Reforms

Early this morning, Turkey’s parliament passed a package of controversial constitutional amendments. The vote was just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to adopt the reforms outright and will now head for referendum. In an e-mail interview, Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Steven A. Cook explains the controversy surrounding the reform package.

WPR: What are these reforms responding to, domestically and in terms of EU accession?

Cook: The constitutional amendments are in response to domestic politics. There is general agreement across the political spectrum that Turkey needs a new constitution. The present constitution was written at the military’s behest after the 1980 coup. It has a variety of defects that undermine the quality of Turkey’s democratic practices. That said, there is no consensus on how to go about writing the constitution, given the fraught nature of Turkey’s domestic politics. The ruling AKP tried in late-2007 to begin the constitutional drafting process, but ran into a buzz saw of opposition. Amending the constitution is the next-best option.

There is general agreement on much of the amendment package, but there are three outstanding issues that are causing controversy:

1) Provisions on closure of political parties;
2) The composition of the constitutional court; and
3) The composition of the supreme board of prosecutors and judges.

There are good reasons to reform the Turkish judiciary, which does not meet international legal standards. Still, the reforms AKP is proposing are clearly a function of politics. Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP has run into trouble with the judiciary, which has struck down parts of the party’s agenda, decided to censure (though not close) the party in 2008, and — as a bastion of secularism — remains suspicious of the AKP’s motives. The party has, through its amendments, sought to forge a more politically pliant judiciary. In effect, the amendments would allow the government to pack the constitutional court and the supreme board of prosecutors and judges with its supporters.

WPR: What impact will the reforms have on Turkey’s institutional balance of power between the government, the judiciary and the military?

Cook: The amendments, which passed in parliament last night and will now go to a referendum, will not reinforce the institutional balance of power. In fact, it will likely do just the opposite. As I wrote above, the amendments provide an opportunity for the government to politicize the judiciary.

WPR: In its final form, will this reform have a stabilizing or divisive effect on Turkey’s domestic political situation?

Cook: Turkey’s domestic politics are deeply polarized. There is no reason to believe that the amendments will do anything other than further add to this sense of divisiveness.

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