Why Turkish efforts for a new charter failed again

Why Turkish efforts for a new charter failed again

It was another bright November day two years ago when Turkish Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek announced with pride and joy that the four parties in Parliament have agreed to set up a commission to write a new and more democratic constitution for the country. The ‘Constitution Reconciliation Council’ was possible after two weeks of intense talks between the parties, with the aim to come up with a brand new constitutional draft “by the end of 2012.” It was going to be the first Turkish constitution to not be written under circumstances of wars, revolutions or coups d’état – unlike those of 1876, 1908, 1924, 1961 and 1982. Çiçek said in the Nov. 2, 2011 press conference that, for the first time, there would be “no shadow of the military” on an initiative for a new Turkish chapter.

Two years and two weeks after that ceremonious press conference in the historical Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, the Council has practically come to an end on Nov. 19, when Mustafa Şentop, the representative for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) did not attend the planned meeting. The other three, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) showed up at the meeting room, but their total is short of passing a draft from Parliament, even short of carrying it to a referendum, even if they agree on one. Addressing his deputies the same day, Erdoğan said it was understood that the “goodwill of AK Parti” would not bear any fruit and the Council has become defunct. The goodwill he was mentioning was, giving equal number of representatives to the Council, despite the obvious inequality of the party seats in Parliament. But that was not an Erdoğan generosity that took place for the first time; it is a Parliamentary tradition to set up amendment committees of equal representation, regardless of the seats. 

Yet, there is truth in what Erdoğan is saying about the productivity of the Council. It was thanks to Speaker Çiçek to have postponed Erdoğan’s deadline, but the parties could only agree on a new formulation of 60 articles of the existing Constitution, leaving 112 unresolved.

There have been two main reasons for disagreement. The first one has been about the issues related with the Kurdish problem. The general idea was to expand democratic rights in a way that not only Kurdish origin, but all citizens of Turkey could enjoy more freedom. The BDP wanted a bit more, the MHP wanted less, the CHP had discrepancies within itself and the AK Parti did not want to be seen as cutting a deal with only the BDP because of political considerations. The other one has been Erdoğan’s push for a new presidential system for Turkey, in which the President would have more executive power with lesser checks-and-balances. And, he wanted to have it in effect before the presidential elections in 2014, without hiding that his desire to be the next president after his longtime fellow Abdullah Gül.

The presidency issue was key in the failure of the last attempt to save at least the 60 articles, for at least a modified charter, when Erdoğan called CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to cooperate, because their total is well above the Parliamentary majority. But when they agreed on one condition, that AK Parti should withdraw its strengthened presidency proposal from the Council, the step could not be taken.

Now there are speculations in political circles that Erdoğan could bring an AK Parti draft to include both the presidency and Kurdish matters, taking the risk of being supported only by BDP, if BDP could be convinced through the government’s dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which shares the same grass roots with the BDP in pursuit of a political solution to Kurdish problem. And knowing that, still the best feasible option is AK Parti-CHP cooperation for a possible, more democratic charter for Turkey.

Is it possible that the future of the Kurdish initiative could be similar to the one of the new charter?

That is, ending up with the status quo after spending a lot of time and energy and still looking for lesser possibilities? That is a real concern, despite hopes kept alive with new promises and moves like the one in Diyarbakır last weekend; but yes, that is a concern.