A constitutional change that introduces ombudsmen, provides civil servants with the right to bargain collectively, establishes the principle of positive discrimination for the disadvantaged and protects an individual’s privacy can hardly be opposed from a European perspective.
In this context, it is important to note who is, on one hand, initiating and supporting the proposed changes, and who is, on the other, opposing this latest attempt at Europeanization.
One expects the Kemalists represented by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the civilian-military bureaucracy, including the judiciary, to be behind the democratic novelties introduced by the constitutional amendment package. But this is not the case. The Kemalists, who used to claim to be the Westernizing force in Turkey, are opposed to the constitutional amendments. And this is not the first time they have been the ardent anti-Western, staunch defender of the status quo in Turkey. It has been going on for a long time, and it is not an accident of history.
I have come to the conclusion that the Kemalists have not abandoned the idea, and ideals, of Westernization. In fact they have never taken up such an objective in their entire history. What they were interested in was to capture and maintain power. The key for the Kemalists was to exclude, marginalize and delegitimize conservative/Islamic elements that appeared in the early 20th century and to make the conservatives stick to traditional practices and remain skeptical about the West and modernization. To the Kemalist, they represented the East, Islam and backwardness. As such they had no right to rule the country or to share in power. The more the new ruling elite, the Kemalists, emphasized their “Western” orientation, the more they generated their “right to rule.”
Thus, Westernization was not something to achieve but a tool of discourse used to exclude conservative Islamic groups. In the name of Westernization the Kemalists justified their monopoly of power.
They also told Westerners the same story that the conservatives looked towards Arabian Islam, that they could not be trusted, that they had to be controlled by the progressive, and Western oriented, Kemalists.
Westerners, lacking contact with, and insight into, the ordinary people of Anatolia believed this grand lie of the Kemalists. For them, the authoritarian ruling-elite, the Kemalists, were progressive and were trying to establish a modern state and society -- while the backwards Islamists fought to stop this process.
The story was quite the opposite right from the beginning. The first anti-Kemalist opposition in the first Turkish Grand National Assembly (1920-1923) is known as the Second Group. They struggled against the dictatorial tendencies of Mustafa Kemal. They believed in the supremacy of the parliament and were committed to the motto that in a republic, sovereignty belonged to people. The members of the Second Group were largely liberals who managed to pass a law -- known as the Law for Individual Freedoms in 1922 -- that guaranteed individual rights and freedoms. The second opposition party established in 1924, the Progressive Republican Party, had a party program and parliamentary record that are described by experts like Erik Zürcher as a liberal party. It was closed down by the government after the Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925. The third party, the Free Republican Party, was established with the blessing of Mustafa Kemal in 1930 and was also a liberal party.
In sum, even in 1920s and 1930s there was a liberal opposition whose values were consistent with modern ideas and ideals of democracy, human rights and people’s sovereignty. From the beginning, the Kemalist authoritarianism did not allow the emergence of a plural, competitive and democratic polity in Turkey. They justified this on the grounds that the people were not ready. People were in fact ready, ready to the extent that the war of independence was fought with a people’s parliament that was jealously guarding its authority from the president of the parliament and the leader of independence movement, Mustafa Kemal. But in the “Second Parliament,” elected in the summer of 1923, there was not a single deputy from the opposition Second Group. All were eliminated. The Kemalists managed to wield total power and started with a policy of homogenizing the nation. All ethnic, religious and ideological groups seen in competition with the Kemalist regime were suppressed.
In this historical juncture, “Westernization” was utilized to legitimize the Kemalists’ power and exclude the conservatives, despite their being the dominant social force. But things started to change in 1999 when the EU recognized Turkey as a candidate country. Westernization along the EU membership process turned into a tool to control the excessive state power dominated by the Kemalists and to democratize the Kemalist polity, and thus began to empower the people vis-a-vis the state.
The conservative/Islamic people have woken up to this reality by supporting accession to the EU. They have understood that that Europeanization meant a democratic, plural and open society and market economy emancipating the masses from the Kemalist yoke. This re-positioning of conservative social and political forces has placed the Kemalists at the off-side of history. The Kemalists, who stood naked in their authoritarian and anti-Western disposition, have waged a war against Turkey’s Europeanization and democratization through their representatives in politics, business and bureaucracy.
This is the background to the Kemalists’ opposition to constitutional change. They do not accept the principle that people have the right to choose who will represent them.