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May 07, 2012, Monday

Military influence and Kurdish status to be tested by new constitution

A parliamentary commission, comprising the four political parties represented in the Turkish Parliament, has begun as of May 1 rewriting the draft of a brand new civilian constitution after gathering all public suggestions on the new charter. The new charter is intended to replace the 1982 Constitution authored by the military junta after the bloody Sept. 12, 1980 military takeover.

The new civilian constitution is planned to be put to a referendum by the end of this year. However, serious question marks remain over whether a new civilian constitution, intended to erase the remnants of authoritarian rule, will have been rewritten by then, or even by sometime next year.

There is no consensus, for example, over addressing Kurdish grievances and finally ending the military tutelage system. This is mainly because there is a deep divergence of opinion, mainly among the opposition parties, as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) strongly opposes changes that will end the emphasis on Turkish ethnicity, as well as the removal of prohibitions on mainly Kurds’ cultural and political rights. Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has ruled out any change to the first three articles of the existing constitution, which reflect an authoritarian, statist and tutelary regime.

Turkey has already begun the process of military reform, yet progress to date has been slow. Parliament adopted a law late in 2010 that has begun seeing the country’s military expenditures audited for the first time, though these expenditures still lack transparency. Parliament, however, has so far failed to lift Article 35 of the military’s internal service law, to which the military junta has always referred to justify its interventions.

The 1982 Constitution has also seen amendments, with the most comprehensive ones approved in a Sept. 12, 2010 referendum by around 58 percent of the voters. This reform has further curbed the military’s political influence since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in November 2002.

As a constitutional amendment eliminated immunity from prosecution for the leaders of the bloody 1980 military takeover, an Ankara court on April 4 began the trial of two surviving members of the 1980 coup junta, retired Gen. Kenan Evren and retired Gen. Tahsin Şahinkaya.

Constitutional changes have included making the military more accountable to civilian courts.

Identifying itself as a guardian of a fiercely secular Turkish Republic, the Turkish military has staged three military coups and forced a coalition government to resign in 1997. The architects of the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern coup, including then-Deputy Chief of General Staff retired Gen. Çevik Bir, were put in jail last month over their roles in the 1997 military intervention.

There are around 250 retired and active duty officers -- including 63 active duty and 18 retired generals and admirals, as well as Turkey’s former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ (between 2008 and 2010) -- who are in jail, either on charges of making coup plans to unseat the government or on charges of staging coups.

Writing a new constitution is hoped to finally disassociate EU-aspiring Turkey from the remnants of autocratic rule. As the latest EU Progress Report, released in 2011, on Turkey’s accession candidacy put it: “A new constitution would cement the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities and address long-standing problems, including the Kurdish issue.”

If the reform of the Turkish Constitution is successful in cutting out the influence of the military from Turkish civilian life, the implications on the military, its budget and its role in NATO could be profound, says a story by UK-based Jane’s Defence Weekly (JDW) in its May 4 issue.

Moreover, the ongoing conflict with the outlawed Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been a key rallying cry for both Turkish nationalists and for continued strong spending on the military. If the constitution does address even a part of the Kurdish grievances, then a wind-down in the conflict potentially could ensue, leading to calls for a commensurate drop in defense expenditures, JDW underlines.

However, the continuing political and social divisions between the ruling AK Party, opposition parties and the military as well as Kurdish elements will probably preclude an agreement on a new civilian constitution in the foreseeable future.

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