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March 25, 2011, Friday

TÜSİAD forces CHP’s hand on a new constitution

“Was there anyone who didn’t know?” asked President Abdullah Gül, before responding, “Everybody in Ankara knew at the time.” After a brief pause, he added, “No one should bury their head in the sand.”

Gül was commenting on the extremely important and explosive WikiLeaks cables which the Taraf daily has been publishing day in and day out these days, and which, sadly, are ignored or under-covered by the rest of the press, including this paper. Gül, in his comments, discreetly expressed his satisfaction that all the revelations by the press on coup plotting had been strictly monitored, taken very seriously and somehow “confirmed” by US officials in Ankara.

The newly posted cables (of which there are 11,000) are enormously important documents, in particular on the period highlighting the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) rule. I urge all my readers to have a look at them either on the Taraf or WikiLeaks website in order to broaden their perspective on a “complex” Turkey. I shall also return to the subject when Taraf publishes material about the Sledgehammer case, which it has announced it will do soon.

The material published so far reminds us all about how immensely difficult Turkey’s normalization process has been. All the escalating debate these days on the need for a new constitution must be seen totally in the context of what also the cables characterize: the strong resistance to all attempts to bury the legacy of the regime established after the Sept. 12 coup; the reflexes and various formations of the “deep state,” as analyzed brilliantly by former US Ambassador Robert Pearson in a cable dated Nov. 15, 2002 (two weeks after the AK Party won); and how the ancien régime unleashed all its mechanisms and shrewd “tricks” that are difficult even for the sharpest-minded Western observers to be able to understand.

At this critical juncture, a Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD) proposal for a draft constitution carries a powerful meaning. Boldly written, it has surprised domestic observers and actors in politics, mainly because the organization was quite divided on the Sept. 12 referendum held last year. Because of its hesitant attitude back then, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the association, labeling it a “loser.” But, the fresh proposal marks a new beginning for TÜSİAD and adds a powerful voice to the rising debate. We can also say the proposal put TÜSİAD on the same page with President Gül, who in a lucid speech at a TÜSİAD ceremony on Tuesday endorsed it and the line Erdoğan and his party’s staff have roughly drawn.

The warming up between the AK Party and TÜSİAD -- particularly its liberal flank, which clearly dominates now -- has caught all political parties, but especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP), off guard. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s initial reaction to the proposal was defiance. Focusing on the debate about the “three unamendable articles,” which TÜSİAD suggests should be abolished except for the one on the “republican” nature of Turkey, he opposed the idea and therefore raised questions on where his party stands on the issue.

What changes the dynamic in favor of a new constitution is the statement TÜSİAD made through its proposal. It means it will engage and become instrumental in a powerful thrust to bring political actors and civilian society onto common ground. Given the qualifications of many of its members, its entry is bound to make a difference; it will challenge not only the CHP but also the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

What will the political actors now say? The Zaman daily reported yesterday that at least six “platforms” are working for their own “set of principles” and drafts now. One can foresee increased pressure on all the parties to say a word or more about the issue in their campaigns.

Two points are quite clear: The AK Party is walking a fine line by “standing in the background” simply because it wants to avoid another time-wasting closure case being opened against it, a likely outcome had it declared a detailed draft. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the ultranationalist opposition, gives clear indications that it will continue to resist any attempt to adopt a constitution that might enhance ethnic freedoms and rights, the official language and devolution. What the BDP in the coming days will declare is not easy to predict; we shall have to wait and see.

So, the key is where the CHP will position itself and why. If the two parties can manage to find a common language (as TÜSİAD hopes they will), a critical, main obstacle will have been overcome.

They must then cooperate to have all parties and NGOs -- inside and outside Parliament -- take part. We are now at the stage of persuading the parties that resistance to such a reform will only damage Turkey’s unity and stability.

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