Constitution not sole issue on agenda of new Parliament

October 02, 2011, Sunday/ 14:07:00

Although the deputies elected on June 12 to the 24th legislative term of the Turkish Parliament are expected to tackle drafting a new civilian constitution to replace the current military-era document as a priority on their agenda, there are still numerous other legislative reforms waiting to be taken up by both the ruling and opposition parties.

Among these are comprehensive judicial reforms, which are expected to address shortcomings in lengthy court trials, long pre-detention periods and infringement on freedoms, especially of the media, as well as steps needed to be taken to cope with the rising terror threat. The increasing number of recent terror attacks has also carried the threat it poses to the top of the national agenda, with front page stories reporting an attack almost on a daily basis. The Kurdish problem may pit the nationalists in the Parliament against Kurdish deputies and may risk derailing work on the constitution.

Many observers of Turkish politics also wonder how committed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is to the EU membership process and how far it is willing to push the legislative agenda to harmonize Turkish laws with the EU acquis in the new term. Most of the reforms Turkey needs to undertake may be met through the formulation of a brand new constitution with much emphasis on human rights, the rule of law and individual liberties. Instead of protecting the rights of the “artificial state,” which was the prevailing theme of the military-era drafted constitution that governs modern Turkey today, individual freedoms and liberties are expected be at the center of the new constitution.

It was no surprise that the main argument at the special session held yesterday for the inauguration of the new parliamentary term was the constitution. Both Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek and Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül allocated much of their speeches to the constitution, saying it is already past time for Turkey to have a modern new constitution to meet the demands of its citizens. Ahmet Aydın, AK Party parliamentary group deputy chairman, said there is a huge consensus in Turkish society on the need for drafting a new constitution. Stressing that the current Parliament represents 95 percent of the electorate, the most representative body Turkey has seen so far, Aydın told Sunday’s Zaman that the country has a historic opportunity to resolve its outstanding issues.

“At this juncture all political parties should contribute to the process of making the new constitution,” he said. Aydın underlined that the AK Party is committed to promoting rights and freedoms in the EU-candidate country while tackling the mounting terror threat. “No matter whether we have chapters opened in negotiations with the EU or not, we will continue to enact new reforms and implement them. We know that our citizens deserve better,” he explained. Noting that Turkey does not have the luxury to lose time, Aydın said the new Parliament will work harder to meet the demands of the Turkish people.

As for the media freedoms issue, Aydın said the AK Party will pick up on the draft prepared in the last session of Parliament that was not enacted because of the recess. “This draft will be on our priority agenda,” he said, adding that Parliament will also debate international treaties and obligations awaiting approval.

Akif Hamzaçebi of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also concurs with Aydın on the need to have the new constitution as the most important agenda item in the new Parliament. Hamzaçebi, a CHP parliamentary group deputy chairman, told Sunday’s Zaman that there are some steps Parliament could take even before waiting on the conclusion of the new constitution. “Some changes to the Law on Political Parties and the Election Law and the Code on Criminal Procedure [CMK] to address lengthy trials should be discussed in the new term as well,” he said.

The CHP will officially announce its priority agenda for the new Parliament in a couple of days, Hamzaçebi said, stressing that the CHP will submit drafts to fulfill campaign promises during the campaign. “Every project we announced in the election campaign, like the family insurance schemes for low-income families, will turn into draft legislative proposals in Parliament,” he explained. “We will also bring recently enacted government decrees to the floor for debate,” Hamzaçebi added. The government received a temporary authorization from Parliament before the recess that it could enact decrees with the force of law during the holiday break.

Terror threat may dodge the constitution

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) officials warned, however, that they will fight for the protection of what they call “red lines” in drafting the new constitution. Mehmet Şandır, an MHP parliamentary group deputy chairman, told Sunday’s Zaman that “the MHP will fight against separatist and divisive policies and protect national unity and the future of the country.” He acknowledged that the constitution and economic challenges will be among the most important issues the new Parliament will undertake.

Şandır warned, however, that as far as the MHP is concerned, the most important item on the table would be how to fight the mounting terror attacks. “We will support the government in the fight against terror. The elimination of the terror threat will be the most important topic on our agenda,” he added.

Many see Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, a former deputy prime minister and government spokesman, as the man who has the best chance to deliver the constitution as he enjoys the respect and support of all the parties represented in Parliament. The main opposition CHP supported his nomination to the office right after the elections, and CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has spoken very highly of him in spearheading discussion on the constitution.

While Parliament was in recess, Çiçek did not lose time but gathered 24 leading constitutional law experts in Parliament to discuss proposals for the new constitution. He will be forwarding the proposals to party leaders to prepare the ground for nationwide discussion.

Çiçek is expected to send letters of invitation to party groups in Parliament in the coming days, asking them to send representatives to a special reconciliation commission that will conduct studies during the constitution-making process in Parliament. All four parties will send an equal number of representatives to the commission no matter how many seats they hold in Parliament.

Turkey’s long-time expectations for a new civilian constitution have become stronger than ever since the June 12 parliamentary elections. All parties elected in Parliament vowed to prepare the new constitution to replace the existing one, which was drafted under martial law after the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup and has been greatly criticized for failing to respond to today’s needs for broader rights and freedoms.

The opening of the new legislative term has been marred by the increasing number of terror attacks on both civilian and military targets by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country. Because attacks claimed many lives in the last three months, the parliament speaker cancelled a customary reception on the occasion of the opening of Parliament.

In the new legislative term, Parliament is also expected to enact laws necessary for the harmonization of a reform package approved in a public referendum in 2010. The 26-article reform package brought the most comprehensive amendments to the current Constitution. The package received 58 percent of support from the people. But laws should be changed to reflect changes in the constitution as well.

The last glitch in the way of the new Parliament was overcome when the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) announced last week it will end its boycott of Parliament. The BDP had refused to take an oath and join in parliamentary proceedings in protest of the imprisonment of six of its deputies. Thirty-six independent deputies supported by the pro-Kurdish BDP were elected in the June 12 elections. However, six of the BDP-backed deputies are currently under arrest as part of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) trial. The BDP made the decision to boycott Parliament after the Supreme Election Board (YSK) stripped Hatip Dicle, one of the six jailed BDP deputies, of his mandate because of a prior terrorism-related conviction after the June 12 vote.

The BDP may clash with other parties in the new session, especially the MHP, as both differ on where to draw red lines in the new constitution. Rising PKK attacks, which the BDP has failed to distance itself from, may complicate the work on the constitution. Parliament is expected to begin its work on Tuesday.

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