New constitution by MÜMTAZ’ER TÜRKÖNE

New constitution by MÜMTAZ’ER

October 04, 2008, Saturday/ 17:50:00
President Abdullah Gül gave a long speech at the opening ceremony of Parliament’s new legislative year this week.His address was all-embracing and guiding. Gül is an experienced politician. He is eager to increase the prestige of the presidential office. For this reason, his speech was equidistant from all political parties. He identified the problems in Turkey and then, after an overall assessment, he pointed to the areas in which the country’s parties should reach a consensus.

For Gül, the most important issue requiring conciliation among parties is the drafting of a new constitution. Everyone can agree on Gül’s reasoning on the need for a new constitution. As stated by the president, there is an ongoing vivid and comprehensive debate in society concerning the drafting of a new constitution. The experience level of Turkish democracy is sufficient to produce a good constitution. During the discussions that have been going on for about 20 years, many drafts and proposals have been made and discussed, as Gül noted. Gül says the duty of drafting of a new constitution naturally belongs to the Turkish Parliament. The president wants the new constitution to be “advanced” and to “provide guarantees for fundamental rights and freedoms and strongly reinforce the democratic, secular and social state governed by law.”

Meaning of a new constitution

Can Turkey draft a new constitution, as expected by the president?

Turkey’s current Constitution was drafted under military rule. The drafting process of this Constitution was characterized by the tragicomic events that we still remember. In the referendum held in 1982, about 90 percent of the nation voted “yes” for this Constitution. This high rate of approval, of which supporters of military rule tend to boast, could only be achieved through schemes and deceptions common to a dictatorship. The ballot that signified “no” was blue in color, but before the referendum, all newspaper stories or articles mentioning the blue color were banned. Heavy fines were imposed for not attending the voting. Moreover, the envelopes in which the ballots would be placed were virtually transparent. One could easily see who voted what from outside the envelope. Under these circumstances, it was perfectly natural that the voting produced such support for the Constitution. What was not natural was that after democratic rule resumed in the country, this Constitution was not abolished and replaced with a new one.

Although the constitutional amendments made in connection with the country’s EU process have removed significant portions of the military stain on the Constitution, the need for an entirely new constitution remains. This is because it is humiliating for a democratic country to be ruled by a constitution drafted under military rule. For democratic maturity and responsibility to take root, it is important that a constitution drafted through democratic processes enter into force.

For this reason, a new constitution requires going beyond a psychological threshold for Turkish democracy. Without exceeding this threshold, it is hard for us to leave behind our concerns for democracy.

The prospect of a new constitution has meanings beyond the constitution itself. If Turkey attempts to draft a new constitution, it will be have to revise its state mechanism from scratch. Only a new constitution can pave the way for introducing the structural reforms prevented by the delicate balances and power struggles within the state.

Can the new constitution be drafted in the new legislative year?

It is hard to give a clear answer to this question. Actually, all groups and parties want a new constitution. But the constitutional amendments introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that were canceled by the Constitutional Court amid ongoing debates created distrust among the political parties. Partly playing on this distrust, the main opposition Republican People Party (CHP) is trying to prevent the AK Party from becoming the main architect of the new constitution. Making a new constitution from scratch is a prestigious move, and the CHP does not want this prestige to go to the AK Party. With opposition from the CHP, it is almost impossible to draft a new constitution.

The AK Party has not developed a strategy to bypass the CHP’s obstacles. Therefore, it is refraining from getting involved in the debates over the new constitution.

There is only one way to draft a new constitution: to make it a social project. A deliberative democratic process in which different segments of society can participate may create a powerful synergy. Actually, this is also the prerequisite for making a good constitution. A constitution drafted through debates conducted with involvement from all social groups corresponds to a constitution that will be adopted heartily and protected by the entire society. With this popular participation, Parliament can resist pressures from the bureaucracy, particularly from the military bureaucracy, concerning some delicate matters.

Until now, I have said nothing about the content of the new constitution. The biggest challenge for Turkey is not about the articles that will be placed in the new constitution, but about how the constitution will be drafted. If parties can reach an agreement as to the method of making the constitution, it seems, there will not be much controversy about the content.

A number of proposals, including the one made by the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD), the rich club of Turkey, about a “constitutional convention,” are actually seeking answers not to the content, but the drafting method, of the constitution. The “convention” proposal is an elitist proposal. However, even such a convention may make contributions to the constitution-making process. The constitution must be made by Parliament. Everyone can make their contributions to the constitution to be drafted by Parliament.

The report submitted last week to the prime minister by the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSİAD), consisting of businesses of medium caliber, also touched on the significance of the new constitution. When these demands are assessed together, one can see that all social groups have expectations about the new constitution. Actually, it is easy for the government to channel these expectations toward the constitution-making process.

In voicing these expectations, the president was actually talking about his observations.

The new constitution will be a turning point for Turkey. Only after drafting a new constitution will everyone understand that Turkish democracy has progressed beyond the point of return.

It is inevitable for the ruling party to guide and lead these expectations. Thought the government is not making moves on the matter, the new constitution will be the primary agenda item in the new legislative year.