In a victory for Erdogan and his ruling party, the Turkish people yesterday approved a package of constitutional reforms that make up ‘a ground-breaking political transformation’ for the country. Despite Erdogan’s claims that the reforms are ‘not an AKP project’, the result will undoubtedly strengthen his political position; as Ha’aretz points out, this is the fourth time the ‘perennial winner’ ‘has savored victory in a national ballot.’
The essential points of the reforms are as follows: reducing the power of the military by allowing army officers to be tried in civilian courts and removing immunity for the leaders of the 1980 military coup that introduced the present constitution; increasing the number of judges on the most powerful courts and giving the president and parliament more say in their appointment; and increases opportunity for labour organising and collective bargaining, largely destroyed by the 1980 coup. The effect will be to redistribute power from the hugely influential military and judiciary towards the executive. As the army and judges are regarded as bastions of 0ld-style Kemalist secularism, many are arguing that the reforms represent an attempt by Erdogan and the AKP to ‘Islamise’ Turkey and, that old chestnut, impose sharia law. It is certainly true that religion will probably play more of a role in public life, in contrast to before the reforms, when the courts attempted to ban religious parties and religious officers could be excluded from the army. Yet portraying the new constitution solely as an attack on secular society does not tell the whole story.
For a start, the nature of Turkey’s secularism is complex. The Kemalist project of militant secularism has been, despite its merits and benefits to Turkey, a project of the elite; the secularist judiciary has worked to defend that elite. There are legitimate concerns about making the judiciary less autonomous, but the changes will make it more in touch with Turkish society – which is largely devout. The suggestion that Turkey is moving towards an Iranian-style theocracy is absurd; Erdogan has built Turkey up on the back of modernisation. He will let nothing interfere with his aim of EU membership, towards which these reforms take Turkey a step closer. The European Commission has welcomed the result; by limiting the power of the military, the reforms have made Turkey’s constitution more fit for EU consumption and have broken with its long tradition of military coups. By restoring the right of collective bargaining and increasing opportunity for labour organisation, as Juan Cole points out, the reforms may even have strengthened the hand of Turkey’s left and enabled them to mount a more serious challenge to Erdogan’s ‘right of centre tendencies’.
The reforms are not perfect – especially worthy of criticism is the way in which Erdogan handled the vote-yes campaign, which was conducted in a divisive and polarising manner. There is the argument, too, that in lumping together a large group of changes Erdogan gave the Turkish people an oversimplified choice. The changes also leave out several key issues and do not go far enough in some areas, such as press freedom; there is also no attempt to tackle the Kurdish question.
Erdogan now looks unstoppable for a third term in office, leading Ha’aretz to grudgingly praise what it termed ‘Erdoganism’: ‘The reforms passed yesterday overturn eight decades of government-touted secular ideology, instilling instead a new political creed that could rightfully be termed Erdoganism.’ As Simon Tisdall points out in The Guardian, this has a significance beyond Turkey’s borders. Despite the West’s seeming unwillingness to believe it, Turkey has developed a ‘strategic importance as a moderating influence and a sometimes controversial go-between.’ The reform vote became a referendum on Erdogan’s leadership. With the continued approval of the Turkish people, he will continue expanding Turkey’s role on the world stage – and the West had better start paying attention.