Constitutional Reform Poll Divides Turkey

Turkey’s referendum on constitutional reform is bound to be interpreted as a test for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s conservative government.

In Turkey, a popular referendum on a series of constitutional amendments held this Sunday is pitting the ruling conservative party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against a largely urban and secular opposition which alleges that the “reforms” proposed by his government encompass in fact a cloaked attempt at enacting orthodox Islamic law.

The constitutional amendments, which have been endorsed by the European Union as part of Turkey’s effort to qualify for EU membership, are the most far-reaching attempt to date at altering the 1982 constitution that came about as part of a military coup two years earlier.

Whether the referendum returns a “yes” or “no” vote will likely shape Turkey’s internal politics for years to come. A rejection of the proposed amendments would bolster the left of center Republican People’s Party as well as the far-right Nationalist Movement, currently the two largest opposition factions in parliament. A victory for Erdoğan’s own Justice and Development Party AKP on the other hand may well forebode a third term for the prime minister while polarizing the political landscape between more cosmopolitan secularists and a Muslim majority that lives largely outside of the major cities.

In Istanbul especially, signs of protest are abound. Posters and political slogans line the streets while trucks blasting campaign tunes roam every neighborhood of Turkey’s metropolis. The opposition there compares voting in favor of the amendments as support “for Muslim women to cover themselves like nuns,” a not so subtle reference to the AKP’s unsuccessful effort to life a ban that continues to prohibit Muslim women from wearing a headscarf in public. Prime Minister Erdoğan, similarly oversimplifying matters, has compared the opposition to “defenders” of the military regime of the early 1980s.

The amendments, which modify or repeal a total of 24 articles of Turkey’s existing constitution, are largely aimed at changing the way judges and prosecutors are selected and evaluated in the country. Currently, all fifteen Constitutional Court appointments are made by the president. There is no legislative oversight. Among the amendments proposed by this government are an expansion of the highest court, a twelve year term limit for its members and a procedure that allows parliament to elect three supreme court judges.

Although these reforms are supposed to make Turkey’s courts more similar to Europe’s, the judiciary has traditionally been a very secular institution, dreadful of any prospect that Turkey might become an Islamic state. What’s more, the highest legal bodies were typically closed establishments, dedicated to protecting Turkey’s secular traditions, no matter public opinion. The reforms proposed by the ruling party would not only expand the courts in terms of membership but demand greater transparency and probably make them subject to everyday politics.

Further alterations to the Constitution are designed to improve access to the legal system, allowing individuals to bring cases to the Constitutional Court; make it more difficult for government to disband political parties and limit the power of military courts. The 1982 constitution authorizes military couts to try civilians in security related cases. If the referendum passes, that practice should discontinue, restricting the jurisdiction of military courts to military personnel.

Polls suggest that the outcome will be particularly close. Some 56 percent of Turks surveyed earlier this week said to be in favor of the proposed amendments. Polls conducted earlier, in August, were less conclusive. None of the polling agencies active in Turkey surveys in all 81 of the country’s provinces however. Considering the AKP’s popularity in the countryside, that should encourage hopes with Erdoğan and his party.