With Referendum, Turkey Becoming Both More Democratic And More Religious

turkey referendumYesterday Turkey held a national referendum to determine whether its constitution would be amended, with supporters (which include Turkey’s ruling AK Party) claiming that the reforms would strengthen Turkish democracy and ease Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union. The referendum passed 58-42%.

The Christian Science Monitor reports “The referendum’s biggest winner was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a general election next year with his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)”:

“We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law,” said Erdogan to applause from supporters gathered to celebrate the victory. “Supporters of military intervention and coups are the losers tonight.”

The current Turkish constitution was adopted in 1982, two years after Turkey’s third military coup. Reuters has a list of the accepted amendments. The New York Times notes “The package includes popular and relatively uncontroversial measures that would strengthen the rights of women, children, workers and civil servants. It would also make the military answerable to civilian courts, lifting immunity from prosecution for the leaders of the bloody 1980 coup”:

But proposals to strengthen the control of the president and Parliament over the appointment of judges and prosecutors are seen by critics as a barely veiled attempt to erode the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. The amendments assign greater power to Parliament and the president to choose members of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, both traditional bastions of secularism that have clashed with Mr. Erdogan’s party in the past.

But the government said the changes were necessary to tame dangerously activist judicial bodies that have consistently undermined the decisions of Parliament and the executive.

There is an activist understanding of the judiciary in the current system that undermines the will and decisions of the legislative and executive organs,” Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said before the vote. “This new model will prevent today’s legal system from leading the country into a judicial dictatorship, while paving the way for other progressive reforms.”

At an event hosted earlier today by the Project on Middle East Democracy, Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies noted that “The developing Turkish identity involves religion, and I don’t think we should be threatened by that.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey W. Robert Pearson said that the results of the referendum, along with the last several years in Turkey, “represent a fundamental change in the Turkish political system, one that brings in a lot of people who hadn’t participated before.” Pearson went on to say that what was happening in Turkey “is not about one man, Erdogan,” but rather the culmination of attempts at reform that have been building for decades.

Daniel Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace also reminded the audience that “the AK Party is not monolithic.” In addition to it’s religious conservative base, “it has a strong business constituency whose primary goal is Turkish integration into Europe.” In other words, the AK party is religiously conservative, pro-business party that’s against “judicial activism.” This should sound familiar to Americans. But while it’s tempting — and not entirely inaccurate — to make comparisons between the AK Party and the GOP, this is actually pretty unfair to the AK Party, who are a dynamic, modernizing force pushing for greater political inclusivity.

For a deeper analysis of the changes Turkey is undergoing, both domestically and in its regional policy, please see my colleague Michael Werz’s report The New Levant.