VIEW: The Turkish referendum: a step forward or backward? —Ishtiaq Ahmed Tuesday, September 21, 2010\09\21\story_21-9-2010_pg3_2

The constitutional court has thus far been dominated by judges and jurists strongly committed to secularism. Following the recent referendum, the government will have the power to enlarge the membership of the constitutional court. Secularists fear the government will place judges on the bench who may be sympathetic to an Islamist agenda

The referendum on constitutional reforms held in Turkey on September 12, 2010, gave a clear majority — 58 percent in favour and 42 against — to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government headed by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish liberals, the European Union (EU) and the Obama administration have welcomed the outcome of the referendum as an important step in the direction of democracy and establishment of civilian hegemony over the Turkish polity. The market has responded favourably and, as a consequence, economic growth is expected to receive a boost. The constitutional reforms are important also to facilitate Turkey’s membership in the EU as the government structure will now correspond more closely to the basic format applicable to EU members. Prime Minister Erdogan has declared the verdict of the Turkish people as a milestone that will ensure that Turkey will not have to suffer any more military coups. 

The AKP descends from a long pedigree of Islamist parties whose bids to capture power were frustrated by the Turkish military and the constitutional court, two institutions that have been the stronghold of the fiercely secular legacy bequeathed by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Realising that they stood no chance of capturing power on an Islamist agenda, some of the more pragmatic members of the Islamist movement broke away and formed the AKP as a conservative Muslim party. The AKP wants itself to be considered as a Muslim equivalent to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. It denies it is against secularism. 

In any event, the constitutional reforms that the voters have approved include a long list of 26 items, of which the two most contentious relate to the autonomy of the Turkish military and the composition of the constitutional court. With regards to the military, after the constitutional reforms it will be possible for officers who have been dismissed from their jobs by a military court to appeal against the decision in a civil court. Moreover, the immunity granted under the 1982 constitution to the military officers who carried out the 1980 coup has been withdrawn. All such changes are viewed with dismay by the secularist elite that considers the military to be the custodian of Kemalism and secularism. 

The second worrisome reform from the secularist point of view is about the Turkish Constitutional Court. Its main function has been to ensure the laws passed by parliament are compatible with the constitution. The constitutional court has thus far been dominated by judges and jurists strongly committed to secularism. Following the recent referendum and the reforms approved by the people, the government will have the power to enlarge the membership of the constitutional court. Secularists fear the government will place judges on the bench who may be sympathetic to an Islamist agenda.

Moreover, after winning the referendum, Prime Minister Erdogan has announced that the government will now embark upon the formulation of a new constitution. There can be no doubt that the referendum brought forth very vividly the polarisation in Turkish society. The coastal cities and towns of Western Turkey, described by some observers as the Aegean rim, voted overwhelmingly against the constitutional reforms while the small towns of the Anatolian hinterland came out strongly in favour of them. The AKP’s support base comprises largely of the upwardly mobile businessmen, traders and entrepreneurs who are socially and culturally conservative Muslims. 

Democracy is a game of numbers and the numbers are undoubtedly with the AKP. One can only hope that the secularists will accept the verdict of the people with grace and equanimity. The secularists were in power for more than 70 years and had ample opportunity to accommodate the aspirations and interests of the rising middle classes from the countryside. They did not. Thus these neglected sections of society turned to the AKP, which represents a conservative social and cultural outlook.

As for the suspicion that the constitutional reforms are a sinister first move in a grand conspiracy to undo the secular foundations of Turkey, nothing can be said for certain. My wife is Turkish and we both have more than the usual curiosity about what happens in that secular republic. I can testify that Turkey is a case of quite successful modernisation and secularisation. The greatest gift of the Kemalist revolution was the liberation and emancipation of Turkish women from the tutelage of the harem culture of the Ottomans. In modern Turkey it is possible for a young woman to undertake all alone a night journey by bus from one part to another of the country without fearing molestation and harassment. 

There are some indications that the populist cultural practices of the AKP tend to promote a conservative standpoint on the rights and status of women. There has been considerable controversy about young females wearing the headscarf on university campuses. The argument given in favour of headscarves by a dear Turkish friend of mine, who is an ardent supporter of the constitutional reforms, is that conservative families allow girls to go to university only if they wear the headscarf. That actually proves my point that the headscarf controversy has less to do with the free choice of women and more with the dictates of the male members of the family. 

In any case, if the constitutional reforms do establish a vibrant and pulsating democracy then the freedom of choice debate can continue on this and related issues. As long as the Turkish constitution remains democratic and secular, it should be possible to accommodate different lifestyles. The Islamic revival is a fact and all states have to adopt different strategies to handle it. It would be a tragedy if the AKP were to act as the Trojan horse of an Islamist counter-revolution. I was greatly perturbed when, in 2008, the visiting President Ahmadinejad of Iran refused to visit the mausoleum of Ataturk and the AKP government acquiesced in that breach of protocol. That would be unthinkable if the government was truly respectful of the founding father of the nation. This and many other such moves of the AKP do give reason to suspect its intentions. It is therefore important that Turkish secularists continue to demand that the AKP comes out clean on its declared policy of remaining faithful to secular democracy.

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

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