On September 12, Turkey’s voters approved a package of 26 amendments to the country’s long-established secularist constitution. The amendments presented to the voters comprised of reforms to the Constitutional Court, strengthening of labor rights, and enhancement of women’s status, among other changes Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has trumpeted – especially to Europeans, but also to the Obama administration – as democratizing. Erdogan has promised Turks a complete revision of their constitution.
The constitutional changes approved by Turkish voters were presented as a single option, requiring a “yes” or “no” vote for all 26 amendments, rather than polling on each. The referendum gained 58 percent of the ballots, in a turnout of 77 percent of the electorate. With the success of the constitutional changes, many observers inside and outside Turkey fear further Islamist entrenchment in power by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Erdogan. Secular citizens, and moderate members of Turkish and Kurdish minority groups, warn that the referendum marks a further step in the repositioning of their country toward an alliance with neighboring Iran.
Opponents of the amendments included the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents the legacy of decades of secular rule, and the Peace and Development party (BDP), which advocates for the Kurdish minority in eastern Turkey but is not aligned with the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). PKK activists in eastern Anatolia demanded that Kurds support the Islamist referendum.
The PKK has proclaimed a ceasefire in its war with the Ankara authorities, and has argued that it can wring more concessions to Kurdish sentiments out of the AKP, which has adopted a conciliatory rhetoric toward the Kurdish radicals. Aside from the secularist CHP and the moderate Kurdish BDP, opponents of the constitutional changes included the radical Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which accuses Erdogan and the AKP of weakness in the face of Kurdish terrorism. The AKP is often presented in the West as a middle-class party, but many who voted against the constitutional amendments reside in the developed areas along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, including the country’s third-largest city, Izmir, which produced a majority against the changes.
According to Erdogan’s critics, the prime minister’s Islamist agenda was present in certain amendments, the details of which might have appeared minor, at first glance. The Constitutional Court has irritated Erdogan and the AKP since 2008, when the court ruled against permission for women to wear the headscarf while attending universities. The court also contributed to the unexpected alignment of the Islamists and Kurdish extremists by banning the PKK-front Democratic Society Party (DTP) in 2009. With adoption of the 26 amendments in the referendum, the Constitutional Court will be expanded from 11 to 17 members, appointed to 12-year terms, with mandatory retirement at 65 years of age. Anti-Erdogan commentators charge that the reform has undermined the independence of the judiciary from the executive branch of government, in an effective example of political “court-packing.”
Erdogan, on the foreign policy front, has been continuing his trend toward Islamists – he has been seeking the friendship of Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he welcomed to Turkey last year.
But perhaps this repositioning has already begun to happen. On September 22, the Washington Post published an interview by Lally Weymouth with Turkish president Abdullah Gul, in which Gul spoke out for support of Hamas. Weymouth asked Gul, regarding the Turkish-led maritime raid against the Gaza blockade at the end of May, “Why would you back the flotilla going to Gaza when you know that Israel has an embargo?” Gul replied, “This embargo is against human rights of the people… there are things that Israel needs to do to change the situation… apologizing and admitting that a mistake was made and it also involves compensating the families of the people who lost their lives.”
Gul went on to combine boast and complaint, saying he would meet with Ahmadinejad because “No country other than Turkey can speak to them the way that we can . . . and I don’t think that is very appreciated… We tell them to be more conciliatory.” Gul added that Turkey’s approach to Iran is supported by the Obama administration: “On the Iranian nuclear issue, we have the capacity to help and I believe the U.S. administration has understood that, and they want us to continue to go that route.” Gul later held a closed-door meeting at the United Nations in New York with the Iranian dictator.