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A new Turkish revolution?

One of the most remarkable events since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 occurred recently, when the country’s top military brass resigned en masse. Equally remarkable was the relatively limited coverage and analysis of this event in the British media: Turkey after all is at some point set to join the EU while its strategic importance in the Middle East is becoming increasingly apparent.

For a military that has for almost a century seen itself as holding a special place within Turkish politics as the ‘guardian’ of  the Republic and – since 1950 – of Turkish democracy, the resignation of dozens of officers sent a powerful message to the current government and the public. Precisely what this message is, however, is not entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that the apparent resignation of this ‘guardianship’ role by long-serving members of the armed forces opens up a real possibility for further improvements in Turkish democracy. It is imperative that the current government learns some lessons from the past and grasps this opportunity with speed and dexterity.

In a forthcoming article, Burak Cop and I compare political development across Spain, Greece and Turkey. Our analyses point to a key oversight by past leaders that has contributed to the failure of Turkey to become a fully functioning democracy. There are many historical parallels across these countries, including weak economic development, extreme political violence, and a military that at times became actively involved in politics. One fundamental difference that we highlight, though, is the process of constitution-writing. Spain is now considered the ‘model’ country when it comes to writing a democratic constitution because of the consensual nature in which the Spanish constitution was designed and the subsequent large-scale support for the resulting political institutions. While the document itself contained considerable ambiguity, what seems to be important is that elites who could have caused the government serious trouble if excluded from the process were included in the constitutional negotiations.

Greece provides a very different model, in which an extremely popular elected leader, Konstantinos Karamanlis, managed to draft the democratic constitution with the input of only a handful of advisors and without negotiation across elite factions. While many elites initially made noises about the need to rewrite the document, they did no such thing when they had the chance and instead supported the Constitution designed by Karamanlis.

How does this compare with the Turkish case? Since its founding, Turkey has had three constitutions. The first, in 1924, was designed by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, without consultation with potentially disruptive elites (including the religious conservatives or the Kurdish tribal leaders). The second, in 1961, was designed by a group of civilians selected by indirect elections after the 1960 military coup. This was a fairly democratic constitution but the problem was that one of the most popular parties in Turkey had been banned from participating in its design and persisted in questioning its legitimacy in the years that followed. Another important weakness was that there was no attempt to include representatives from the Kurdish regions of Turkey. The 1982 Constitution, which followed the 1980 coup, was far less democratic in design and in procedure —none of the political parties that had existed before the 1980 coup were allowed to participate in its design. The result has been a quasi-authoritarian document questioned by all civilian elites.

For the past decade, the government has periodically discussed the idea of drafting a completely new constitution. This topic has cropped up again in recent weeks, and the large-scale resignation of top military leaders has made it even clearer that Turkey desperately needs a stable democratic regime built upon a legitimate constitution.

What do the lessons of Spain and Greece tell us about how the current government should proceed? We argue that Turkey should follow the Spanish rather than the Greek example. In Turkish politics there is no one like Konstantinos Karamanlis; there is no one with the widespread popularity and legitimacy, with whom most groups of elites are willing to go along. There are, in fact, groups with long histories of suspicion and distrust, any of which could cause serious problems for the regime if excluded from this process. This includes the social democratic left, the reformed far-right, and the Kurds. If the religious conservatives were not currently already in power, they would be included in this list.

Ultimately, for any constitution-writing process and the resulting constitution to be legitimate, these groups will have little choice but to settle their differences and work together in drafting a new democratic Turkish constitution.It is a pity that currently so few Europeans seem to think that the fate of Turkish democracy is a subject of little importance to them.

Lauren McLaren

Published inInternational PoliticsTurkish politics

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