Constitutional Reform in the AKP Era

Despite the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002, early AKP governments went to great lengths to preserve multiparty cooperation, especially in matters of constitutional reform. Erdoğan himself had been disqualified from political office due to a previous conviction on politicized charges of “inciting racial or religious strife,” and he was only allowed to run for parliament thanks to CHP support of a special constitutional amendment.

In retrospect, the level of cooperation across the political spectrum that existed at that time was remarkable. A custom had developed that constitutional amendments were usually written by an All-Party Parliamentary Accord Committee in which each party in parliament was represented equally, and this practice was successfully continued under AKP rule, at least initially.

Early goodwill toward Erdoğan and the AKP among anti-statist intellectuals and others began to break down when Erdoğan—himself the former object of a politically motivated prosecution—started to prosecute his own political opponents.

For example, in 2007, Erdoğan seized the newspaper Sabah on a legal technicality and forced its sale. Sabah was then purchased by a company led by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and it is now seen as a mouthpiece for the government. While Erdoğan is far from the first Turkish politician to engage in this sort of behavior, such actions have fuelled passionate opposition to his government.

Matters came to a head during the so-called Ergenekon trials (2008-2011) in which a number of leading military officers, politicians, and journalists were accused of conspiring against the government. Haunted by a fear of military intervention, Erdoğan’s prosecutors alleged the existence of an authoritarian and ultra-nationalist “deep state” network (known as “Ergenekon”) aiming to overthrow the AKP government.

The opposition argued that these prosecutions were used as a sweeping attack against Erdoğan’s opponents generally, but concerns about possible threats to the AKP government were not wholly unjustified. Even before coming to power, the AKP was menaced with closure by the Constitutional Court for allegedly violating Turkey’s official secularism, and the party narrowly escaped closure again in 2008.

The Controversial “Ergenekon” Trials

Faced with such threats, the AKP began using constitutional reform to protect itself from entrenched state elites.

In 2007, Abdüllah Gül, the AKP candidate for president, should have won easy election to the presidency based on the AKP’s parliamentary majority, but the opposition boycotted the election, objecting to the idea of a non-secularist president. In particular, Gül’s headscarf-wearing wife caused a stir among Turkish secularists.

As a result, the AKP called for fresh elections and drafted a referendum for a constitutional amendment to create, for the first time, a presidency directly elected by the people of Turkey (rather than by members of the parliament).

In 2010, another referendum passed a new set of constitutional amendments that bundled broadly popular changes with more partisan measures designed to increase AKP influence on the Constitutional Court. Although opposition parties did not support the referendum, the legal threat of closure against the AKP was finally lifted.

The AKP’s internal rules limited AKP deputies (including Erdoğan) to only three terms in parliament, so it is quite possible that Erdoğan had already envisioned himself eventually being elected president by the time of the 2007 referendum in which voters approved direct election of the president.

By bringing the presidency into direct contact with the voters, its character changed from being an instrument of “deep state” tutelage over various institutions (such as the judiciary and the universities) to being a potential expression of the popular will. There is no question that this is how Erdoğan views himself since his election as president in August 2014.

Recent Attempts to Write a New Constitution

In the 2011 parliamentary campaign, the necessity of a wholly new constitution was agreed upon by all four major parties: the AKP, the CHP, the ultra-nationalist MHP, and the mostly Kurdish BDP. Under its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP attempted to distance itself from perceptions of closeness to the military and to move toward being seen as a more normal social democratic party .

Both the CHP and AKP called for greater oversight over military affairs, and both envisioned a new constitution enshrining full democratic freedoms, in contrast to the hedging and loopholes found in the current version. The AKP termed such reforms “becoming normal” (normalleşmek), a goal from which the CHP could hardly dissent.

Initially, the constitutional reform process seemed to have great potential. The AKP won the 2011 election handily with nearly 50% of the votes and a large majority in parliament, one of the best results for any party in decades. A “Constitutional Reconciliation Comission” was created with equal representation for the four major parties on the model of previous committees. Substantial progress was made in composing the early articles concerning general civil rights.

However, these elements of apparent ideological consensus did not translate into successful cooperation. There were considerable, possibly unbridgeable differences between certain parties that made consensus unlikely at best. The positions of the ultra-nationalist MHP and the pro-Kurdish BDP are diametrically opposed regarding the issue of Kurdish autonomy, for example.

Much more seriously, AKP proposals for a stronger presidency or even a full presidential system were viewed as unacceptable by the opposition as a whole. The opposition parties knew that a powerful presidency would suit Erdoğan’s personal political ambitions perfectly, and it is largely for this reason that the constitutional reform process slowed to a halt and finally collapsed at the end of 2013.

A two-thirds majority in parliament is needed for any constitutional change, leaving the AKP just short of the ability to amend the constitution unilaterally.

Conceivably, a new constitution granting expansive presidential powers could be passed with the support of the BDP, for example, if sufficient concessions were granted concerning Kurdish autonomy. This strategy, however, could alienate many Turkish nationalist voters in future elections. To be sure, the ultra-nationalists of yesteryear who supported military tutelage over Turkish politics would see an alliance between Islam-oriented and Kurdish political forces as a catastrophe.

In the meantime, Turkish politics has become more polarized than even just a few years ago. Sparked by a conflict over urban space in Istanbul, the youthful Gezi Park protests made headlines throughout the summer of 2013, and Erdoğan’s anger toward opposition activists prompted him to temporarily ban Twitter in early 2014.

The AKP’s rivalry with its fellow religious conservatives in Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement has even led Erdoğan to seek Gülen’s extradition from the United States, so far unsuccessfully. With a new parliamentary election on the horizon, Erdoğan has said that constitutional reform efforts and the enactment of a strong executive presidency will be put off until 2015.

President Erdoğan does face a range of challenges, and the creation of a powerful presidency would be a departure from the Turkish Republic’s historical norms. That said, it would be foolish to imagine that Erdoğan cannot succeed now after so many past victories.

For every Turk who sees him as a would-be dictatorial president, there are others who consider him the representative of the conservative Turkish masses and the fulfillment of democratic majoritarianism.