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Turkey: Violence Casts Pall Over Constitutional Reform Efforts

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By Dorian Jones

A fatal blast in Ankara and increasing violence in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast are overshadowing the country’s long-awaited constitutional reform process. The recent troubles will hamper efforts to broaden the rights of the country’s Kurdish minority.

A September 20 car explosion in the capital Ankara, which killed three people and injured 34 others, is suspected to be the work of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. The group has not laid claim to the incident, however.

The Ankara blast was followed by a September 21 attack by unidentified assailants on a police academy in the southeastern region of Bitlis that left one cadet dead. The day before, gunfire on a car near a police academy in the neighboring region of Siirt had killed four women, and injured two others.

The violence caused political tempers to flare just one day after constitutional experts and MPs met September 19 for an initial planning session about constitutional reform procedures. A new constitution that addresses Kurdish demands for greater autonomy, education and electoral rights has been touted as paving the way to resolving the deep divisions that continue to unsettle Turkish society. Turkey’s 1982 constitution came into force under military rule, and has been criticized for a lack of freedoms.

“The central problem is going to be how to redefine citizenship,” commented political scientist Soli Özel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “If it leaves the Kurdish nationalists out, then it will be a lame constitution.”

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is boycotting parliament to protest the imprisonment of six BDP parliamentary deputies. Recognizing the importance of the BDP’s participation in the constitutional debate, Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek on September 19 called on the party to participate in the parliamentary process. “If issues are attempted to be solved outside of Parliament, then there is no point in holding elections,” Hürriyet Daily News reported Çiçek as saying.

In a softening of its stance, the BDP leadership had said the party would end its boycott, if the government commits itself to ending cross-border operations into northern Iraq against PKK bases. With a September 21 announcement that Turkey has bombed 20 suspected PKK sites in northern Iraq since late August, however, there is no sign that the government intends to do so.

The BDP has also demanded an end to the isolation of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. It remains unclear whether the government will meet that demand, particularly in the wake of the September 20-21 attacks, which are being attributed widely to the PKK.

Meanwhile, the arrests of BDP members are continuing, with 55 detained in recent days under anti-terror laws.

BDP deputy Ertuğrul Kürkçü says his party recognizes the importance of participating in the constitutional reform process. “We are inclined to go back to the parliament; particularly during the constitution debate,” Kürkçü said in a September 1 interview. “Even if we cannot be assured all our demands are confirmed, we can stage a strong opposition against incorrect or insufficient articles in the new constitution. It’s going to be very healthy if all sides are striving for a better constitution.”

To see the constitutional reform effort succeed, Volkan Bozkir, head of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, emphasizes that the government should build on the existing political consensus that the constitution needs to be replaced. “Everybody must feel comfortable with the new constitution, and to do that, the sensitivities of everybody should be taken into consideration,” Bozkir said.

Kürkçü, the BDP leader, cautions that the main problem for the Kurdish party may stem from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “aspirations to turn Turkey into a presidential system,” a goal opposed by Turkish opposition parties.

How open Erdoğan will be to hearing those concerns remains in question. “[T]he government obviously is banking on the fact that it feels qualified to speak on behalf of the Kurds as well because it gets . . . in general almost half of the Kurdish vote,” said political scientist Özel.

Since his ruling Justice and Development Party secured 50 percent of the votes in last June’s parliamentary election, Erdoğan “may well think he has a powerful mandate for change on his terms,” commented Asli Aydintasbas, political columnist for the government-critical daily Milliyet.

How the prime minister ultimately decides the question may well determine the fate of Turkey’s constitutional reform, argues Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University. “He may say ‘I have the majority, I continue to rule, according to my views and vision for this country.’ In that case, we won’t have a modern, liberal constitution and Turkey won’t solve the Kurdish conflict,” Aktar said. “As long as the country can’t solve its Kurdish conflict, anything can happen. All stakes are open, and [there are] big, big question marks for Turkey. This is the price to pay. ”

Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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Originally published at Eurasianet. Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on the most important developments in the region. A tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization, Eurasianet is based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centers in North America of scholarship on Eurasia. Read more at eurasianet.org.

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