Monday, September 13, 2010

Turkey's referendum: big step towards more personal freedoms

In many media there seems to be a question mark whether the outcome of Sunday's  referendum about  changes to the Turkish constitution was a change towards more democracy or towards more sharia. The 26 amendments, which were welcomed by no less than 58% of the voters, were called 'controversial' by media like the Dutch Volkskrant or the British Guardian. This seems to be an echo of the arguments of the Turkish opposition, spearheaded by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition party, the secularist Republican People's party (CHP). Kilicdaroglu called the changes the end of secularist Turkey.
The government of Recip Tayyep Erdogan, however,  said it would give Turkey a democratic constitution fit for EU membership and mark a break with the country's baleful legacy of military coups. Also the European commission welcomed the results. 'These reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of longstanding priorities in Turkey's efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria,' the commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Fule, said in a statement.

The vote took place on the 30th anniversary of a 1980 putsch that ushered in a military government that introduced the current constitution. Addressing a gathering of triumphant AKP members, Erdogan hailed the outcome as a 'defeat for the 12 September coup' and said it would unite Turkey. 'This is not an AKP project,' he said.
It seems that Erdogan and his AKP, which for its islamist heritage is still mistrusted in some circles, are right. The former constitution was passed under martial law and made of the army and judiciary the keepers of Turkey's secular character, but this was done at the expense of many personal freedoms. It we look at the a summary of the most important changes (here below and taken from Turkey's Todays Zaman newssite)  we see that they reinstate several important personal freedoms like the right to protection of personal information, the right to acces to official files, more labour rights like the right to strike for political purposes, and the right for members of parliament to retain their seats after a party is banned (a sort that befel several  Kurdish parties in the past and which the AKP itself escaped only narrowly).  
What might happen is that the army - which used to oversee the secular nature of its officers and cadres very strictly and  used to discharge merciless anyone of them with islamic leanings, now might gradually become more open to believers, as it would harder for the army to lay them off. Also there will be important changes to the judiciary, which will make them somewhat less independent. The Constitutional Court will be increased from 11 to 17 members, with some of the appointed by parliament, while also the important Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which oversees the appoinment of judges and prosecutors in the country,  will be increased from seven to 22 members. These measures may - to a certain extend - likewise increase the islamic influence a bit in the sense that being a believer will no longer disqualify people for a career in the judiciary. It might be a step away for the rigorous Kemalist past during which state and religion were divorced in a rather rigorous, top down imposed way, to a more relaxed situation. Still it would be a far cry away from imposing sharia,  which in no way is promoted by the AKP. 

Some key issues in a package of 26 reforms to Turkey’s military coup-era Constitution voted on in Sunday’s referendum:
Military -- Gives officers fired by the military the right to appeal. Redefines the jurisdiction of military courts, empowers civilian courts to try military personnel for crimes against state security or against the constitutional order -- such as coup attempts. Opens the way for the prosecution of Turkey’s 1980 military coup leaders.
Equality -- Strengthens gender equality and bars discrimination against children, the elderly, the disabled and veterans.
Privacy -- Recognizes the right to protection of personal information and access to official personal records.
Freedoms -- Restricts travel bans imposed on individuals.
Labor -- Allows membership in more than one union in a workplace. Recognizes the right to collective bargaining for civil servants and other state employees. Removes bans on politically motivated strikes.
Parliament -- Ensures elected lawmakers stay in Parliament if their political party is disbanded by a court decision.
Constitutional Court -- Increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court from 11 to 17 and gives power to Parliament to appoint some of them. Recognizes the right of individual appeals to the court.
Judiciary -- Increases the number of members on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which oversees the appointments of judges and prosecutors in the country, from seven to 22. Opens the way for appeals of decisions to remove

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