Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey’s Constitutional Controversy

by Steven A. Cook
April 3, 2013

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek arrives for independence day celebrations in breakaway northern Cyprus, in Nicosia November 15, 2010. Turkey is the only country to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which unilaterally seceded in 1983 (Andreas Manolis/Courtesy Reuters).


April 3—Istanbul

A draft of Turkey’s new constitution was supposed to be finished on Monday, but the members of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission say they need about another month to produce a draft.  The missed deadline prompted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to float the idea that the Justice and Development Party would circumvent the Commission and take its own version of a new constitution to the Turkish people in a referendum.  Not surprisingly, the prime minister’s proposal was met with considerable criticism from the opposition parties in the Grand National Assembly all of which have representatives on the Commission.  In the English language daily, Today’s Zaman, the Nationalist Movement Party’s Faruk Bal said, “The prime minister is looking for excuses to break his promise that his party would not quit the negotiating table.  He is working to disperse the commission.

The AKP denied that it was looking to make an end run on the constitution, but it would not be surprising if it did.  More than a decade of prosperity, foreign policy successes, a growing middle class, and new services (especially in health and transportation) have placed Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP in a commanding political position.  As a result, they have very little incentive to negotiate with an opposition that is clearly determined not to hand Erdogan everything he wants.  The party’s spokesmen will claim that it is committed to the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission process in the name of building a democracy, but that’s not the way these kinds of things generally work.

The AKP may indeed stay within the framework of the Commission, but it will make sure that the new constitution faithfully reflects its wishes. Institutions— which, contrary to widespread misconception, are laws, rules, decrees, and regulations or, for example, a bunch of these things put together in a constitution—are always the product of heated political debate and contestation.  Yet these “frameworks for social action” are rarely neutral.  Instead they reflect the interests of the elite that is in power at the time those institutions are conceived.  And given that institutional development takes place in the context of existing institutions and previous institutional innovations, Turkey’s new constitution will set the country on a particular political trajectory potentially for generations, which is why the stakes are so high for everyone involved.  After all, if the AKP’s vision for Turkey is enshrined in the country’s constitution it will be a crowning achievement in Erdogan’s effort to transform the country.

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