Wednesday, December 07, 2011

New constitution sure to be postponed

With the first anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring slowly approaching and its progress being symbolized by a high turnout at the Egyptian elections, the spotlight is now on Ankara. Not only that. The expected pull-out of American troops from Iraq and an ugly escalation of the Syrian crisis -- now in defiance of the Arab League -- also add to attention being drawn to Turkey. Turkey's spectacular story over the past decade deserves this attention. In many aspects, the experiment that took shape under the single majority rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been quite complex, but simple enough to become an inspiration for its southern Arab neighbors. It has also exposed elements of hypocrisy within the EU that seem to have been failing in its relationship with the predominantly Muslim nation to which it had pledged full accession. Nevertheless, we are in the midst of a developing story in a rapidly changing world. If Turkey truly deserves such a focus, then the series of meetings this week in Washington, D.C., organized by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) are very timely. I was invited to elaborate on the issue of Turkey's perhaps most critical threshold in its ongoing but somewhat slowed democratization experiment: the constitutional process. In a heavily attended session at the hall at the Center for American Progress (CAP), I attempted to analyze the outlook from a humble and realistic perspective. What might that outlook for a new constitution be? Given that expectations were raised at home and abroad, would it be a “miscarriage” or a successful delivery? Here is what I, in a nutshell, conveyed at the session. The composition and methodology of the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, empowered to prepare the draft, is the key to all the clues we need to answer this. At first look it all appears to be fine; all political parties, irrespective of size, are represented on an equal basis, with three representatives from each. This should give us hope that a consensus can be reached. However, the methodology has traps and pitfalls. The most problematic principle is the condition of reaching a unanimous decision. There will be no progress in the commission's work unless each and every party agrees on each article being discussed. Even if it could be achieved there will have to be a full consensus (by unanimous vote) on the whole of the text, and if a disagreement emerges on whether or not the text is considered finalized, then the whole process can be discontinued. If a party is absent from three meetings or if it decides to pull out altogether, the commission's work will be disrupted without any further steps. The commission will cease to exist in practice. So, there is strong reason for feeling pessimistic here. There is no example in the political history of the world of cases of 100 percent consensus, except for drafts that have been imposed on people through the heavily controlled parliaments of oppressive, fascist or communist regimes. Wisdom that there should be “reasonable consensus” seems to have been ignored. Why would the AK Party agree to such a methodology if its pledges for a new constitution were genuine? Some argue that the AK Party and even the Republican People's Party (CHP) are content with the arrangement: the AK Party because the current constitution is something it can continue to live with, and the CHP because its core base and top echelons have been against a new constitution as they are staunchly against the revision of Kemalism. So, work on a new constitution might end up being postponed until after the next elections in 2015. Is there a way out? Optimists claim that the AK Party and the CHP can surprisingly find common ground. Together they make up 75 percent of Parliament. This should be in principle acceptable to as close to a consensus as possible. Some optimists also add that the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) may also agree on a reasonable definition of citizenship, and the recognition of Kurdish identity and others, by deleting references to Turkish identity from the current Constitution as well as some form of devolution/decentralization. I belong to the pessimist camp. Given the establishment of the commission and its methodology, the dream of a new constitution -- a step seen by so many as crucial to institutionalizing democratization and bringing Turkey into the same league as Western Europe -- is sadly, more distant than ever. Reformists may switch to demanding what is possible, such as all obstacles before free speech being lifted from various laws, as an entirely new constitution seems impossible at the moment. Obstacles in the current Constitution must be changed so that society can be allowed to develop the maturity to have further debates and prevent all the genies that have been let out of their bottles from leading to radicalization. There are many things this government and Parliament can do. 2011-11-29

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