Maria Haimerl on Turkish Parliamentary Elections and Constitutional Politics

Maria Haimerl with a short analysis of the June parliamentary elections and constitutional politics in Turkey

In June 2015, parliamentary elections were held in Turkey. The drafting of a new constitution has been one – if not the – key issue during the election campaign. The article shows that the “constitutional question” has been one of the most central political topics in Turkey for many years. It discusses the possibility of a new constitution against the backdrop of the political landscape after the June 2015 elections.

The drafting of a new constitution, designed to create a new institutional framework for Turkey, has been dominating debates during the election campaign in the run-up to the June 2015 parliamentary elections. In the event of a clear-cut electoral victory, the ruling AKP announced that it would introduce a “presidential system”. In its election manifesto, Yeni Türkiye Sözleşmesi / 2023 (“New Turkey Contract / 2023“), the party justified the necessity of a presidential system, arguing that this would hinder potential future conflicts between President and Prime Minister (§ 54, AKP 2015). However, the manifesto did not spell out the exact form and organization of this “presidential system”. [1]

Many Turkish citizens, observers, and the parliamentary opposition expressed their concerns that a constitutional amendment would unduly strengthen President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’. For this reason, the opposition parties CHP and MHP, as well as the HDP, raised strong objections against these changes to the political system. At the same time, they agreed on the necessity of a new constitution (CHP 2015; HDP 2015; MHP 2015). There was thus agreement on the need for a new constitution, but disagreement on the nature and extent of these changes.

A Turkish “Constitutional Paradox“?

The “paradox of constitution-making” in divided societies – as formulated by Ruth Gavison[2] -illustrates the problem in the Turkish case as sketched above:

“(…) the more divided a society is, the greater the importance of a constitution to its political stability. However, the more divided a society is, the less likely it is to agree on a constitution” (Gavison 2003: 67).

A constitution can play an important role in a political system in that it can stabilize and finalize the consensus agreed upon by a political community and may function as a “key premise” for political decisions (Grimm 1991: 16). In this respect, the Turkish Constitution is often regarded as „dysfunctional“: the 1982 post-military coup constitution was drafted by a small group of appointed constituent assembly members (Bali 2013: 670). Thus, it is not a product of negotiations amongst the constitutive segments of the society at large.[3] Furthermore, this constitution has been criticized for its content. The constitution contains unamendable principles on the “indivisible unity” of the Turkish state and its people according to the Kemalist ideas of nationalism, republicanism, and laicism (cf. Özbudun/ Gençkaya 2009). Conceptualizing Turkey as an “indivisible unity“ ignores religious and cultural differences. The president’s extensive responsibilities weaken the principle of the separation of powers, thus questioning the parliamentary system. As the democratic deficiencies of the constitution are well known, its political acceptability and legitimacy has always been in question.

Accordingly, “the desire to change the constitution has always been at the forefront of Turkish politics“ (Bilgin 2008: 142). Since 1987 – and especially since the AKP came into office in 2002 – the constitution has been amended extensively. Yet it cannot be regarded adequate for an increasingly pluralized and polarized Turkish society. The constitution does not represent all segments of society in an equal manner. It thereby does not serve as a “premise” for political decisions, but rather becomes a matter of controversy – especially with regards to the president´s role and the “unamendable principles”. Political developments after 2007 illustrate that societal and political problems have manifested themselves in the “constitutional question”. Since 2007, a series of “constitutional battles” (Özbudun/Genckaya 2009: 102) have taken place between secular state elites dominant in key institutions such as the constitutional court and the parliament, and have largely been driven by the conservative ruling party AKP.

The Turkish President was elected by parliament up until the elections of 2014. In 2007, the AKP was increasingly in confrontation with the military and the judiciary. This was especially the case during the course of the so-called „e-memorandum“[4] in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2007. After the opposition had boycotted the election of AKP candidate Abdullah Gül, and the Turkish Constitutional Court decided on the unconstitutionality of the election (Bali 2013), the AKP decided to introduce a direct election of the president. On 21 October 2007 the constitution was amended by referendum and 2014 was set as the date for the first direct presidential election. Additionally, the AKP only barely evaded being prohibited by the constitutional court in 2008. The general prosecutor filed an application for the party´s prohibition, arguing that the party and its representatives violated the laicism principle (Bali 2013: 688-690).

The conflict further intensified over the course of the 2010 constitutional referendum: the suggested reforms were aimed at dealing with the judicial and political burdens of the 1980 military coup. While the European Union welcomed these reforms, other political actors opposed them strongly. The CHP, especially critical towards the judicial reform suggestions, applied to the constitutional court, as these suggestions, the CHP argued, were aimed towards establishing an authoritarian system. The BDP asked their adherents to boycott the referendum, as the government had rejected their demand for a reduction of the ten-percent threshold (Göztepe 2010).

Against the background of these “constitutional battles” (Özbudun/Genckaya 2009: 102), all parties promised a new constitution in their 2011 election manifestos. Soon after the elections, the newly elected parliament created a special committee to be in charge of drafting a new constitution. The constitutional committee was comprised of three delegates from each of the four parties represented in parliament: the ruling conservative party AKP, the nationalist MHP, the Kemalist republican CHP, and the pro-Kurdish party BDP[5], including the president of parliament, Cemil Çiçek, who served as the president of the committee, but had no voting power. This consensus-seeking approach sharply contrasted with previous constitution-making processes. At the beginning there were high expectations for a new constitution. However, the parties did not manage to compromise and reach a consensus – especially regarding the “Kurdish question” and the introduction of a presidential system – i.e. issues the society is deeply divided on. Finally, the AKP members left the committee on 18 November 2013. The remaining three political parties carried on until the final meeting on 3 December 2013, when the committee was officially dissolved. Former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan placed all the blame for the failure on the opposition parties (Hürriyet Daily News 2013). The AKP announced that it would further insist on a new constitution. A “presidential system á la Turca“ (Türk tipi Başkanlık) was the issue in its electoral campaign. The opposition parties warned of this systemic change, yet they themselves promised to advocate for a new constitution. It was thus not only in 2011, but also in 2015, that a new constitution moved to the forefront of the debates during the electoral campaign.

Election results, possible coalitions and the Turkish Constitutional Paradox: What are the prospects for a new constitution?

The elections in June 2015 have significantly changed the majority parties in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA): The HDP managed to pass the ten-percent threshold and enter parliament. The AKP did not succeed in receiving enough votes to change the constitution[6] and is now dependent on a coalition partner. The CHP secured about 132 seats in parliament; the MHP came in third with 80 seats in the TGNA.

Election results June 2015

Party Percent Seats
AKP 40,9% 258
CHP 25,1% 132
MHP 16,4% 80
HDP 13,1% 80

Source: http://secimharitasi.com/secim-2015

As the debate on a new constitution has been at the forefront of the electoral campaign, it has also become an important topic for possible coalitions and coalition talks. Whether and how the elections will influence Turkish constitutional politics remains to be seen in the weeks to come. Yet, one can at least make some basic observations on the meaning and relevance of parliamentary elections for Turkish constitutional politics.

On the one hand, the election results show that many voters refused to accept Erdoğan´s increase in power through changing the system. The HDP´s success in particular suggests that many voters wanted a strong parliamentary opposition and to see the parties compromise and work in a more consensus–oriented way to resolve Turkey´s manifold problems. On the other hand, it is obvious that there are very different ideas and concepts around how to ease existing conflicts and about what a new constitution should look like.

Different possibilities for coalitions exist in theory: There is the option to form a national-conservative coalition (AKP and MHP), a grand coalition (AKP and CHP), a coalition of AKP and HDP, a coalition of the two former opposition parties and HDP or at least two parties tolerated by the third (e.g. CHP with MHP tolerated by HDP), as well as an AKP minority government. The last three options are not discussed at the moment, or have rather been ruled out by HDP and MHP.

At the moment (July 2014), a grand coalition (AKP; CHP) seems to be the most probable outcome. Additionally, an MHP-AKP-coalition has been under consideration.

With 390 seats in Parliament, AKP and CHP could write a new constitution without holding a referendum (Article 175 TC). The CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is still regarded as party of old elites. Since its establishment, the party has been characterized by two poles: a kemalist-nationalist one and a social-democratic one (Emre 2014). Under Deniz Baykal (1992-2010) the party emphasized nationalism and laicism. Since 2010 the party has been chaired by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and has reoriented itself towards social-democratic aims (Cingi 2011). In its election manifesto 2015, it stressed the importance of economic reforms and social justice, as well as the need for a constitution based on consensus in both society and parliament (CHP 2015).

Together, AKP and MHP would have a share of 338 seats. Due to this majority of more than 60 percent, the coalition could agree on constitutional changes. These changes ought to be adopted in a referendum (Article 175 TC). Yet, this potential coalition makes a comprehensive and sustainable change to the constitution unlikely. The MHP has formulated conditions for a coalition: One of them is that the party wants to stick to the principles of “Turkish identity” and a “unitary nation state” in the constitution (Hürriyet Daily News 2015a; Daily Sabah 2015).

Regarding the AKP, it remains to be seen which role President Erdoğan will play. CHP, MHP, and HDP have defined the introduction of a “presidential system“ as a “red line,“ and have clearly expressed their objections against a “presidential system“. A coalition with the AKP – which may change the constitution or write a new one – only seems likely if the AKP gives up its aim to introduce a “presidential system”. Additionally, all potential coalition partners emphasized that they would insist on certain agreements with the AKP, including an obligation for Erdoğan to not interfere in governmental affairs (Today´s Zaman 2015). Thus, the main question is whether Erdogan will refrain from interfering in possible coalitions talks and whether he will accept that non-AKP party members will position themselves in a coalition.

Selahattin Demirtaş, leading candidate of the HDP, has articulated the party’s support for a grand coalition (Hürriyet 2015). In its manifesto, the party emphasized the need for a new constitution: “We will all together make a new Constitution based on humanity and pursuant to the multi-identity, multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-lingual structure of Turkey” (HDP 2015). Demirtaş has more than once expressed the HDP´s willingness to support a grand coalition, especially with regards to a new constitution: “We should leave aside pre-election competition and take on responsibility for the peace and serenity of society. We are ready to take a step towards the [drafting of a new] constitution, too” (Demirtaş, cited in Hürriyet Daily News 2015b). In case of a grand coalition, the HDP (as well as MHP) shall be included in discussions on a new constitution.

Whether parliamentary elections will lead to a new constitution for Turkey is uncertain. A presidential system seems unlikely at the moment. It remains to be seen whether new majorities within the TGNA and possible changes within AKP and CHP will have positive effects: i.e. whether the political forces will manage to overcome the deeply rooted conflicts that have interfered with reaching a consensus on a new Turkish Constitution for many years, thus leaving the “Turkish Constitutional Paradox” unsolved.


References

AK Parti (2015): Yeni Türkiye Sözleşmesi/2023. Wahlprogramm vom 14. April 2015. Online available: https://www.akparti.org.tr/site/haberler/yeni-turkiye-sozlesmesi-2023/73285, last access 29.6.2015.

Bali, Asli (2013): Courts and constitutional transition: Lessons from the Turkish case. In: International Journal of Constitutional Law 11 (3), pp. 666–701.

Bilgin, Mehmet Fevzi (2008): Constitution, Legitimacy and Democracy in Turkey. In: Said Amir Arjomand (Ed.): Constitutional politics in the Middle East. With special reference to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Oxford, Portland: Hart Publishing, pp. 123–146.

CHP (2015): Seçim Bildirgesi 2015. Online available: http://yasanacakbirturkiye.com/CHP-SECIM-BILDIRGESI-2015.pdf, last access 29.6.2015.

Cingin, Aydın (2011): CHP: A Party on the Road to Social Democracy. INTERNATIONAL POLICY ANALYSIS. Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Online available: http://www.fes-tuerkei.org/media/pdf/CHP%20Aydin%20Cingi.pdf, last access 5.7.2015.

Daily Sabah (2015): Turkey: Top AK Party officials mull coalition with MHP, 15.6.2015. Online available: http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2015/06/15/turkey-top-ak-party-officials-mull-coalition-with-mhp, last access 29.6.2015.

Emre, Yunus (2014): The Emergence of Social Democracy in Turkey. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.

Gavison, Ruth (2003): Constitutions and Political Reconstruction? Israel’s Quest for a Constitution. In: International Sociology 18 (1), pp. 53–70.

Göztepe, Ece (2010): Eine Analyse der Verfassungsänderungen in der Türkei vom 7. Mai 2010: Ein Schritt in Richtung mehr Demokratie? In: Europäische Grundrechte-Zeitschrift 37 (22-23), pp. 685–700.

Grimm, Dieter (1991): Die Zukunft der Verfassung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

MHP (2015): Seçim Bildirgesi 2015. Online available: http://www.mhp.org.tr/usr_ img/mhpweb/MHP_Secim_Beyannamesi_2015_tam, last access 29.6.2015.

HDP (2015): Seçim Bildirgesi 2015. Online available: http://www.hdp. org.tr/images/UserFiles/Documents/Editor/HDP%20Se%C3%A7im%20Bildirgesi%20Tam%20Metin.pdf, last access 29.6.2015.

Hürriyet Daily News (2013): Ruling AKP pulls out as new charter efforts fade, 20.11.2013. Online available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ruling-akp-pulls-out-as-new-charter-efforts-fade.aspx?pageID= 238&nID=58199&NewsCatID=338, last access 28.08.2015.

Hürriyet Daily News (2015a): MHP draws lines for coalition with AKP, 9.6.2015. Online available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/mhp-draws-lines-for-coalition-with-akp.aspx?pageID= 238&nID=83672&NewsCatID=338, last access 29.6.2015.

Hürriyet Daily News (2015b): HDP co-chair urges resumption of peace process, says Öcalan ‘is waiting’, 11.6.2015. Online available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/hdp-co-chair-urges-resumption-of-peace-process-says-ocalan-is-waiting-.aspx?pageID=238&nID =83811&NewsCatID=338, last access 29.6.2015.

Hürriyet (2015): HDP Eş Genel Başkanı Selahattin Demirtaş: AKP-CHP koalisyonunu destekleriz, 19.6.2015. Online available: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/ 29324801.asp, last access 29.6.2015.

Lerner, Hanna (2013): The Political Infeasibility of “Thin” Constitutions: Lessons from 2003-2006 Israeli Constitutional Debates. In: Journal of Transnational Law and Policy 22, pp. 85–121.

Özbudun, Ergun/Gençkaya, Ömer Faruk (2009): Democratization and the politics of constitution-making in Turkey. Budapest, New York: Central European University Press.

Shinar, Adam (2013): Accidental Constitutionalism. The Political Foundations and Implications of Constitution-Making in Israel. In: D. J. Galligan und Mila Versteeg (Ed.): Social and political foundations of constitutions: Cambridge University Press (Comparative constitutional law and policy), pp. 207–238.

Today´s Zaman (2015): CHP’s Baykal claims Parliament can investigate graft under AK Party coalition, 11.6.2015. Online available: http://www.todayszaman.com/national_ chps-baykal-claims-parliament-can-investigate-graft-under-ak-party-coalition_385263.html, last access 29.6.2015.

[1] Due to this indeterminacy, the term is set in quotation marks.

[2] Ruth Gavison has developed and discussed this “paradox“ for the Israeli case (see Gavison 2003; Shinar 2013; Lerner 2013).

[3] The same can be said for the other two constitutions of the Turkish republic (1924, 1961) (see Özbudun/Gençkaya 2009).

[4] The Turkish military expressed its opposition to Gül’s candidacy by posting a statement on its website immediately following the first round of voting. The statement reminded that the military’s role as the guardian of the Republic’s fundamental values empowered the armed forces to prevent actions that might undermine secularism. This warning amounted to an official statement that the army deemed Gül inadequately secular to assume the office of the presidency (Bali 2013: 676).

[5] Due to the ten-percent threshold, the MPs of the BDP had officially run as independent candidates for parliamentary elections.

[6] The constitution can be amended by a two-thirds majority in the TGNA (367 out of 550 seats). With a majority of 60 percent (330 seats) the constitution can be amended, but the amendments have to be confirmed in a referendum (Article 175 TC).

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