A new constitution for Turkey: Can the “Grand Master” do it?
ANKARA—The outcome of Sunday’s elections in Turkey was a foregone conclusion months ago. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been widely expected to win, and to continue governing Turkey for a third term. Confident of this outcome, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an announced that the first AKP government had been his apprenticeship, that the second had been his “experienced apprenticeship,” and that his third term in office would be his mastership. His supporters liked the analogy so much that they began referring to Erdo?an as the “Grand Master.”
The prime minister in turn announced that his masterpiece—the test and proof of his mastership—would be the creation of a new constitution for Turkey that would, among other things, bring about a presidential system of governance. This goal made the parliamentary election significant. The Turkish parliament has 550 seats; a simple majority of 276 seats is sufficient to form a government. However, a two-thirds majority, or at least 367 votes, is required to amend the constitution, and 330 votes are required to initiate a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment or a new constitution.
Since no opposition party wants Turkey to adopt a presidential system, the AKP’s goal was to attain the supermajority of 330 seats necessary to hold a referendum, and thus avoid having to reach consensus with other parties regarding the new constitution. This past Sunday, with 49 percent of the popular vote, the AKP won 326 seats, four short of its objective. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 135 seats with 26 percent of the vote, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) won 53 seats with their 13 percent, and 35 independent candidates supported by the ethnic Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) also won parliamentary seats.
Despite falling just short of the KP’s goal to obtain a qualified majority in the parliament, the result—reelection by a larger margin than in 2007—is still a real victory for Erdo?an and the AKP. And while the constitutional reform project has become a little more complicated, it is by no means impossible. The AKP might now pursue one of three paths. In the first scenario, it could try to create a consensus within the parliament, ideally among all party groups, after an open negotiation process that includes civil society. True, it might not be very easy to find a common ground with the Turkish nationalist MHP and the ethnic Kurdish party BDP.
But a compromise between AKP and CHP is not as difficult as it used to be. After the change of leadership in the CHP (from Deniz Baykal to Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu), the gap between the two largest parties has narrowed on issues such as national identity, civil-military relations, basic rights and freedoms, and decentralization of administration. If the AKP were to abandon its goal of a presidential system, and the two parties demonstrate more flexibility, an AKP-CHP consensus could facilitate a new constitution.
Obviously, if one or both of the other parties could be brought into the tent, even better. In the second possible scenario, the AKP might seek to reach a consensus with other party groups in the parliament, but would decide to draft the constitution alone after this first attempt failed—for example because of the AKP’s insistence on the presidential system. It might secure the missing four votes from independents or the opposition parties with the help of incentives.
The risk of an embarrassing failure, however, is very real. And even if the AKP were able to draft a constitution, force a popular vote and win it, such a document would exacerbate rather than calm down the polarization of Turkish society. In the third scenario, the AKP might initially try to create a consensus within the Parliament for constitutional reform but would give up the idea after the political party groups in the parliament fail to reach a compromise. However, a new, citizen-centered, democratic constitution is long overdue in Turkey—so giving up the idea of constitutional reform altogether is not a plausible scenario either.
But can Prime Minister Erdo?an accomplish what he has set out to do? And what compromises would he have to make? Can he craft a consensus in the Turkish parliament to draft a constitution that matches Turkey’s ambitions in the 21st century—even if it means giving up the goal of a presidential system? The “Grand Master” is about to take on the biggest challenge of his political career, and we’re about to find out the answers to those questions.
Özgür Ünlühisarcikli is Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara Office
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.