Next flashpoint in Turkey: constitutional overhaul

ANKARA Tue Sep 4, 2007 7:49am EDT

Turkey's new President Abdullah Gul, accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, watches the newly graduated air force cadets during their graduation ceremony at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul, August 31, 2007. Turkey's secular elite, stung by the election of an ex-Islamist president, faces a historic battle over AK Party government plans to jettison a military- inspired constitution and usher in radical reforms. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Turkey's new President Abdullah Gul, accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, watches the newly graduated air force cadets during their graduation ceremony at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul, August 31, 2007. Turkey's secular elite, stung by the election of an ex-Islamist president, faces a historic battle over AK Party government plans to jettison a military- inspired constitution and usher in radical reforms.

Credit: Reuters/Fatih Saribas

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's secular elite, stung by the election of an ex-Islamist president, faces a historic battle over AK Party government plans to jettison a military- inspired constitution and usher in radical reforms.

The secularists, including powerful generals, fear a new charter will erode separation of state and religion, muzzle the army and foment ethnic divisions, especially in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Some argue the very existence of the secular republic founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire is at stake.

The Islamist-rooted AK Party, which won a new five-year mandate in July polls, says the new "civilian constitution" will broaden personal freedoms and bring Turkey closer to the European Union it aspires to join.

The text will replace a much more authoritarian charter drafted after a 1980 military coup. The AK Party says it wants to build broad consensus for the changes through open debate.

But a constitution based more strongly on personal liberties, less on state interests, will test Turkish taboos.

Many Turks, for example, would view any easing of curbs on the Kurdish language as a threat to national unity. Lifting a ban on the Muslim headscarf in colleges would upset secularists.

"This is something Turkey and its people have not really experienced ... and without a tradition of consensus, I'm expecting a very tough debate," said columnist Yavuz Baydar.

"There'll be a lot of attempts to confront the AK Party ... as if they are questioning the main tenets of the republic."

The AK Party's refusal to give details on its plans is already stirring unease. It says the draft is still being worked on and will be ready for parliament in three or four months.

"Why is the "civilian" constitution draft being hidden from the civilians?" asked liberal daily Radikal on Tuesday.

AK insists it stands by the secular republic. But political tension tends to hurt Turkish markets otherwise well inclined towards the government and would be an added risk factor for investors, particularly during heightened global volatility.

ARMY TARGETED?

Analysts say that under the reforms the army, which has ousted four cabinets in the past 50 years citing threats to the republican order, may see its powers cut further. Other institutions dominated by secularists, like the judiciary and universities, are also likely to be reformed.

The changes could mean the head of the armed forces reports to the defense minister rather than the prime minister, in line with EU norms. Rulings from a high military board could lose their exemption from judicial review, newspapers say.

The new charter should win praise from Brussels, though it will not tackle the controversial article 301 of Turkey's penal code -- a key EU demand -- under which dozens of writers have been tried for insulting Turkish identity or state institutions.

The generals would argue that freedoms natural to Belgium or Italy can be a hazard in a country bordering on the turbulent Middle East and facing challenges from religious militants.

The CHP, the staunchly secularist main opposition party, thinks the charter should be simply amended, not replaced.

"A complete change leads us to think the purpose is to change the basic principles of the republic," CHP deputy chairman Onur Oymen said. "We will do whatever we can to resist such attempts."

Expectations that secularism will be redefined were fuelled last month by the inaugural speech of President Abdullah Gul, a founding member of the AK Party. He said secularism guaranteed religious freedom and different lifestyles -- read by the arch-secularists as code for more religion in public life.

The present constitution also enshrines individual freedom, but contains elements that have been used over the decades to curtail liberties in the name of the state.

"With a military constitution we have minimal democracy. This country requires a civilian constitution which protects the freedoms of all those who think like us and those who don't, those who live like us and those who don't," said AK Party lawmaker Egemen Bagis.

The party has pledged to put the text to a referendum, and with a majority just short of the two thirds needed to change the constitution, it will have to court opposition parties.

But if the AK Party wins public support in a referendum, its position will be strengthened, especially vis a vis the army.

"The main idea behind the AKP strategy will be not to stir up serious tensions," said columnist Burak Bekdil. "If they can cripple, with public support, the strength the military has in the political sphere, it will be to their advantage."