September 12 is not a casual date in Turkish politics; rather it represents an ideology, political reconstruction process and military control. Since the military coup in 1980 on the same day, Turkey has been discussing the inheritance of 12 September and its repercussions on Turkish political life. Although almost all the political parties –from right to left - agree that its legacy should be abandoned, it is not an easy task given the divisions among Turkish political parties. Nevertheless, a new era is about to open. Exactly after 30 years, on September 12, 2010, Turks voted in a referendum to have their saying on the major constitutional change. In the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ballot, 58 per cent voted for changes to the charter written in the aftermath of a 198o military coup. Some 42 per cent voted against the amendments, leaving a 16-point margin of victory – far larger than most analysts predicted.
The new amendments, introduced by the current ruling party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), created a huge political turmoil since the beginning of the process. The changes were passed in the Parliament in late April and early May 2010 with over 336 votes, which was below the required two-thirds majority of 367 votes to pass them directly. However, it was enough to send them to a referendum when Turkish President Abdullah Gul signed the law on May 13, 2010. The main opposition secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) immediately took it to the Supreme Court arguing that the process was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court annulled some provisions on July 7, 2010, but approved the others for the referendum. It also rejected the CHP’s demand with only a minor modification and afterward Turkish politics set to focus on the referendum.
The content of the 26-article amendment package is actually in tune with Turkey’s European Union (EU) negotiation process. It includes expanding civil liberty, bringing a new structure to the judicial system, civil control over the military by curbing the power of military courts and an article abolishing the immunity currently enjoyed by the leaders of the 1980 coup. Other measures would guarantee gender equality and put in place measures to protect children, the elderly and the disabled. The proposed amendments also contain articles that would allow collective bargaining for public sector workers and affirmative action measures for women.
Prime Minister Erdogan maintains that these changes, and all the amendments, are another step on the path to Turkish democracy. Indeed, they meet the criteria for Turkey to join the EU. However, the main opposition party, which campaigned for the ‘no’ camp, claimed that the constitutional changes would allow the AKP to appoint the country's top judges and transform Turkey into an authoritarian regime dominated by a single party.
As mentioned, the proposed changes have passed with a 58 per cent ‘yes’ vote but its results and debates will firmly remain in Turkish politics for quite some time. If that is the case, how should this referendum be viewed? From a broader perspective, this referendum itself and debates around it should be seen as the latest example of turbulence-like domestic transformation of Turkish politics especially since the AKP came to power in 2002. As it is the case in many non-Western countries, Turkey experiences deep division between its centre and periphery, between those who control power and those who want to share it. Turkey’s social dynamics have changed dramatically since economic liberalization started in the 1980s, and the AKP itself is a repercussion of this change and mostly represents the rising Anatolian elite. Turkey’s challenge today is to create a balance between the new rising elite and the ‘losing’ old guards. Thus, the essence of the heated constitutional change debates is just the iceberg of ongoing power politics in Turkey.
The political consequences of this referendum can be analyzed at least from two perspectives: policy implications and the challenges for the AKP in future. From a policy perspective, there have been two winners in this referendum, namely the ruling AKP and the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), the Kurdish party in the parliament. The unintended consequence of this referendum has been to give a vote of confidence to Prime Minister Erdogan and his government and is likely to set the tone for the time between now and the general elections in the summer of 2011. By this referendum, BDP has also shown its consolidated power in Kurdish-dominated south-eastern part of Turkey in a very firm way because many people actually followed its decision to boycott the referendum. This created a new situation in which one has to take BDP seriously in solving the Kurdish issue. Therefore, it may open a new chapter in Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish issue.
The outcome of this referendum might also have significant implications for Turkish society, possibly accelerating social fragmentation. Thus, the political challenge should be to bridge this widening gap and polarization in favour of democratic pluralism without any resort to violence. Creating consensus is the most difficult task in Turkish politics, but now with this referendum results the AKP is being forced to seek consensus on major issues.
Managing the divide between the reformists and the groups who cling to the status-quo will be the litmus test for Erdogan. It will also set a benchmark for the success of opposition parties in Turkey. There are two ways to turn the polarization trend into a comprehensive peace and democratic plurality. One is to find better ways to manage the issue of parity in equal distribution of wealth in the growing Turkish economy; the other is to increase other freedoms and democratic participation in Turkey through a constitutional reform. How the political parties, both the ruling and opposition, will respond to these challenges will be critical for the future of Turkish politics and democratization. Nevertheless, the meaning of September 12 is likely to continue to be more than a casual date in Turkish politics in future.