A ‘civilian constitution’: Erdoğan sets the stage for a phase of political engineering

Amidst a growing crisis and the ordeal of international mistrust on his administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s seemingly sudden move for “a new constitution” caused considerable stir and bewilderment. In a jumbled rhetoric, he returned to the subject repeatedly since early this month, joined soon after by his political partner, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who offered his unconditional support for the project.

So, after a decade, Turkey, a very complex country taken hostage by a military-dictated constitution since 1982, thus unable to handle its demons, historic fixations and recurrent troubles, is back again to square one.

At first glance, Erdoğan’s step may have seemed genuine. But, given his notoriously slippery political style, it is, in reality, filled with temptations to an optical illusion.

There are several elements that support this argument. First, the major change brought about by the American elections and formation of new constellations in the region have acted as a reminder to Erdoğan that for him to make sure to “stick to power” by any means necessary is an acute need. But, as he sensed, the current system of government shows cracks, and what he needed to do was to refresh his alliance with Turkey’s ultra-nationalist circles.

The meeting in early January at Bahçeli’s private residence was a first step to discuss through a joint road map. It was known already then, that both parties had launched their respective work for amendments in laws on elections and political parties. The idea was, it stood clear by statements from both parties, to push the demonised and harassed pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) out of parliament while seeing as crucial a new election system to guarantee a continuity of the current power structure - if necessary, with the addition of minor component parties of the Islamist and Nationalist dispositions. Apparently, the proposal of a new constitution which would include sections on “national, religious and moral values”, would have worked as a bait for expanding the overall conservative power in Turkey, Erdoğan and Bahçeli seem to believe.

Second, although Erdoğan may know that such a proposal in the midst of high tensions and turmoil won’t be all that helpful to change the national agenda, he is showing signs of unease about the main bulk of the opposition.

It may be so that he would have launched the constitutional project at a later stage, namely, early next year, but main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Ali Babacan, leader of the AKP breakaway Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), declared that they agreed to a massive campaign for a democratic constitution in late January may have forced his hand.

Erdoğan had to rush, simply because his two foes got along rather well, and their declaration made a splash within opposition flanks, including the HDP. As such, the president’s move is also meant to outmaneuver those steps and pre-empt all efforts to unify the opposition.

By taking such a step, adorned by words like “civilian constitution” and “getting rid of a military-dictated, outdated text”, Erdoğan aims to sell to the West - especially to some leaders of the EU - that he intends “to return to a democratic format”, and that despite all misunderstandings he is a reformer. It is highly likely that his appeasers in the EU, including Germany’s Angela Merkel or Spain’s Pedro Sanchez, deliberately and cynically take the bait and offer him all the time he needs to further consolidate his power.

What do we know about the content of the constitution Erdoğan and Bahçeli want? So far we only know what they don’t want amended. In closed party meetings, Erdoğan has talked about two red lines: That the “super-presidential” system remains, and that the unitary, over-centralised nature of the state not be touched upon.

This means that the very core of the current constitution will be protected as intact, with Turkish as the country’s official language and “Atatürk nationalism” as its foundational ideology. In short, most probably, Erdoğan and Bahçeli aim at a stillborn baby, in the eyes of the Kurdish opposition.

Could they technically succeed? It doesn’t seem easy at all. Out of 500 seats in Parliament, at least 360 votes are needed to take a draft constitution to a referendum. For a direct Parliamentary approval, at least 400 deputies must have cast a yes vote. Currently the AKP and the MHP have 337 seats in total. They need at least the total votes of the nationalist opposition Good Party (IYIP), which so far rejected any cooperation.

But it’s not a mission impossible. Turkey’s political culture often offers a ground for secretive, utilitarian horse-trading. Second, the political climate is highly polluted with a blend of Islamism and combative nationalism. It is possible that Erdoğan will play on those trends and continue to drive a wedge within the opposition. There are signs that he will try to inject religious elements of Islam into the draft, to tempt the entire conservative political spectrum to encircle him in a “power front”.

But, we are not there yet. Not even close. What’s obvious is that, as the crisis deepens even further on all fronts, a new wave of polarisation may even be seen in any debate on constitution. This is welcome for Erdoğan, because he will have all the time he needs for the new stage of political engineering he wants to coordinate.

Indeed, Turkey may have already entered a new stage of political engineering. It is not a coincidence that the announcement of a “new constitution” comes with the preparations of a new election system and law for political parties. These efforts seem to be synchronised. Erdoğan is not, as some quasi-surveys claim, on the losing path: Serious pollsters suggest that the AKP-MHP block wins near 48-50 percent of the vote. In terms of a challenge in any presidential race, he is still unrivalled - followed, by a very large margin, by mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş respectively.

Thus, what we may expect is clear: Erdoğan, backed by Bahçeli, is determined to stage a new phase of his “autocracy revolution” - some observers call it “uninterrupted self-coup” - by unleashing all his instruments and by enhancing his alliance base. He has, at the moment, odds on his side.

So, as Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey Program Coordinator of POMED based in Washington D.C., wrote in a recent comment: “To prevent yet another round of power grabs by Erdoğan, the opposition will have to translate its revitalized search for common ground into action and stand united.”




The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.