Is Turkey becoming more democratic, or less so?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

ARE THE constitutional amendments approved by a referendum in Turkey last Sunday "a turning point" for Turkish democracy, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared? Are they "another important step by Turkey on the road towards Europe," as the German foreign minister put it? Or do they open the way to a "civilian dictatorship" by Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, as the leader of the opposition is warning? Perhaps the most salient -- and worrisome -- characteristic of Mr. Erdogan's government after nearly eight years in office is that the answer is not obvious.

After a polarizing campaign that became more a referendum on his government than on the 26 proposed constitutional reforms, Mr. Erdogan was rewarded with a decisive victory: 58 percent of voters approved the changes in a charter that had been imposed by the military after a 1980 coup. Many of the changes are indisputably liberal and will strengthen democracy in a Muslim country that is a NATO member and has aspired to join the European Union. For example, military officers will be subject to civilian trials; the rights of women, the elderly, handicapped people and children will be enhanced; restrictions on unions will be lifted; and individuals will have greater privacy rights and the ability to appeal to the Constitutional Court.

But the constitutional package, which was presented to voters for a single, up-or-down vote, also contains a sweeping reorganization of the Constitutional Court and Turkey's other top judicial body, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. Each would be expanded, and the power of appointment would be shifted to the president and legislature. Until now, Turkey's judiciary has been a bastion of secularism and thus of resistance to Mr. Erdogan. The Constitutional Court struck down his initiative allowing women to wear head scarves in state schools and came within one vote of outlawing his party.

Now Mr. Erdogan will have the power to place his appointees in a dominating position. The opposition charges that the courts will become merely another arm of the ruling party -- which, it claims, is carrying out a "creeping coup" against the secular state. While some of the critics' rhetoric may be exaggerated, Mr. Erdogan's actions give cause for concern. In the last several years his government has used questionable tax charges to lean on opposition media. Sprawling investigations of alleged coup plotters have swept up not just military officers but also businessmen and journalists.

Mr. Erdogan's constitutional reforms conspicuously did not include greater protections for freedom of speech and religion, or for the Kurdish minority. But the prime minister, who now is heavily favored to win reelection next year, has promised a more complete constitutional rewrite. If he still wishes to move Turkey toward the West, Mr. Erdogan will have to pursue those reforms while resisting the temptation to strip the judiciary of independence.

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