- Shifting into Reverse:Turkish Constitutionalism under the AKP
Over thirteen years in office have witnessed Turkey’s governing Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (better known by its acronym, the AKP) go through multiple transformations. When the AKP first came into office in 2002, their platform promised a new era of clean government, prioritizing liberalizing reforms (in both the economic and political arenas), democratic consolidation and even a strategy of reconciliation with the country’s Kurdish minority. Many doubted the sincerity of the party’s commitments to reform beyond measures that happened to address long-standing grievances of their religiously observant constituents. Even so, the reforms that the AKP identified as priorities had the potential to improve Turkey’s illiberal constitutional order, regardless of motivations. But the tactical pursuit of a series of liberal reforms has since given way to the party’s thirst to consolidate its own power. Today’s AKP has adopted illiberal electoral majoritarianism, pro-business neoliberalism and ethnonationalism as the sets of political identities that best serve the ambitions of the party’s leadership.
Though the AKP has jettisoned many of the original commitments it once touted, one consistent project that the party has embraced throughout its transformations has been the quest for a new constitution. In this short contribution, I will consider the trajectory of the party’s constitutional reform efforts in the last decade against the backdrop of Turkey’s broader constitutional order. In briefly surveying this history, I will suggest that there were multiple moments where the interests of the AKP’s constituency coincided with reforms that would have democratized and liberalized Turkey's constitutional system. At those moments, the AKP had the potential to serve as a catalyst for changes that might have produced a durable transition towards democratic consolidation in Turkey. Though they may have been acting tactically they nonetheless produced a window for real constitutional reform. Unfortunately, the party’s subsequent constitutional trajectory demonstrates the shallowness of its reform commitments. While the constitutional reforms originally proposed by the party in its first seven years in office would have had salutary effects on Turkey’s constitutional order, the AKP has more recently doubled down on some of the most repressive, statist and authoritarian features of the country’s political traditions. Equally troubling, the AKP’s current constitutional objectives risk exacerbating Turkey's principal lines of social cleavage - religious and ethnic. As a result, despite the long-standing imperative to draft a new, civilian-authored constitution, those interested in democratizing reforms in Turkey would be better served by adopting a more incremental approach. The risks associated with the AKP’s current vision for constitutional revolution are so great that embracing more gradual constitutional evolution (through oppositional coalition politics) is the only available path for preserving hope for democratizing reform.
Turkey’s Constitutional Tradition
Turkey has a long history of constitutionalism, dating back to the first Ottoman constitution of 1876 through to the current constitution, written as part of a transition out of military rule in 1982.1 The constitutional order in Turkey has been described by a prominent Turkish constitutional law scholar as semi-democratic with a number of authoritarian and tutelary features.2 This description accurately captures important characteristics of the Turkish constitutional order: first, it is a highly statist constitution, privileging the prerogatives of the state and “Turkish national interests” ahead of the protection of individual rights, as is evident in the Constitution’s preamble.3 Second, the current constitution, drafted in 1982 as part of a transition away from military rule, created a set of tutelary institutions designed to check the powers of the elected branches of government. These institutions include the National Security Council (with a strong military presence and broad policy-making powers), the Higher Education Board (including representatives of the military in decisions concerning academic appointments and the regulation of higher education), and the judiciary with an appointments procedure that, for the higher echelon courts, is largely controlled by the executive (albeit less so following constitutional amendments in 2010), among others.4 In addition, the Constitution secures significant institutional autonomy for the military and strikingly broad jurisdiction for the military courts.
Beyond these distinctive...