A Reform Bill for Turkey

The referendum on political and judicial reform which had held Turkey in a state of tension has been decisively resolved in favor of the ruling AK Party of Prime Minister Erdogan. The vote, covering 26 amendments to the Turkish constitution, went a surprisingly confident 58%-42% in favor of the reform, which has widely been interpreted as a strong vote of confidence in the government. This despite the continuous obstructions to various reform proposals on the part of the AKP by the nationalist clique controlling the Turkish judiciary and much of its civil service, including a injunction by the constitutional court against legalizing the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public places such as universities. The previous Turkish constitution of 1980 itself had been created after a military coup by nationalist forces ushered in an almost 20 year uninterrupted rule of this section of Turkish society, which is strongly reliant on the military, the Turkish bourgeoisie (centered largely in Istanbul) and its intelligentsia. The democratic legitimacy of the successive nationalist governments can be highly doubted despite their veneer of liberalism and their appeals to the liberal West, in particular with an eye to the repeated attempts (some successful) to ban any opposing party which threatened to be too successful and did not support their lines on the religion question or the Kurdish one.

It is for that reason that contrary to the situation in most countries, this victory by the islamic-democratic AKP (by analogy to the continental christian-democrats) must be applauded and seen as a step forward for Turkey itself and its international position. It is an encouraging sign also that the European Commission has lauded the vote in favor; for many years the nationalist CHP and its allies have attempted to garner support for their increasingly untenable position by threatening Western observers with the spectre of ‘islamism’ in the shape of their opponents. That this has been successful for so long is a product of the simple ignorance about affairs in the greater Middle East prevailing in Europe and America combined with a typical willingness on the part of these nations to shut their eyes to any repression perpetrated by conveniently ‘liberal’ governments in strategic locations. Far from implementing some far-fetched attempt at restoring religious rule as under the Caliphs, the referendum proposals include significant democratic reforms aimed at undercutting the military’s stranglehold on politics. The judiciary is brought more under political control and military courts’ unrestricted rule over political cases is ended – and in a country with a judiciary already so heavily politicized, a political shift within this branch in favor of the group clearly supported by a majority of Turks can only be a healthy thing. The reforms also propose further measures to improve the socio-economic position of women, which ought to be a question of far greater concern to foreign observers than the outward symbolism of the headscarf, even if it is a symbol of religious backwardness. The massive turnout, estimated at some 80%, is another strong sign of the willingness of the Turkish people to make their decisions themselves rather than having a bourgeois-military caste make it for them as has been the case hitherto. The experience of the Latin American nations with such military ‘reformism’ has shown how brittle its progressive powers are and how strong the tendency to self-aggrandizement and corruption.

This is not to say that the AKP and its proposals are the final word for Turkey on its further course. One important question is that of the Kurdish minority within Turkish borders, and the AKP has not shown any willingness to improve their position, nor to cease the constant border invasions into Iraq in order to suppress Kurdish ‘militant’ activity in that country’s autonomous Kurdish province. On the other hand, one thing conveniently overlooked by the bourgeois Radicals supporting the Kemalist party is the fact that the CHP traditionally also has vastly more nationalist and annexationist positions on the other major ‘foreign questions’ Turkey faces, such as Greece, Cyprus, and the Armenians. It is the nationalists, not the AKP, who muzzle and murder the Armenian voices in Turkey and who maintain a warlike posture over the enclave in Cyprus. Any progressive worth their salt must see these aspects of Turkish nationalism as at least as significant as its commitment to laïcité. After all, there is good reason to hope that this referendum result is just one step on a long road towards real popular power in Turkey, and with greater freedom and development the religious urge should lessen. That way, Turkey can veer safely between the Scylla of aggressive nationalism and the Charybdis of religious romanticism toward a secular and democratic future.

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