Turkey in uphill battle to meet EU rules

To fulfill an EU demand, Turkey's prime minister wants to set up all-party talks to hammer out a more democratic constitution.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech as he campaigns ahead of the March 29 local elections in central Anatolian city of Sivas February 13, 2009. Turkey's government will resume talks with the opposition on drafting a new civilian constitution after March 29 local elections, Erdogan said on Friday.    REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout (TURKEY).  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. *** Local Caption ***  ANK01_TURKEY-ERDOGA_0213_11.JPG
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ISTANBUL // In a new effort to fulfil a key demand by the European Union, Turkey's prime minister says he wants to set up all-party talks to hammer out a more democratic constitution for the country, but he is facing an uphill struggle to convince his critics that this time he really means it. "We will start that effort in April," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. The speaker of the Turkish parliament, Koksal Toptan, a member of Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, told the Sabah newspaper this week he would try to get negotiations with party leaders under way after local elections scheduled for March 29. A new constitution or a comprehensive overhaul of the present one would be a powerful symbol for democratic change in this predominantly Muslim but secular country of 70 million people, and would also offer a vision of what sort of country modern Turkey aspires to be. The current constitution was put into place after the last military coup of 1982, and some critics say the text contains so many restrictions of basic rights that it has to be scrapped altogether. EU officials have said constitutional reform is one of the most important issues on Turkey's agenda this year. "By the time we have changed another 20 to 30 articles, the name 'army constitution' or 'constitution of 82' may still be around, but with view to the content, it will have turned into a civilian constitution," Burhan Kuzu, chairman of the constitutional commission in Turkey's parliament, told journalists. But although there is a broad consensus that Turkey needs a new basic law as it proceeds on its path towards membership of the European Union, there is much less agreement on what a new constitution should look like, who should write it and who should vote on it. Fresh from a resounding election victory, Mr Erdogan angered the opposition in late 2007 when he asked a team of experts to write a draft for a new constitution. The secular opposition saw the initiative as a sign that the AKP, which has roots in political Islam, is trying to undermine the republic. Although Mr Erdogan promised to publish the draft and discuss it with other parties and organisation, he has not done so. This time, things will be different, senior AKP officials promise. Mr Kuzu, of the constitutional commission, said he was ready to work on changes to the current constitutions or write a completely new constitution with his colleagues. By introducing a new Kurdish television station, by appointing Turkey's first EU minister in charge of accession talks and by visiting Brussels for the first time in five years, Mr Erdogan has signalled since the start of the new year that his government wishes to return to the reform process that won it international praise between 2003 and 2005. Officials say the AKP is reaching out to the opposition to get an agreement on constitutional changes, even though it has the power to muscle through constitutional amendments with the help of its 338 deputies and of smaller allies in parliament. "It is numerically possible to change the constitution without the main opposition party, but changing the constitution is not a matter of majorities in parliament, it is a matter of agreement," said Cemil Cicek, the deputy prime minister. Mr Cicek was referring to the Republican People's Party, or CHP, the biggest opposition group in parliament and Turkey's main secular party. Earlier constitutional amendments pushed through by the AKP heightened the CHP's suspicion that the ruling party wants to change Turkey's secular order. One of those amendments, a decision to lift the headscarf ban, was cited in a trial against the AKP before the constitutional court, which came close to banning the ruling party last year. If the first CHP reactions to the AKP's overtures are anything to go by, the government will have to try harder to get the opposition to join talks. "It is not on the CHP's agenda to agree on constitutional changes with a government that has been identified as a focal point of anti-secular activities by the constitutional court," Hakki Suha Okay, a leading CHP official, told the Turkish news agency Anadolu. The current constitution has been amended several times in recent years to bring Turkey closer to the EU. In many cases the AKP government and the CHP worked together, but that bipartisan spirit has gone. In parliament, the CHP has refused to participate in commissions debating further constitutional changes. The CHP may come under pressure to return to the table, however. Mr Cicek said the government wanted at least to pass constitutional amendments that are vital for progress on the EU front. One planned amendment concerns the constitutional framework for an ombudsman system as an instrument for citizens to scrutinise administrative decisions. The EU wants Turkey to introduce the system, so the CHP could risk appearing like a naysayer that puts party politics over what is good for the country. But even if the CHP changes its mind, the opposition and the government may find it hard to agree on a whole new constitution and may settle for less. "They may end up with some changes, but I don't think there will be a consensus on a completely new constitution," said Erdal Kabatepe, the chairman of the EU-Turkey Co-operation Association, a pro-European lobby group. tseibert@thenational.ae