Battle over constitutional reforms in Turkey may bring early election

Government's constitutional reform package is attempt to roll back secular state, say critics, and may end with ruling party being banned.

AKP legislators vote for constitutional reform in Ankara last week.
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ISTANBUL // A fight over wide-ranging constitutional changes pushed through parliament by the religiously conservative government could mean early elections and a new attempt to close down the ruling party. Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, and his aides are considering a package of almost 30 constitutional amendments passed by parliament last week with the majority of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The package includes a plan to reform the justice system, an initiative that AKP critics say is an unconstitutional power grab. Despite the criticism, it is widely expected that the president will sign the reform package and open the way for a referendum on the amendments to be held in July.

Murat Belge, a leader of Turkey's democracy movement, wrote in the independent Taraf newspaper: "Every day, we get closer to an atmosphere of 'let's see who is stronger'." Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, was reported to have told AKP deputies before the vote in parliament: "We will either write history or become history." Although the package includes some amendments that could have found overwhelming support in the chamber, the biggest opposition party boycotted the vote in protest against the AKP's plans for judicial reform.

Critics say the AKP and its followers are a threat to the modern state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Tansel Colasan, a former prosecutor in Turkey's highest administrative court and a known government critic, said the AKP's plans were an effort to "get even with 87 years of republic", according to Turkish media reports yesterday. If the amendments became law, "Ataturk's republic will end", she said.

Though it has a decisive majority in parliament, the AKP has seen several key initiatives stopped by the judiciary. In 2008, the constitutional court annulled a bill aimed at ending the ban on Islamic headscarves at universities. This year, the AKP was irked by the decision of the HSYK, a panel of the judiciary known for its anti-government stance, to fire a prosecutor who was investigating an alleged coup attempt against the government. Now the AKP says the constitutional court and the HSYK need to be reformed. Critics say the government wants to control the judiciary.

The constitutional court in Ankara will play a central role in the struggle. The court is likely to be asked by the opposition to annul the reform package, and it may also be presented with a new demand to close down the AKP. By insisting on the judicial reform despite warnings from the opposition and members of the judiciary, the AKP has sealed its fate, some critics say. "It will certainly be banned," Ms Colasan said about the ruling party. The constitutional court came close to closing down the AKP two years ago, and the prosecutor general is said to be keen to have another go.

This is why the end of two weeks of heated parliamentary debates about the reform bill is not seen as the end of the affair. "The real struggle is starting now," wrote Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the Radikal newspaper. Yetkin said that even though the AKP was ruling out early elections before the next parliamentary poll scheduled for next year, things could change rapidly if the constitutional court stops the AKP's amendment package. "Do not rule out early elections," he wrote.

Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, which is the political home of the traditional elites, has said it will ask the constitutional court to throw out the package as soon as the president signs it and preparations for the referendum begin. That verdict may come within weeks. The debate about what the court may do has already started. The law says the constitutional court must only look at possible formal flaws when checking constitutional amendments passed by parliament. If the court stops the referendum, a court speaking in the name of the nation would deny the nation a chance to speak, Nazli Ilicak, a columnist and former parliamentary deputy, wrote in the pro-government Sabah newspaper yesterday, summing up the kind of message she thinks would be sent by such a verdict. " 'Just leave the nation aside for a moment; it is not smart enough anyway. Leave it to me to pass judgment in the name of the nation'," she wrote.