With no military pressure, work on Turkey's new constitution begins

There is no accord among major political parties about how the new constitution, the fourth since 1923, should be worded.

Politicians and the parliament's speaker, Cemil Cicek, rear centre, argue at the parliament in Ankara in February this year. A lack of consensus over the wording of the new constitution suggests more volatility is likely in parliament today, and that whatever is produced may be a stop-gap document.
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ISTANBUL // Turkish politicians will officially begin work on a new constitution in Ankara today, the first time in almost 100 years that the process will be free from military pressure.

"We need a constitution that our nation can have complete ownership of," Cemil Cicek, the parliamentary speaker, said in Ankara yesterday. He said the preparatory phase of gathering views and suggestions for the new basic law was coming to an end.

"Starting tomorrow, we will enter the second phase, shaping the new constitution according to the expectations, will and views of our people," Mr Cicek said. "Different views" between political parties should be expected, he said.

The consensus among politicians in a special-constitutional commission led by Mr Cicek is that the current constitution, which was written under military rule in 1982 and contains many restrictions of basic rights such as freedom of speech, is holding back Turkey, a rising power in the region.

But there is no accord among major political parties about how the new constitution, which would be the country's fourth since 1923 when the republic was founded, should be worded. As a result, political differences could force politicians to settle for a stop-gap text that will not last for more than a few years, some analysts have said.

"The lack of consensus could lead to a provisional constitution that contains just the basic common denominators and that will be revised again in about five years or so," Beril Dedeoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Galatasaray University, said yesterday.

A parliamentary commission, made up of three members of each of the four parties represented in parliament and presided over by Mr Cicek, has gathered the opinions of thousands of people - from experts to everyday citizens - since October. Commission members have also looked at the constitutions of 60 other countries. "It is the first time that a new constitution in Turkey is being created with input from the population," Mr Cicek said.

The office of Atilla Kart, a commission member from the opposition, said yesterday politicians were scheduled to meet with representatives from different organisations late into the night to hear their demands, and that it was unclear when the actual process of writing could begin. The new constitution is scheduled to be ready by the end of the year, with voters having the last word about the document in a referendum.

The current constitution, written two years after a military coup in 1980, replaced one that also had been drafted after a military takeover in 1960.

Political reforms introduced in recent years have produced new civil and penal codes for the country and have clipped the political role of the military, but the constitution has remained in force, despite several changes.

Finding common ground for a new one will be difficult, observers have predicted.

"Now the real problems will start," Mithat Sancar, a law professor at Ankara University, said yesterday. "Positions between parties on some issues are far apart."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said last week his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wanted a constitution that "puts the citizen first, not the state". But the opposition suspects that the AKP will try to use the process to cement Mr Erdogan's hold on power. His support for a radical change from a parliamentary to a French-style presidential system with wide-ranging powers for the head of state has stoked concerns about his motives among opposition supporters.

There is also disagreement on the commission concerning minority rights. The views of the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), which represents Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds, clash with those of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which warns of a threat to national unity if minorities get too much self-rule.

The secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) wants to keep explicit references to modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his secular legacy in the constitution, a demand opposed by many in Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative AKP.

Ms Dedeoglu, the political scientist in Istanbul, said all parties taking part in the talks would work hard to keep the constitutional process from breaking down to avoid being blamed by voters during the next general elections, scheduled for 2016.

"That way, instead of everybody saying 'I want this and that to be in the constitution', everybody may say 'If we leave this out, we can leave that out as well'," Ms Dedeoglu said. The result would be a thin constitution with a minimum consensus on some core issues that could be overhauled again in the coming years. "It won't be done in one go," she said.

Mr Sancar also said a provisional constitution was a realistic option. "Given the political differences, it will not be easy to write a constitution that deals with problems in detail," he said.

He said politicians should engage in an "open argument" about the long-standing Kurdish conflict and other problems so that the public had a chance to see where a consensus was possible and where divisions remained.

"That process is very important," Mr Sancar said. "It will show how far we have come as a society when it comes to democracy."