Why the Failure to Draft the Constitution Will Be the Failure of Erdoğan and the AK Parti

 Menderes Çınar* – TURKEY CONSTITUTIONAL WATCH (1.1.2013)

In the 9 December 2012 edition of the Financial Times, Dan Dombley argued that the likelihood of a successful conclusion to Turkey’s constitution-drafting process was shrinking over time, and that such a potential failure would also amount to the failure of Prime Minister Erdoğan, who had promised a new constitution during the 2011 elections. If Dombley’s claim is true, when the constitution process falls apart, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party will, for the first time, be held responsible for a major failure.

The primary factor which has made this change possible has been the notable degree to which Turkey’s paternalistic administrative structures have loosened over the last ten years. Such paternalistic structures had been unaccountable centers of power limiting the Justice and Development Party’s [AK Parti] administrative power from a position outside politics, while at the same time serving as convenient explanations or excuses for the AK Parti’s ambivalence, flip-flopping, and failures. While the tutelary powers were still effective, the AK Parti could, at a time of need, always simply say, “What can we do? Our hands are tied.” Yet by dispersing the traditional sources of power—in its words, by “normalizing Turkish politics”—over the last ten years, the AK Parti has also turned itself into a “normal” party that can be held responsible for its actions and no longer has recourse to the excuse of “tutelage.” Therefore, the fact that the AK Parti was able in 2012 to make the new constitution a common goal of the parliament (something that had been on the radar in 2002), and the fact that it can now be held responsible for the future development of this agenda are actually both a result of this two-pronged normalization process.

At the same time, the AK Parti will most likely not be held responsible for this potential failure in the same way that a “normal” governing party would be. Though the AK Parti was successful in bringing the constitution to the fore as a real item on the agenda, it will also have to bear the responsibility for itself contributing to the negative political climate that is making the realization of this project so difficult. I am referring here to the party’s clear attitude and behavior toward the opposition that began during the 2011 election campaign but remained unchanged even as the necessary steps were taken to kick off the constitution process. The process of drafting the constitution, however, must be based on the principles of negotiation and compromise, for both normative and political reasons: normative because the constitution is a basic law that serves as the state’s contract with society, and practical because the numerical distribution of seats in parliament gives no party, not even the majority AK Parti, enough votes to approve a constitution on its own. A politics of negotiation and compromise does not simply consist of setting up a single commission to discuss the constitution; it requires the party in charge to appreciate the views of all participants as valuable and “normal,” to genuinely listen to what they have to say, and to be willing from the very beginning to change the views and positions they held on day one of the negotiations after listening to opposing or differing viewpoints.

Seen from this perspective, it is possible to argue that the AK Parti leadership sees negotiations and compromise in its dealings with the opposition as “ineffective.” The opposition, they feel, has an “inborn penchant for authoritarianism” and a “dogmatic, intractable mindset.” In being essentialized in this way, the opposition is also being disqualified from participation in the democratic process. This kind of attitude will probably end up either with a political struggle played as a zero-sum game in which only one side can win or with the belief that democracy can only be realized under conditions determined by one side alone. In fact, both of these scenarios lead to the same conclusion: The promised principles of “dialogue, tolerance, and compromise” needed to create a constitution will have been forgotten, and the mutual trust needed for its success will remain undeveloped.

*Associate Professor, Başkent University (Ankara), Department of Political Science and International Relations.