x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Turkish court leaves Erdogan's reform package intact

Judges' ruling paves the way for national polls on the constitutional referendum planned for September.

ISTANBUL // Turks are to vote on the most comprehensive overhaul of their country's constitution in decades in a referendum on September 12, after the top court in Ankara rejected an opposition demand to annul the reform package.

In their decision, announced late on Wednesday by Hasim Kilic, the court's president, the judges cancelled several details of the package, which consists of amendments to more than 20 constitutional provisions, but left the bulk of the reforms untouched. The court had limited itself to "a surgical intervention", the Radikal daily newspaper reported yesterday. On the whole, the decision, coming after intense speculation that the court might cancel the whole project, was a victory for the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. The constitutional court, where critics of Mr Erdogan have a majority, struck down several plans of the government in the past and came close to banning Mr Erdogan's ruling party two years ago. But with Wednesday's verdict, Mr Erdogan will be able to implement key reforms if voters back the package, as polls suggest they will.

The verdict is also a possible turning point in the ongoing power struggle between Turkey's secular Kemalist elites, who see themselves as heirs of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and a rising middle class of more pious Turks, led by Mr Erdogan. Parts of the reform package are designed to break the power of Kemalists in the higher echelons of the judiciary. Kemalist organisations voiced disappointment over the ruling.

"The big mistakes have not been corrected; there has only been a small correction," said Emine Ulker Tarhan, head of the Union of Judges and State Prosecutors, or Yarsav, an organisation known for its anti-government positions. Government officials, while criticising the court for striking down some aspects of the package, were happy with the verdict. "I find the decision extraordinarily positive," said Cemil Cicek, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman.

Sadullah Ergin, the justice minister, denied media reports that parliamentary elections, scheduled for next year, may be brought forward to coincide with the referendum. The reform includes provisions to strengthen rights of children, women and handicapped people; to make the state more accountable; and to increase civilian control over the politically powerful military. Another clause lifts the immunity from prosecution shielding ex-generals who led the coup of 1980. By coincidence, the referendum on Sept 12 will be held on the 30th anniversary of the coup.

Most legal experts see Turkey's current constitution, drawn up under military rule in 1982, as undemocratic. But as parties in parliament have been unable to forge a consensus about a new constitution, the Erdogan government says a comprehensive overhaul of the current one is necessary to bring Turkey closer to standards of the European Union, which the country wants to join. Critics, who accuse Mr Erdogan of following a hidden Islamist agenda, say the government is using the reform drive as a pretext to strengthen its grip on such key state institutions as the judiciary.

This is why the Republican People's Party, or CHP, the country's biggest opposition force and political representative of the Kemalists, asked the court to annul the whole package. The judges rejected that demand, focusing on some details touching the judiciary and leaving the rest of the package intact. According to Mr Kilic, a court member seen as close to the government, the judges annulled only three rules, dealing with the selection of members of the constitutional court and of an institution charged with hiring and firing judges and prosecutors.

But they did not challenge major plans for the judiciary that had been criticised by the CHP, such as a provision introducing a right for parliament to elect some constitutional judges. Mrs Tarhan, the head of Yarsav, said most judges of the constitutional court would in effect be selected by the government. "That means the executive branch of government will shape the judiciary," she said. The government plan calls for the number of judges on the constitutional court to be increased to 19 from 11. A parliamentary role in selecting top judges had been cited by critics as an example of Mr Erdogan's efforts to fill posts on the constitutional court with judges loyal to his government.

As a consequence of the verdict, the referendum will turn into a confidence vote on the government. The CHP and the second biggest opposition force in parliament, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, said they would ask their supporters to reject the package. Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Develop Party, or AKP, will campaign for a yes vote. tseibert@thenational.ae