x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'Will we be slaves of nine people?'

Turkey's court has drawn fire for what critics say is an effort to widen power at the expense of the government.

Women protest in front of Turkey's Constitutional Court against a ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in Ankara.
Women protest in front of Turkey's Constitutional Court against a ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in Ankara.

ISTANBULl // Turkey's Constitutional Court has drawn fire for what critics say is an effort to widen its power at the expense of the democratically elected government, fanning a debate about who should have the last word in defining core state values. The row started last week when the court published the reasons behind its verdict to uphold the ban of the Islamic headscarf at universities and its decision to cut public funding for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of Islamist tendencies. Those rulings, handed down in June and July, were serious setbacks for Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative government. The constitutional court is dominated by followers of the Kemalist ideology that calls for a tight state control over Islam. Kemalists, who see themselves as the heirs to the secular values of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, accuse Mr Erdogan and the AKP of wanting to change the republic into an Islamic state, something Mr Erdogan strongly denies. Observers said the court showed a determination to be the highest authority on such key issues as secularism, while also underlining democratic fundamentals. "On one hand, it was an almost juristocratic intervention, saying what secularism means, what freedom means," said Fuat Keyman, a political scientist at Istanbul's Koc University. "But on the other hand, it referred to the EU process and to the need to create a consensus in society." That reference to Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union was crucial in the case against the AKP. The court, while saying with 10 votes to one that Mr Erdogan's party had become a "centre of anti-secular activities", decided against banning the party and opted for financial sanctions instead. Six of the 11 judges voted to dissolve the AKP, one vote less than necessary for a party ban. One of the factors behind that outcome was the AKP government's record of political reforms in recent years, the written verdict said. "Steps for the European Union saved the AKP," the daily newspaper Radikal said in a headline. In the headscarf case, nine of the 11 judges said a parliamentary decision to change the constitution to allow female students to wear the scarf on campus had violated the principle of secularism that is enshrined in the first three articles of the constitution. Those articles cannot be changed, the constitution says. The headscarf ruling is controversial because the constitution also says that the court may only look for formal flaws in parliamentary decisions, but not at the substance. Critics, who include the court's president and another judge who voted against their nine colleagues, said the court had overstepped its own mandate and had limited the right of parliament to make laws. "Will we be slaves of nine people at the constitutional court?" Ahmet Altan, the editor of the daily Taraf newspaper, wrote in a commentary, referring to the nine judges who had voted to keep the headscarf banned. "Will those nine people determine how we dress, how we speak, how we think, how we live?" Mr Erdogan told journalists he strongly disagreed with the reasons behind the headscarf decision. "The Constitutional Court is not above the constitution," he said. "The main tenet of our constitution is that basic rights and freedoms are determined by law, not by interpretation" by the court. Burhan Kuzu, a leading AKP member and head of the constitutional committee of Turkey's parliament, said the court decision could have grave consequence for future constitutional changes that parliament may pass. "There is a high risk that every change we will decide on will then be cancelled," he said in a speech last week. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing National Movement Party, or MHP, called for a parliamentary decision to limit the authority of the constitutional court. The MHP had voted with the AKP in February to end the headscarf ban. Mr Bahceli said the court had used "an authority that was not covered by the constitution" when ruling in the headscarf case and that "parliament's authorities has been attacked". But a move by parliament to clip the court's wings could bring new trouble for the parties that undertake such an enterprise, a leading legal expert of the Kemalist camp warned. Sabih Kanadoglu, a former chief prosecutor, told the Star television channel that any party that limits the rights of the constitutional court to allow the headscarf at universities risks being banned by the court. "If you use religion for politics in such a way, this will lead to you being shut down according to article 64, paragraph four of the constitution," Mr Kanadoglu said, referring to a passage in the constitution that says political parties are not allowed to act "against the democratic and secular Republic". Mr Erdogan, while criticising the reasons behind the court's headscarf decision, has not said if his AKP will support Mr Bahceli's initiative. According to press reports, the AKP is waiting for parliamentary speaker Koksal Toptan to take up Mr Bahceli's suggestion. Even before the court published its decisions, politicians, non-governmental groups and intellectuals had been debating the need for a completely new constitution in Turkey, as the current one was formulated under military rule following a coup in 1980 and allows for the limitation of many basic freedoms. But the chances for a consensus about what a new constitution should look like appear to be slim. "I want to underline how hard it will be after these decisions by the constitutional court to create a new constitution," Mr Kuzu said. "There doesn't seem to be one on the horizon." tseibert@thenational.ae