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Turkey bites the bullet: Jon Gorvett reports from Istanbul on some of the sweeping reforms recently passed by the Turkish parliament. (Current Affairs).

The Turkish parliament has never really been noted for its speed and decisiveness. Yet, following the legislature's protracted summer recess, deputies returned to Ankara in late September to begin passing -- with what seems like miraculous speed -- the most far reaching set of constitutional changes the country has yet seen.

With some 37 amendments to debate, nine had been passed by the end of the first day of business, and a review of the 10th completed. And not only was this achieved rapidly, but it was also pushed through with previously unheard of collaboration in the voting -- far exceeding the two thirds majority


So what happened? Changes to the law on minority rights -- particularly use of minority languages such as Kurdish -- have been resisted for decades by Turkish parliamentarians, as well as other powerful nonparliamentary forces, such as the military.

Yet, 429 deputies voted by 397 votes to 29, with three votes discounted, to remove the phrase "No language prohibited by law shall be used in the expression and dissemination of thought," from Article 26 of the constitution. They then went on to lift the phrase, "Publication shall not be made in any language prohibited by law." This effectively ends the ban on Kurdish, a language spoken by some 12 million Turkish citizens, which has long been one of the major bones of contention between the Turkish State and Kurdish nationalists.

Sizeable majorities were also secured to reduce periods of detention, bringing them into line with the European Convention on Human Rights. There have also been major improvements in freedom of association laws as well as rights to free movement and residence, these include guarantees for the protection of privacy -- including curbs on phone tapping -- and the introduction of search warrants.

The Turkish parliament has, at last, started to push through the kind of legislation necessary to bring Turkey more into line with European Union requirements.

At the time of writing, the constitutional package had still not been fully debated, but commentators were fairly united in their belief that the civil liberties related items in the package would go through with similar speed and unanimity. The one area where harmony stumbled was over capital punishment. Under EU rules, this is prohibited except in time of war. However, the Turkish constitution currently allows the death penalty for "terrorism". The discord was largely the result of pressure from the three-party coalition government's second largest grouping, the far-right National Action Party (MHP), which had been facing a grass roots revolt over moves to abolish the death penalty -- and thereby remove the threat of execution from Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) who has been in a Turkish prison since February 1999.

However, further amendments to the constitution in the economic arena are also likely to hit trouble. There is little unanimity over moves to open up the Turkish economy, which would involve largely removing the State sector -- and its associated system of price support. Privatisation has been held up in the past by constitutional guarantees for state sector industries. Removing these constitutional safeguards may present Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition with more difficult decisions.

Yet for the government to have come this far is something of an achievement. The politically powerful military -- who, in 1982, wrote the constitution that is now being amended -- objected strongly to Ecevit's plan for a quick debate of the package. The generals cautioned that the prime minister was moving too fast and too soon, on rewriting their rules. Yet Ecevit has persisted, and, so far, parliament has followed.

There is immense pressure on Turkey to make substantial changes to its economy -- and thus its political system -- in order to gain accession to the EU on the one hand, and to meet the requirements of international financial institutions on the other.

Following the two connected financial crises of November 2000 and February 2001, Turkey's economic future has become largely tied to International Monetary Fund and World Bank rescue packages. However, this time, far from providing carte blanche loans, the IMF and WB have attached an impressive number of strings to their bail out packages.

Providing a constitutional framework for these largely economic reforms has been tied to the receiving of more international funds -- and is therefore a major component of financial confidence. Without the kind of reforms now being pushed through, investors may regard Turkey as basically unreformable, consequently, the risk of investing money in the country would remain too high for most speculators to consider. As it is, Turkey, a country with a population close to that of Germany, receives less direct foreign investment than Malta.

The consequences of the amendments could be far reaching in other areas, provided they are translated into action on the ground.

There is a certain cynicism in Ankara and elsewhere that the civil liberties now being granted could still be curbed by the invocation of other clauses covering guarantees on "national security".

During the summer, Chief of the General Staff Huseyin Kivrikoglu suggested at a meeting of the all-powerful National Security Council that Turkey simply "cut and paste" regulations on civil liberties from the German or Italian constitutions and present this to the EU.

This is a manoeuvre which has often been executed before in Turkey, for example, with legislation such as the controversial law on forming criminal organisations taken from the Italian criminal code. This law was originally written by Italian judges as a way of combating mafia organisations and made provision for the detention of those suspected of being a member of an organised illegal grouping.

However, in Italy the law was framed within the context of a body of other provisions, which gave those detained considerable rights. When Turkish judges did their "cut and paste" on this, they left out those rights, thereby producing a law giving the police the right to arrest almost anyone. "There is concern that the reforms may not go much further than the paper they're written on," said Istanbul lawyer Pelin Karakaya. "Practice varies widely from one part of the country to another, from one police station to another. A law in Ankara saying it is okay to publish in Kurdish can't be tested though until someone brings out a Kurdish newspaper in Diyarbakir (the capital of Turkey's Kurdish areas) and somebody tries to ban it."

The decision on the death penalty also leaves the future of Abdullah Ocalan -- and several other leading PKK militants who are current on death row in Turkey's jails -- up in the air. With the international climate on "terrorism" being what it is following the attacks in New York on 11 September, it may be that the MHP will now find it much easier to push for their execution. It also raises the question of how close to EU norms the Turkish constitution must be, in order for Brussels to allow Turkey to move to the next stage in its long march towards Europe.

With Turkey's parliamentarians voting to work 12 hour days and weekends, in order to vote the package through, it seems that the next meeting of EU leaders and candidate countries may have something new to ponder in assessing one of its most enthusiastic, yet troublesome applicants.
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Comment:Turkey bites the bullet: Jon Gorvett reports from Istanbul on some of the sweeping reforms recently passed by the Turkish parliament. (Current Affairs).
Author:Gorvett, Jon
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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