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Yes is a four-letter word

A referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey is splitting the country in two

by Peter Grimsditch

Campaigning for this month’s referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey has not only aroused the expected political passions, but also reduced an Istanbul bride to tears on her wedding day.

If the proposals are approved, Parliament for the first time will be involved in appointing members of the Constitutional Court. Three of the 17 members would be elected by a parliamentary majority, effectively allowing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to select candidates.

The AKP sees the Constitutional Court as an elitist, undemocratic hangover from the days of military coups. The party’s spokesmen say that reforms will modernize the judicial system and bring the country into line with European Union recommendations. Anything that helps Turkey’s tortuous accession to the EU must be a good thing, they argue. Well, not quite, according to referendum opponents, who come from almost every quarter except the AKP.

Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), argues that a two-thirds majority should be mandated since this would broaden the parliamentary views required to elect a member of the court. He is also concerned that the opportunity has been missed to remove the Minister of Justice from the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which would emphasize the separation of powers between politicians and the judiciary.

But more important than any high-flown political philosophy is one of few things shared by both the AKP and the CHP — deep mutual mistrust. The AKP could correctly point to the use of the Constitutional Court by the opposition as a tool to stymie moves that it doesn’t like but is unable to stop through democratic parliamentary means, such as the election of President Abdullah Gül. The opposition, meanwhile, suspects the AKP of having ulterior motives.

The AKP controls parliament and the presidency, leaving only the Constitutional Court free from its direct influence. In 2008, the court considered imposing a five-year exclusion from politics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, Gül and around 70 AKP members of parliament for Islamic activity incompatible with the constitution. The verdict was little more than a finger-wagging but it increased the AKP’s mistrust of the court, whose membership it now wants to broaden.

Voters are split down the middle. An opinion poll last month said 50.9 percent are opposed to the reforms, with 49.1 percent in favor — a marginal increase in the ‘anti’ vote from a poll conducted in July.

The referendum will be a harbinger for next year’s parliamentary polls, so winning has a huge secondary significance. But, according to Hurriyet Daily News, that clearly was not on the mind of Fatma Ormanc? last month. Despite being head of the AKP’s Women’s Branch in Beykoz, a district of Istanbul, Ormanc? was on a day off from politics when local mayor Yücel Çelikbilek performed her son’s wedding ceremony.

Çelikbilek, also an AKP supporter, received the traditional three replies of “evet” (yes) from the bride and groom, before adding: “I expect you to say ‘yes’ on September 12, too.” The bride’s father squared up to the mayor to complain about turning his daughter’s wedding into a political meeting. At one point, wedding guests intervened to keep the dispute from escalating into a fight. Even Ormanc? was not happy with the mayor’s political ad lib (she was also furious with the behavior of her son’s new father-in-law.)

The near-brawl in Beykoz followed a more peaceful nuptial political stunt 24 hours earlier in the distinctly secular confines of Izmir on the Aegean coast. Ediz Tat?, son of a local CHP mayor, and his bride, Vildan Sever, opted to say ‘I accept’ instead of the ‘evet’ increasingly visible on AKP supporters’ baseball caps.

Deniz Baykal, former head of the CHP and a fierce advocate of a ‘no’ vote, praised the couple’s refusal to say ‘yes’, even to each other.

A lawyer said the ceremony was binding as no law dictates brides and grooms must use the word “evet”. ?lkhan Elçin was quoted in Hurriyet as saying: “Marriage depends on being in front of a registrar, signing the book and expressing that you want to marry in an open way that everyone can understand.”

Marriages may be agreed to in an “open way that everyone can understand,” but that’s more than can be said for the upcoming referendum.

PETER GRIMSDITCH is Executive’s

Istanbul correspondent

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