Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The First Round Begins

The constitutional amendment package cleared a critical hurdle after an 18-hour session in which the CHP made multiple efforts to stall parliamentary debate on the amendments. From Hurriyet Daily News:

Parliament’s General Assembly was the scene of tactical battles until the early hours Tuesday morning, when the government’s constitutional reform package avoided rejection, receiving just three more than the minimum votes required to proceed.

The package received 333 votes, allowing Parliament to move forward and discuss its individual articles in more detail. Four votes that are thought to have come from independent deputies pushed the package over the 330-vote threshold.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said discussion on the proposed amendments would continue even if it takes a month, while Republican People’s Party, or CHP, chief Deniz Baykal leveled harsh criticism against the government.

The CHP’s insistent demands to take the roll and its attempts to introduce motions increased tension in the General Assembly and delayed the start of the session.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, plans to discuss three articles of the package each day over the next nine days, except for the official holiday April 23, in order to finalize the parliamentary discussions.

The CHP, the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, and the Democratic Left Party, or DSP, did not participate in the voting process; the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, joined to vote against the package. Overall, 410 deputies voted on the package; 73 of them cast “no” votes, two abstained from voting and two left their votes blank.

Two articles of the amendments, concerning affirmative action for women and children and the protection of personal data and privacy, were adopted in the first day’s 18-hour marathon of discussions, with the first getting 336 votes and the second 337 votes.
The amendment process as laid out in the constitution, requires two rounds of voting and debate. For more on the process, see April 16 post.

UPDATE I (4/21) -- The CHP has announced that it has gained the support of the necessary 100 MPs needed to file for the constitutional amendments' annulment at the Constitutional Court. The support comes from seven independent MPs and six MPs from the DSP. From Today's Zaman:

The main opposition party is now planning to make three separate applications to the top court for the annulment of the planned amendments to the Constitution. The party will base its arguments for the first appeal on the alleged violation of parliamentary bylaws when the package was being voted in Parliament. The party does not have to gather the support of 110 deputies for such an appeal.

A tug-of-war among deputies over the violation of bylaws wasted five hours in Parliament on Monday, delaying the voting process. CHP deputies claimed that Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Şahin had violated parliamentary bylaws when opening the articles of the constitutional package to debate.

The CHP also plans to apply to the Constitutional Court if the ruling AK Party takes the planned amendments to a referendum. In such a case, the main opposition party will ask the top court for a stay on the referendum. Such a move may prevent the government from holding the expected referendum for several months, according to observers.

The CHP’s third appeal to the Constitutional Court against the constitutional amendments will target both the content and procedural grounds of the reform package. The party will argue that the amendments violate the principle of the separation of powers in Turkey. CHP members who are experts in law are now trying to decide when to file the petitions with the top court. Though the party is willing to apply to the Constitutional Court once the reform package is approved in Parliament, such a move faces the risk of rejection by the top court.

In the meantime, CHP parliamentary group deputy chairman Kemal Anadol complained on Tuesday about deputies casting their votes on the constitutional amendments publicly in Parliament and said his party would take the issue to the Constitutional Court. Deputies are supposed to use secret ballots on the amendments.

According to analysts, Turkey will be dragged into an atmosphere of chaos if the Constitutional Court decides on a stay for the referendum based on an appeal from the CHP. In such a case, the ruling AK Party will most probably play its final trump card and call for early parliamentary elections. The elections will also have a decisive impact on the referendum.

There is also the possibility of the Constitutional Court only nullifying certain articles of the constitutional reform package. For instance, the court may rule against the changes to the structure of the Constitutional Court and the HSYK.

On the other hand, if the court rejects the CHP’s expected appeals against the reform package, Turkey will hold a referendum on the constitutional amendments early in July.
For a summary of the amendments from Bianet (in two parts), click here and here.

UPDATE II (4/23) -- The amendment pertaining to the closure of political parties cleared parliament with 337 votes after gaining support from five members of the BDP (Perivan Buldan, Sebahat Tuncel, Ayla Akat Ata, Hamit Geylani, and Bengi Yıldız). The BDP deputies said the AKP had called them to vote, and said they would be willing to render their assistance again if a similar gesture was made.

UPDATE III (4/25) -- Amendments to four articles were passed yesterday, including amendments to a judicial body supervising the Military Supreme Council (YAS), which now has the exclusive authority to dismiss officers (this power has largely been used against suspected Islamists/Islamist-sympathizers; the amendment excludes YAS decisions that force military personnel to retire due to promotion procedures and the absence of tenure). From Hurriyet Daily News:

Other articles approved on Saturday included the article 13, which grants public servants the right to collective bargaining with regard to their financial and social rights as well as article 14, which grants the public the right to apply to courts over censure or warning punishments they face in their workplaces.

Another article passed in Parliament was the reform package’s 15th article, which says justice services and supervision of prosecutors with regard to their administrative duties will be carried out by Justice Ministry inspectors.
UPDATE IV (4/26) --The amendment pertaining to the restructuring of the Constitutional Court, the most controversial of the package, passed parliament by just one vote yesterday, raising concerns in the AKP. Other amendments passed on Sunday cleared the way for military officers to be tried in civilian courts and restricted the trial of civilians in military courts except in times of war.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin extended an offer to the CHP to separate the three most controversial articles of the package -- those on the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), and the closure of political parties -- from the rest, allowing them to be voted on individually. In exchange, Ergin expects the CHP to drop its pledges to challenge the amendments at the Constitutional Court. The CHP strongly rejected the offer.

It will be interesting to see if a combination of the CHP's recalcitrance and the AKP's increasing anxiety might bring it into consensus with the BDP, the demands of which the AKP has been unwilling to meet. The BDP, along with the DSP (with which consensus is also possible, but even more unlikely) wants the 10 percent threshold parties must meet in national elections in order to enter parliament to be dropped. The party also wants more Treasury funding, and along with the CHP, has argued that the closure of political parties should be guided by the Venice criteria, which sanction closure only in cases in which the party has used or advocated violence. On the last point, the AKP has rejected arguments from bothe the CHP and the AKP, arguing that criteria for closing a party should take into account the unique circumstances of Turkey. Under the current article on politcal party closures, parties may be closed for "independence of the state, integrity of the state and the nation, national sovereignty, and democratic and secular principles." Under the Venice Commission's criteria, "Prohibition or enforced dissolution of political parties may only be justified in the case of parties which advocate the use of violence or use violence as a political means to overthrow the democratic constitutional order, thereby undermining the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. The fact alone that a party advocates a peaceful change of the Constitution should not be sufficient for its prohibition or dissolution."

Chairwoman of the Delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee Helene Flautre comments in Today's Zaman about the value of the constitutional amendment package to Turkey's EU accession process, arguing that the package will democratize Turkish institutions despite the government's piecemeal approach.

UPDATE V (4/27) -- Monday saw four more amendments passed, including the article which empowers the Constitutional Court to try the General Staff, force commanders, and the Speaker of the Parliament in cases where these offials abuse their power (Article 148 of the constitution,a nd Article 19 of the amendment package). Amendments to the same article also allow individuals to petition the Constitutional Court once all other remedies have been sought, a crucial step given recent criticism from the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. From Hurriyet Daily News:

Along with Article 19, three other articles were passed in Monday’s session, including Article 20, which brings changes to Article 149 of the Constitution that regulates the working and judging procedures of the top court. Article 20 passed with 338 votes in favor and 70 against. In line with the change, the Constitutional Court will function as two separate departments.

Article 21 received 338 votes in favor and 70 against, while article 22 garnered 335 votes in favor and 70 against. Article 21 changes Article 156 of the Constitution, regulating the disciplinary procedures and personal rights of the military Supreme Court of Appeals. Article 22 concerns members of the supreme military administrative court.
UPDATE VI (4/29) -- The first round of voting ended today, preparing way for the second and new opportunities for compromise. The CHP remains firmly opposed to the package and has expressed optimism that the amendments pertaining to the Constitutional Court will fail in the second round, abrogating the need to go to the Constitutional Court for annulment. Hurriyet Daily News provides a recap of the past two weeks.

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