Ataturk’s Ideology Seen Deleted as Turkey Drafts New Charter

  • Erdogan aide says references to any ideology to be removed
  • Ataturk legacy viewed as bedrock of Turkey’s secular structure

A man sells flags of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, near the new mosque at Eminonu district in Istanbul, on June 9, 2016.

Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey’s leaders plan to remove references in the constitution binding public servants to the ideology of the nation’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the state, its principles and institutions under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The prevailing view is that there should be no reference to any specific ideology in the new constitution,” Mehmet Ucum, a chief adviser to Erdogan, said in an interview at the presidential palace in Ankara. “It’s thought to be more appropriate if the constitution’s preamble states that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the founding leader of the Turkish Republic.”

The omission will be controversial in Turkey, where Ataturk’s legacy is viewed as the untouchable bedrock of the mostly Muslim nation’s secularist structure -- and a key reference for its historically close ties to Western democracies. Both Erdogan and the ruling AK Party, which rose from Turkey’s Islamic political movement and have ruled for the past 14 years, have pushed back against parts of a legacy that they view as oppressive and anti-democratic.

Two Portraits

“The founding of the republic became a project of pro-Western, enlightened, modernist nation-building" at the expense of religious people who were branded as fundamentalists and excluded from politics, Ucum said, speaking from an office decorated with a traditional Ataturk portrait facing off against one of Erdogan on the other side of the room. Ucum equated governing modern Turkey according to 20th-century principles with "trying to send an e-mail through a typewriter.”

Under Turkey’s current constitution, lawmakers and the president are required to swear allegiance to a secular state and the "principles and reforms" of Ataturk, who is described as the nation’s “immortal leader and unrivaled hero.” Additional articles of the charter require that the education system develop the nation’s youth according to the principles of Ataturk, who died in Istanbul in 1938.

Just Beginning

The government may spend most of this year working on a new constitution, readying a skeleton draft by July before submitting it for public debate, with a final draft submitted to parliament in December, Ucum said. Erdogan will insist on holding a public referendum on the subject whether or not the ruling party gets the 367 votes necessary to pass it through parliament, he said.

“The constitution is just a beginning,” Ucum said, and the government will screen or change thousands of laws and regulations to reshape the bureaucracy in the five years following a new charter. “Anti-democratic institutions” including Turkey’s judiciary and military still hold the power to pose a "great threat" to elected governments, despite considerable erosion in the AK Party era, he said.

“There is a need to safeguard the system with a new constitution and a presidential system” under Erdogan, who in 2014 became the first person to be publicly elected to that office, Ucum said. Previous presidents were selected by parliament.

Electoral System

The government also plans to change the electoral system, the adviser said. One option would be to divide the nation into 550 regions of equal populations, with voters in each choosing a representative for the 550-seat legislature. Another would be to divide the nation into 450 regions, each with one representative, and appoint another 100 proportionally among political parties that receive at least 1 percent of the national vote.

The powers of local administrations will be strengthened and they’ll have more say in policy making, Ucum said. The people may be given the right to propose legislation to parliament, call for a referendum on a law or dismiss a lawmaker based on performance, he said.

Parliament’s Role

Under a presidential system, lawmakers would focus on legislation and would not be appointed as ministers, he said. The parliament, however, would have strengthened oversight in such a system, including on budget matters, he said. The president could express his view on bills but wouldn’t be able to propose a bill to the legislature himself.

Erdogan knows that under the current system, he could get the ruling party to pass any bill he wanted, Ucum said. "Erdogan is not asking for that," he said. "His insistence on the presidential system is aimed at preventing this system from potentially producing an authoritarian regime."

Requests from some members of the nation’s Kurdish minority for greater local authority could be met via constitutional modifications, though would fall short of demands for regional autonomy, which is "out of the question," Ucum said. Such calls are made "under the provocation of terrorist organizations," he said, in a reference to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and its affiliates.

‘Elitist Fascists’

The constitution will recognize “the right to live in the mother tongue,” said Ucum, a motion that would primarily impact Kurdish speaking citizens who’ve suffered from prohibitions on using their native language in Turkey. “Anyone will have the right to learn and write in their mother tongue.”

"From now on, the new constitution itself is the peace process for all of society in Turkey," he said.

After this story’s publication sparked criticism of the plans to downplay Ataturk’s ideology in the constitution, Ucum responded in a post on Twitter.

"No one should have a monopoly on the Republic and Ataturk," he said. "Both the Republic and Ataturk belong eternally to Turkish society, not to elitist fascists."

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