Apr. 23 marred by debate over popular sovereignty

Thursday, April 24 2008 @ 09:19 AM Central Daylight Time “Sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the people,” reads a big placard hanging on Parliament’s walls in Ankara.

It is reminiscent of the democratic path that Turkey committed itself to nearly nine decades ago, when Parliament was opened in Ankara in defiance of both the Ottoman government in İstanbul and the Allied Forces of World War I, who were then invading Anatolia.

But 88 years after the establishment of Parliament, Turkey still faces an uphill battle to find answers to basic questions such as to whom does sovereignty belong. As Turkish kids enjoyed colorful celebrations for National Sovereignty and Children’s Day across the country, which marks the anniversary of the establishment of Parliament, the country’s politicians and liberal intellectuals were rather dismayed at obstacles that prevent voters from exercising the sovereignty which, in a functioning democracy, rightfully belongs to them.

“The very fact that April 23 is marked as Children’s Day exposes how Turkey’s political regime interprets national sovereignty. It seems it is perceived as a toy to amuse kids,” says Turgay Oğur, a representative of Turkish NGO Young Civilians. In a phone interview with Today’s Zaman, he praised the fact that it was Parliament that fought the battle for national independence back in the 1920s, but lamented that Turkey’s culture of democracy has deteriorated, rather than improved, since then.

Today, two of the four parties represented in Parliament, including the ruling party, which was re-elected by a record high support of 47 percent only nine months ago, are facing closure cases at the Constitutional Court.

Parliamentary representation is likely to receive a serious blow if the court, as is widely expected, eventually rules for closure of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). Whether and to what extent it will be able to exercise national sovereignty on behalf of tens of millions of voters with such a crippled representation remains a serious question.

Before the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals launched the closure cases, Parliament’s constitutional powers to elect the president were also trimmed when the Constitutional Court ruled in a highly controversial verdict last year that the vote was invalid because Parliament should have convened with a two-thirds quorum in order to begin voting on the president. Before the court invalidated the first round of voting for the president — a sweeping “yes” for former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül — the military, which has a history of interventions in civilian politics through coups, memorandums and behind-the-scenes pressure exerted on political actors, issued a powerful statement on its Web site that was widely interpreted as the most technology-friendly intervention by the military to date and said it would intervene if the presidential election process continues to undermine the principle of secularism.

“This Parliament has never been the people’s Parliament. It has traditionally been the state’s Parliament,” said Mehmet Altan, a columnist for the Star daily. “Just look at the coups that dissolved parliaments and guided the course of civilian politics throughout the past decades.”

His answer to the question of who exercises sovereignty is “the military and politicians ready to do politics in the way that pleases the military.” Kurds, who complain frequently about discrimination, also air grave concerns over whether sovereignty is exercised by the people or the state bureaucracy. “We are not full of joy today,” says head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association Sezgin Tanrıkulu, referring to a popular poem which says April 23 brings joy to the souls of everyone. “Popular sovereignty would have meaning only if citizens of all ethnic backgrounds felt they belonged to the republic. I believe such bonds between Kurds and the republic are rather weak. The word ‘sovereignty’ reminds them of state oppression.” The problem of being prevented from exercising sovereignty is particularly acute for the Kurds. The AK Party and the DTP, with their votes combined, represent a big majority of the population of southeastern Anatolia, according to the results of the July 22 elections. Closure of the two parties will leave Kurds without a voice in Parliament. But according to Tanrıkulu, a certain segment of the Kurdish population that is not aligned with either the AK Party or the DTP is already feeling alienated, and something must be done to address their grievances. Kurdish intellectual Ümit Fırat complains that Kurds were excluded in later stages of the republic. “When Parliament was first established, they were included. But after a short while, they were left aside, as if they had never participated in the process and as if they pose a threat,” he told Today’s Zaman.

Democracy and supervision

The atmosphere yesterday was tense in Parliament, which hosted a special session to mark the 88th anniversary of its establishment and National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visibly avoided shaking hands with DTP officials.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal argued in his speech that it is the Constitution and the law that lie at the heart of legitimacy of governments and that elections alone are not enough for a functioning democracy. “Uncontrolled force is no force,” he said, defending supervision by state bodies of elected governments. “No election frees a government from the responsibility to respect the legal order and the Constitution.”

Prime Minister Erdoğan, on the other hand, differed with Baykal on the source of legitimacy and said the source was the people. “We have to defeat all threats via democracy. … There is no alternative in the contemporary world that would replace democracy. Efforts to denigrate democratic politics should be condemned as outdated.”

“There is only one power that is above Parliament and this is the people,” Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan said, calling on everyone to avoid moves that would undermine Parliament. “Parliament is the only place we can solve our problems,” he said. Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt and other top commanders of the military attended a ceremony ahead of the special session but were absent during the session, which lasted nearly two hours.


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