Turkish opposition: Erdo?an is authoritarian and un-European

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Turkey needs to modernise its constitution but some of the government's reform proposals would seriously undermine the independence of the judiciary, Kader Sevinç of the main Turkish opposition party told EURACTIV in an interview, accusing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an of showing "authoritarian" and "un-European" behaviour.

Kader Sevinç is the Brussels-based representative to the EU of CHP, the Republican People’s Party. Led by Deniz Baykal, the CHP is a social democratic and secular political force, the second biggest party in Turkey and the main opposition party in parliament.

She was speaking to Paul Hutchison.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What is the position of the Turkish Republican People's Party (CHP) towards the constitutional reform package recently submitted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the Turkish parliament? The AKP needs the support of other parties on the proposals as it lacks the required two-thirds majority.

The CHP is a European social democratic party that has been promoting radical democratic and social reforms in Turkey. In this respect, we have been asking for a comprehensive modernisation of Turkey's constitutional order. We need a shorter constitution focusing on the basic values, principles, rights and responsibilities of a modern European democracy. It has to be an innovative constitution, not only for Turkey but also for all world democracies.

The CHP's priorities are human rights, separation of powers, checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judiciary authorities, secularism, gender equality, social rights, the green economy, the information society, growth and jobs.

Turkey's current constitution was set up following the 1980 military coup. The AKP proposal is being described as a more 'civilian' constitution, with more basic freedoms, reduced powers for the Supreme Military Council and less independence for the judiciary. What are the CHP's views on these points?

27 out of 30 proposals in the current draft are similar to the CHP's previous proposals. For example, as a party that suffered a lot from the military interventions of the past, CHP was the first to propose the necessary amendment permitting the trial of the generals who were behind the 1980 military coup. Thus, an irreversible jurisprudence would be set to enhance civilian democracy in Turkey. We have already declared our readiness to approve these amendments by fast-track.

But as you emphasise, there are three amendments that seriously undermine the independence and the impartiality of the judiciary, increasing the already problematic influence of the executive on the system of nomination and promotion of judges and prosecutors. This is also a matter of debate in many other European countries.

CHP's positions are all based on the reports by the relevant bodies of the Council of Europe. We believe that Turkey should find the right system of separation of powers, avoiding the current authoritarian trends and promoting an atmosphere of political compromise and public confidence.

Prime Minister Erdo?an stated that the constitutional changes have no purpose other than to promote Turkish membership of the EU. Would the proposed reforms indeed help to speed up this process? Some European legislators have welcomed the proposals.

The European Parliament's Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group supports the CHP's position on the importance of secularism, a civilian government and the separation of powers for a democratic constitution. Many other members of the European Parliament, several media reports and academic opinions are also of this line.

Moreover, as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and statements by the president of the European Parliament's S&D group underline, the AKP government's attempt to take all the constitutional changes to a referendum as a package is undemocratic.

On Monday (3 May), the Turkish parliament rejected an article in the constitutional reform package that would have made it harder to ban political parties. As it didn't receive enough votes, the article has now been dropped from the package. What is your reaction to the vote? Were you surprised that a number of AKP MPs voted against it?

The AKP has many jurists among its ranks and many of them have probably been uncomfortable with the legal dilemmas created by this rejected proposal for this constitutional amendment. A majority of the Turkish electorate wants amendments to prevent corruption and foster human rights and democracy, and not political manoeuvres for individual politicians' interests.

It is also possible that more and more AKP deputies are concerned with the authoritarian and un-European behaviour of Prime Minister Erdo?an and his undemocratic statements – such as recently advising a Turkish child that "as prime minister one can do anything, including executing or cutting into pieces any person as you wish".

Is the CHP entirely happy with the current law on banning parties? Is it key to the secular state?

No, this would be a simplistic assessment of Turkey's current political context. Of course, as the president of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, stated in a joint press conference with CHP President Mr Baykal on 13 April in Brussels, "secularism is an essential pillar of democracy". The CHP is a European social democratic party proposing a constitution for Turkey that is fully in line with the Copenhagen political criteria.

This is why we have been asking the AKP government to opt for a wide, democratic consultation seeking an atmosphere of social compromise and political consensus to pave the way towards a new, modern, progressive and innovative constitution.

Unfortunately, the AKP unilaterally introduced a series of amendments which may result in an unbalanced legal situation harming the independence and the impartiality of the judiciary. The rejected article was creating such a situation, boosting an authoritarian government style and making it impossible for the judiciary to intervene if, for example, a political party organises paramilitary groups.

The EU has been somewhat critical of the law on political parties – almost 20 parties have been banned since 1982. Do you think that the rejection will have implications for Turkey's EU membership bid?

The banning of political parties is a problem of democratic culture and the interpretation of laws. The current legislation can certainly be reformed, but not in the way proposed by the AKP government – replacing problems with more problems. The methodology and substance proposed by the CHP for a modern European Turkish constitution would make these problems irrelevant anyway.

Do you expect the reforms on judges and prosecutors and the Constitutional Court to be voted in? Will the CHP appeal to the courts to have these amendments annulled if this happens?

If there are any illegal or undemocratic amendments voted by a government, it is the duty of the opposition to appeal to the Constitutional Court. CHP's position on this issue is in line with the relevant bodies of the Council of Europe.

Relations between the executive and the judiciary are also a problem and a matter of debate in many EU countries. Turkey has to be creative and find an effective and efficient balance between the executive, legislative and judiciary powers. Most important of all, if the majority of the Turkish public loses confidence in the judiciary because of the political domination tools proposed by the AKP, then the whole democratic system would be in serious crisis.

This is why the CHP has been asking for a rational methodology as proposed by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, to modify the constitution on the basis of a comprehensive public consultation and national compromise referring to European values.

Polls suggest that public support for Erdo?an's AKP is as high as 40%, while the CHP only gained 21% of the vote in the last national elections. Why is public support for the CHP this low? Is it in touch with young Turkish voters?

As of 26 April, latest polls show that the AKP has around 29% of the vote and the CHP has around 26%. In any case, polls and public opinion may change. An overwhelming majority of the Turkish electorate with higher education or belonging to the working class vote for the CHP. Parties which try to rely on religious sentiments or the distribution of electoral gifts may gain ground from time to time, but it is CHP's duty to communicate better the realities and challenges of a competitive Turkey for the 21st century. We have to work more for this.

Northern Cyprus – an entity recognised only by Turkey – recently voted in a new president, Dervi? Ero?lu of the right-wing National Unity Party, who favours a two-state solution for the island. What is the CHP's view on his election? The result is likely to dim reunification hopes and affect Turkey's EU accession bid…

CHP's position is to support a solution for the Cypriot problem though talks between the parties. The Turkish side already demonstrated its commitment to peace and to Europe by voting 'yes' in the referendum of 2003. This was a 'yes' vote that the EU also promoted. But the EU's policies have been inconsistent since letting only the government of southern Cyprus get EU membership, although this government voted 'no'. It even censored then Commissioner Verheugen's speech on TV.

Since then, the use of veto by the nationalist and un-European Southern Cypriot government and its nationalist successor finally provoked a reaction by the Turkish Cypriots. The new Turkish Cypriot president, Mr Ero?lu, made clear that he will carry on the talks. We hope that a rational settlement will finally be reached, creating a bastion of peace and economic dynamism in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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