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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 January 2008, 01:54 GMT
Turkey faces testing year ahead
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Protest in Istanbul against the headscarf ban in schools and universities (October 2007)
A headscarf ban in schools and universities has caused division

2007 has been a turbulent year in Turkey.

First, secularist protesters poured onto the streets as the religious conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) steered its way towards a second term in office, and devout Muslim Abdullah Gul geared up to take the presidency.

Senior generals sparked fears of a military coup when they pronounced the secular system in danger.

Then the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) stole the agenda with a series of devastating attacks on Turkish troops; Turkey responded with force against PKK targets inside northern Iraq.

Amidst all this, EU accession talks slipped from the agenda and Turkey's democratic reform process slid to a halt.

New civilian constitution

But the AKP defied its critics with a resounding victory at the general election and pledged to kick-start reforms.

A key test in 2008 will surround efforts to create a new, civilian constitution.

"This new constitution is a huge change, and the outcome will be a major indicator of Turkey's democratic development," says Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul's Bilgi University.

We've changed its whole philosophy - we suggested changes to the preamble to make the constitution much more liberal
Professor of law, Zuhtu Arslan

"For the first time, civil society is engaged in the process of creating a constitution rather than taking on something imposed by the military," he explains.

All Turkish constitutions since 1961 have been drawn up in the wake of military coups d'etat, including the current version introduced after the 1980 coup.

Revised many times, lawyers say the constitution remains authoritarian in spirit - protecting the state over the individual.

Earlier this year the AKP commissioned six lawyers to devise a replacement.

"We've changed its whole philosophy," says Zuhtu Arslan, one of the professors of constitutional law who helped draft the new document.

Turkish soldiers
Since 1961 all constitutions have been drawn up in the wake of coups
"We suggested changes to the preamble to make the constitution much more liberal, and to emphasise the importance of individual rights and liberties and the rule of law."

The government has since made its own modifications to the draft, and civil society groups are now tabling their suggestions, though the full text has not yet been revealed.

Among other changes, the new constitution limits the powers of the presidency. It also addresses the thorny issue of ethnic identity.

Its authors insist what it does not do is weaken the fundamental principle of secularism.

Political Islam

"We did not touch those provisions," says Prof Arslan.

But the draft he worked on does introduce an article that would lift the ban on the Islamic headscarf in Turkish universities. The issue is deeply controversial here.

AKP supporters celebrate the party's general election victory (July 2007)
A 47% vote of support for AKP gives it a strong new mandate

The AKP has long pledged to ease the restrictions, but some secularists see the scarf as a symbol of political Islam.

"The clause says a student should have the right to wear what they want, including the headscarf. It's not about violating the secular principle, it's about upholding the principle of freedom of religion," Prof Arslan argues.

That decision has reignited tensions, dredging up claims that the AKP harbours an Islamic agenda for Turkey.

"The Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights have already ruled that Turkey's headscarf ban is not against human rights.

"Now the government is trying to get round that," says Tayfun Akguner from the Istanbul Culture University.

"I think most people here will defend themselves against any headscarf law," he warns.

Taken as a whole, he believes the new constitution will "shake the fundamental values of the republic".

I'm afraid if the EU dynamic is not there, Turkey will have great difficulty transforming its democracy and its economy in 2008
Academic Cengiz Aktar

The constitutional debate will pit the government against the secular establishment and opposition once again. But a 47% vote of support for the AKP at the last election gives it a strong new mandate.

"We will see if they can push this new civilian constitution - if they are really committed to more democracy and liberty. I have serious doubts," says Istanbul journalist and academic Cengiz Aktar.

"The government will again be cast as the defender of democracy. But what's really important is implementing reforms, and the AKP has done nothing on that front for three years," he says.

Military influence

A case in point is the notorious Article 301 of Turkey's penal code.

Used to prosecute dozens of writers for "insulting Turkishness", it remains unchanged despite pressure from the EU and repeated promises by the government.

And although the new constitution will replace a military-era framework with a civilian one, its authors say the influence of the military on Turkish politics will remain.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul addresses the Council of Europe (October 2007)
EU accession talks lost steam in 2007
"It's not the right time to make such changes," argues Prof Arslan.

"Turkey is making progress on democratic rights and a more civilian system. But we can't ignore the military heritage of this country. We still need time to curb the powers of the military fully."

That remains one of the key concerns of the European Union.

But EU accession talks lost steam in 2007 as Turks felt increasingly unwelcome by Europe and nationalist sentiment here soared.

"The more negative statements we hear from EU countries like France, the more the Turkish public and government lose the heart for reform," explains Cengiz Aktar.

That situation could deteriorate further in 2008, when France assumes the EU presidency.

"I'm afraid if the EU dynamic is not there, Turkey will have great difficulty transforming its democracy and its economy in 2008. We're not capable of changing on our own."

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