Non-Muslim minorities expect more democratization following referendum

referandum1.jpgAccording to Andrea Rombopulos, editor-in-chief of the İstanbul-based Greek daily İho, Turkish-Greek youth said “Yes, but not enough,” echoing the views of many youth in Turkey.
Since the electorate in Turkey voted for more reforms in the Sept. 12 referendum for a constitutional amendment package, expectations have been raised for a more democratic country where a small but politically influential non-Muslim minority community is present.
Like many civil society groups, non-Muslim minorities have expressed the view that while the constitutional changes on the ballot fall short of fully democratizing Turkey, they are still a considerable step in the right direction. “I was expecting the result,” said Zeki Basatemir, a member of the board of directors of the Syriac Catholic Church Foundation in Turkey.

He was referring to last Sunday’s vote in which 58 percent of voters said “yes” while 42 percent of the voters said “no” to the reform package, which includes changes to 26 articles of the current constitution relating to individual rights and freedoms and the structure of the high judiciary. Basatemir said most of the Syriac community, only 25,000 strong in Turkey, which has a population of more than 70 million, supported the reform package because it brings “revolutionary changes” for Turkey. “Now we expect a new constitution that will help us to have our citizenship rights,” he added. The Syriac community was not alone in its demands for a new constitution.

According to Andrea Rombopulos, editor-in-chief of the Greek daily İho, based in İstanbul, Turkish-Greek youth said “Yes, but not enough.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has taken a major step to save the country from its current constitution, which was drafted under martial law after the Sept. 12, 1980, coup d’état. The current constitution was amended several times to improve it, but analysts agree that there is a need to rewrite it to eliminate its undemocratic soul. The Sept. 12 coup d’état was the third coup in Turkey’s history and arguably its most violent. It came after a period of ideological armed conflict on Turkey’s streets during the second half of the 1970s. An estimated 5,000 people were killed during the political violence. During the military coup administration, some 600,000 were reportedly detained, more than 200,000 were tried, more than 10,000 were stripped of their citizenship and 50 people were executed. Hundreds of thousands were tortured and went missing.

Journalist and writer Karin Karakaşlı, who is from the Turkish-Armenian community, the largest of the minority groups in Turkey with a population of approximately 60,000, mostly in İstanbul, said the community tends to support the AK Party’s reforms. “The Armenian community in Turkey traditionally votes for center-right parties. In particular, fears related to the period of the Republican People’s Party [CHP] have contributed to that choice. As the center-right parties, like the Motherland Party (ANAVATAN) and the True Path Party (DYP), are no longer very strong, it is possible to say that the community tends to vote for the AK Party,” she said. When it comes to the referendum, she said, the more conservative and older voters of the Armenian community in Turkey possibly voted “no” to the reforms. “But the younger generation either approved the reforms or boycotted the voting,” she said, and added that young Armenians of Turkey try to contribute to democracy in the country. She also said that in the Armenian village of Vakıflı of Hatay province in southern Turkey, choices were in support of the reform package.

As for expectations after the referendum, she said the real test will be how the Hrant Dink case is handled. “After the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR], which found Turkey guilty because it failed to protect Dink, eyes are on the Turkish justice system,” she said. Karakaşlı was referring to the ECtHR ruling on Sept. 14 that said Turkey failed in its duty to protect the life of the slain journalist, Dink, who was shot by an ultranationalist teenager outside the office of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos. There is a lengthy list of suspicious irregularities in the Turkish investigation into Dink’s murder, including deleted records and hidden files suggestive of an attempted police cover-up. The Dink family’s lawyers have said much of the evidence indicates that the murder could have been prevented.

Agos’ current editor-in-chief, 33-year-old Rober Koptaş, said that all 26 articles in the reform package are positive changes in comparison to the current constitution. “Why should I say ‘no’ if there is a chance for a better option?” he asked. He added that some Armenian-Turkish people, especially the upper middle class, probably said “no” to the package because they have a problem trusting the AK Party. “Their suspicions have been kept alive by the statements of government ministers Cemil Çiçek and Vecdi Gönül,” he said. Koptaş also said that the changes suggested in the amendment package are not sufficient but that they are necessary and there is a need for a new constitution.

Denis Ojalvo, an international relations expert and one of the 20,000 members of Ä°stanbul’s Jewish community, said he was expecting the referendum result. “Given the educational profile of the voters and their previous voting pattern, I expected at least a 55 percent ‘yes’ vote,” he said. He also said the electorate probably voted for the leaders rather than the 26 amendments at stake. To him, “separation of powers and checks and balances for the proper functioning of a democratic regime” is under threat. “What I expect may not coincide with the expectations of the public in general: I yearn for an electoral system that would free the members of Parliament — the legislature — from the absolute control of the political party leaders who assign them as candidates and who determine their slots at general elections. I don’t have any illusions about that reform happening. I hope the government proves me wrong,” he said, adding that he is not entitled to express views on behalf of the Jewish community in Turkey.

Laki Vingas, head of the Greek Schools Foundation, said the younger generations in Turkey deserve better. “Everyone knows that our communities have gone through difficult times in our history. Since the damaging effects of this history persist, our people cannot show sufficient independence and participation. These circumstances have turned the habit of prudence and caution into a tradition, restricting our natural development within the society. It is now time to tell our youngsters something new and to set new objectives for them,” he said addressing government officials at an iftar dinner he hosted for community foundations just prior to the Sept. 12 vote. Most of the non-Muslim community representatives stress the fact that they have breathed a sigh of relief during the current government’s rule because of its efforts to grant their rights in contrast to the attitude of the main opposition CHP, which had taken the pro-minorities Foundations Law to the Constitutional Court to be overruled.