The Turkish constitution in the 20th and 21st centuries

Adnan Khan places the current political turmoil in Turkey in its historical context.

After the failed coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016, on the 16 April 2017 Turkey held a referendum voting whether or not to make 18 proposed amendments to its constitution. These included abolishing the office of Prime Minister and the existing parliamentary system and replacing this with an Executive Presidency and presidential system. The reforms were passed with a slim 51% majority. The constitutional changes in Turkey, along with massive mosque building projects in the country, sees the government promote a more “Islamic” national identity. The Turkish identity has historically been linked directly to the constitution, with this dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Ataturk in IstanbulAtaturk in modern Istanbul

With the end of Ottoman Rule in Turkey on 1 November 1922 and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliph as head of state, Turkey built a new national identity. Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, a former military leader, became the Prime Minister of Turkey and established the Republic of Turkey. 

Whereas the Ottomans were associated with economically and socially backward policy, for Ataturk modernisation meant westernisation, the development of a secular, European style legal code and the encouraging of Turkish people to wear European style clothes. Laws on clothing extended to the outlawing of the fez which was considered too “Ottoman” a piece of headwear as it had been brought in to replace the turban in the nineteenth century. Honorary titles were also abolished and the constitution was founded on what has been termed Kemalism, based on the principles of republicanism, nationalism, populism, reformism, statism and secularism, with these being unchanging and fundamental policies written deep into the constitution created in 1924. 

Language was also changed, with the language of the Empire used by the Ottomans (a mixture of Arabic, Persian and Turkish) being replaced with Turkish as the language of the Republic. On a Sunday, which became a day of rest as it was in Europe, the President went out into a park in Ankara to teach Latin in an adapted Turkish script. Turkey now looked west as opposed to its lost Islamic empire in the east. Thus, the secular reforms undertaken by Ataturk were apart of distancing Turkey from its losses in the First World War and focusing on a western, European future.

River BosphorusLooking across the Bosphorus to Asia [Photographs: William Fallows]

President Erdogan’s reforms, therefore, are more than constitutional changes. They raise questions of the national Turkish identity and which side of the Bosporus running through Istanbul Turkey chooses; east or west. Regardless, it appears that either example of constitutional change was accompanied by political turmoil either in the form of the First World War from 1914-1918 or the military coup in Turkey in 2016. Consequently, the constitutional changes seen today have a longer and deep routed history and represent a new path Turkey has marginally chosen to follow.

Adnan Khan is a BRIHC Scholar on the MA Global History Course specialising in the nation state in contemporary South Asia.