However, the reforms have come in for widespread criticism, with women and human rights groups saying they do not go far enough – while conservatives are claiming the opposite.
Yet, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, parliamentarians voted nearly unanimously to pass individually each of 10 amendments. A second vote on the package as a whole is set to take place on Friday evening.
Among the reforms, the death penalty is to be abolished, even in time of war; women are to be granted full equality; and, the role of the armed forces in civilian life and politics is to be further reduced.
In addition – and of particular interest to many EU members – will be the abolition of the State Security Courts (DGMs), which have come under repeated fire from the European Court of Human Rights.
The DGMs were set up under the military constitution to try political and “terrorist” cases.
Most well known of these cases is that of four pro-Kurdish former members of parliament, among them Leyla Zana.
Cicek (L) said country’s priorities
She and three of her colleagues were recently re-sentenced by Ankara DGM to 15 years imprisonment for demanding greater rights and freedoms for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
With the abolition of the DGMs, the way will be cleared for the release of the four, an important step in the country’s EU membership bid.
“Today, a person’s rights and freedoms are the most important issues,” Justice Minister Cemal Cicek told reporters on Wednesday. He said that the country’s priorities had shifted and thus its constitution had to be amended to meet the changing times.
One area of personal freedom in which, many opposition deputies argue, more needs to be done is in an amendment to article 10 of the constitution, mandating full equality before the law for men and women.
Calls to amend this provoked much debate, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan rejected calls from women’s groups to include a clause allowing affirmative action for women.
At the same time, the prime minister refused to bow to many AKP deputies, who opposed the reform completely.
Erdogan has refused to give in to
Professor Turkan Saylan, the head of the Modern Life Support Association, argues that the amendment will not improve the lot of women unless efforts are made to make equality a reality through positive discrimination.
“If we have six million illiterate females, if one third of girls have not been schooled and if murders continue in the name of honour, the article will not create equality between men and women,” she told Aljazeera.net.
Not so, counters Salih Kapusuz, a senior member of the AKP, who said that the existing text of the constitution prevented discrimination against women in Turkey.
“There was in fact no need even to tamper with the original version of the article,” he said. “Article 10 of the constitution already secures equality.”
Another member of the AKP, Haluk Ipek, claimed that discrimination would still continue, due to the ban in Turkey on women wearing headscarves in schools, universities and while working as public servants.
It is a claim that opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Ali Topuz dismisses. “They should declare their real intentions,” Topuz says. “They have the power to change the constitution. They do not need to use religion in politics. This is a crime against religion.”
“The current constitution has a militarist authoritarian nature that places obstacles to the rights of citizens”
chairman, Human Rights Association, Turkey
The other contentious reforms before the parliament concern a further reduction in the role of the armed forces in public life.
The amendments mean that the military’s representatives will be removed both from the Higher Education Board (YOK), which governs the running of the country’s universities, and Turkey’s media watchdog, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK).
Conceding that this was a positive step, Husnu Ondul, the chairman of Turkey‘s Human Rights Association, told Aljazeera.net that the changes now being debated are only cosmetic.
The only answer, he says, is the drafting of a completely new constitution – one free from the influence of the military.
“The current constitution has a militarist authoritarian nature that places obstacles to the rights of citizens,” he said.
Others fear that reforms in YOK will allow the government to undermine the secular nature of the higher education system.
With the EU scheduled to discuss Turkey at its December summit and decide whether or not to give Ankara a firm date to begin accession negotiations, the pressure for change is great – and far from over.
“We hoped this would have been the last reform package,” Cicek said after Wednesday’s debate. “But there is still a lot to do.”