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08ANKARA222 2008-02-07 13:30:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Ankara
Cable title:  

TURKEY: HEADSCARF BAN AMENDMENTS PASS FIRST ROUND

Tags:   PGOV PREL PHUM TU 
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1. (C) SUMMARY. Round one of the constitutional amendment
package to lift the headscarf ban at Turkey's universities
passed easily February 6, with support from three of four
parties in parliament. The second round of voting is
scheduled for February 9, after which it will go to President
Abdullah Gul for approval. Behind the large parliamentary
majority favoring lifting the ban, the polarizing social
debate over secularism in Turkey continues (reftels). END
SUMMARY.



2. (SBU) After a lengthy and often heated first round of
voting February 6, Turkey's parliament passed amendments to
Constitution Articles 10 (equality before the law) and 42
(access to education) designed to lift the headscarf ban at
universities. More than 400 deputies from the ruling Justice
and Development Party (AKP), opposition Nationalist Action
Party (MHP), and Kurdish opposition Democratic Society Party
(DTP) approved the changes; approximately 100 MPs opposed,
primarily from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP)
and Democratic Left Party (DSP). Neither article mentions
the headscarf directly; those details will be addressed in a
proposed revision to Article 17 of the Higher Education
Council (YOK) law, which has not yet been introduced to
parliament.



3. (SBU) The second required round of voting is scheduled
for February 9. The measure will then go to President
Abdullah Gul. If 330 to 367 deputies vote in favor, Gul must
send it to referendum; if more than 367 approve, a referendum
is optional. President Gul has indicated he believes basic
rights and freedoms should not be subject to referendum,
making it unlikely he will put the issue to public vote.



4. (SBU) During the 13-hour session, CHP leader Deniz
Baykal, representing the main political party swimming
against this tide, reached for the strongest language
possible: he termed the amendments "a coup conducted against
the secular republic". CHP intends to challenge the changes
in Turkey's Constitutional Court, Baykal warned. DTP MP
Aysel Tugluk, noting DTP views AKP as the continuation of a
string of parties representing political Islam, said her
party voted for the amendments for the sake of freedom. She
called it disgraceful that other freedoms, such as linguistic
rights, were still being denied. Squads of riot police
surrounded the parliament while the session dragged on, but
only a few demonstrators showed up during the evening.



5. (SBU) Parliament debated but rejected revisions to the
AKP-MHP-backed measure proposed by CHP, DTP, DSP and an
independent MP from Tunceli. CHP deputies exchanged heated
barbs with AKP and MHP MPs. Deputy PM Cemil Cicek rebutted
CHP charges that secularism was in peril by accusing CHP of
spreading radioactive fear and horror and defending a North
Korean-type of secularism. MHP deputy group chairman Mehmet
Sandir assured his colleagues his party regards secularism as
the guarantor of Turkey's unity. CHP MP Nur Serter denounced
the headscarf as a form of dress inconsistent with freedom.
AKP deployed four female deputies to present the party's
argument in support of the amendments. DSP leader Zeki Sezer
urged deputies to act with common sense and avoid pulling
Turkey into chaos.



6. (C) Comment. The effort to lift the court-imposed
headscarf ban at universities pits a vocal, elite minority of
ban supporters against a majority of Turks who oppose it.
The ban has become a potent symbol of the secular Republic's
constraint on society's religious and conservative impulses.
Neither AKP nor MHP leaders acted on long-standing promises
to lift the controversial ban until three weeks ago, when the
two parties warily and unexpectedly joined forces. As
contentious as last night's debate was, the constitutional
amendments should sail through and be signed by President
Gul. The real battle is likely to be over how to revise YOK
Law Article 17, which will attempt to describe the form of
acceptable attire on campus. Recognizing it will cause

ANKARA 00000222 002.2 OF 002


fireworks, DPM Cicek called last night for all parties to
work together toward an Article 17 compromise. End Comment.

Visit Ankara's Classified Web Site at
http://www.intelink.sgov.gov/wiki/Portal:Turk ey

WILSON