International Journal of Constitutional Law & Center for Constitutional Transitions

Between text and context: Turkey’s tradition of authoritarian constitutionalism

By Turkuler Isiksel

The laws should always humble the arrogance of domination. – Montesquieu

Constitutionalism is often understood to mean more than mere adherence to the formal terms of a constitution. Beyond this, it is usually associated with structuring the exercise of public power in line with a core set of principled commitments and, in doing so, rendering it legitimate. That said, it is possible to imagine a political system that practices robust constitutional discipline without meeting basic expectations of democracy, fundamental rights, human dignity, justice, or equality. With the example of the 1982 Turkish Constitution in mind, this article develops a theory of “authoritarian constitutionalism” as a system in which the constitution, rather than constraining the exercise of public power, is coopted to sanction oppressive uses of it. This discussion is situated against the backdrop of the enduring problem of “parchment barriers” in constitutional theory: authoritarian constitutionalism is instructive for understanding the extent to which the writ of the constitution shapes the beliefs, actions, and aspirations of the actors who inhabit the regime. When constitutional rule is marshaled to consolidate state power, it is strikingly effective at thwarting attempts at democratic reform. This suggests that constitutions do, in fact, “matter,” though not uniformly as a force for political liberalization.

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About the Special Issue

Symposium – Constitutional Transitions in the Middle East

In March 2012, Constitutional Transitions held a symposium on the constitutional reformation of the Middle East and North Africa region in the wake of the Arab Spring. The papers presented at the symposium are collected in this special edition of the International Journal of Constitutional Law (I•CON), with an introduction by Constitutional Transitions Faculty Director Sujit Choudhry. For more information and videos from the 2012 symposium, click here.


Constitutional Transitions generates and mobilizes knowledge in support of constitution building. Constitutional Transitions generates knowledge by identifying issues of critical importance to the success of constitutional transitions, where a lack of adequate, up-to-date research impedes the effectiveness of technical assistance for constitution building, and assembles and leads international networks of experts to complete thematic research projects that offer evidence-based policy options to practitioners. Constitutional Transitions mobilizes knowledge through an innovative clinical program that provides “back office” research support to constitutional advisors in the field, and deploys faculty experts and field researchers for support on the ground. We meet existing field missions’ needs for comprehensive research, dramatically enhancing their effectiveness and efficiency in their role as policy advisors and actors.

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The International Journal of Constitutional Law (I•CON) is published in association with the New York University School of Law, and is dedicated to international and comparative constitutional law. I•CON has international editorial and advisory boards and an international focus. It examines an array of theoretical and practical issues and offers critical analysis of current issues and debates. In addition, I•CON looks at global trends that carry constitutional implications. It features scholarly articles by international legal scholars, judges, and people from related fields, such as economics, philosophy, and political science.

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