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The Constitution of 1876

The promulgation of the Ottoman Constitution in 1876 can be attributed to a contingency of domestic and international factors. A serious financial and economic crisis during which the empire defaulted on its foreign debt led to a coup d’état led by reformist forces around Midhat Pasa. In the course of these events, Sultan Abdiilaziz (r. 1861—1876) was first deposed and then died under suspicious circumstances. The putschists brought crown-prince Murat to the throne, who was known to be leaning toward a constitution but soon turned out to be mentally ill. After only six months, he was replaced by his brother Hamit (Abdülhamit II), who agreed to promulgate a constitution.21

The Constitution that was drafted in the following months was built on the existing structures and practices discussed above. It declared Ottoman territory to be inviolable and allocated sovereignty with the eldest prince of the house of Osman (art. 3). The Sultan could not be held accountable in any way, his person was declared sacred (art. 5). The Constitution introduced a parliament composed of two chambers: the Senate (Hey et-i Ayan), whose members would be named for life, and the Assembly of Deputies (Heyet-i Mebusan), who would be elected for a legislative period of four years (art. 69).22 There would be one deputy for every 50,000 male inhabitants (art. 61) (in practice, however, the representation rate differed considerably between different parts of the empire).23 All male Ottoman citizens above the age of 30 who could speak Turkish could run as candidates, unless they claimed to hold citizenship of another state, were domestic servants of another person,24 were standing trial or had been sentenced in court, had gone bankrupt without rehabilitation, or “lay notoriously in disrepute for their conduct.”25 After another four years, potential deputies would be required to also read Turkish and, “to the extent possible,” write it (art. 68). Unlike their peers in other countries, such as the German Reich,26 the Ottoman deputies were salaried, being entitled to 20,000 kuruç (equalling 200 gold Lira) plus travel expenses per parliamentary year (art. 76).27 Both chambers would sit four months per year, from November until the beginning of March (art. 43). Deputies were not allowed to hold any other public office except a minister post (art. 76). They were free to express their opinions and to vote as they liked (art. 47). They could not be prosecuted for their opinions, unless a two-thirds majority of the chamber decided to strip them of their immunity (art. 48). The lower chamber had a quorum of half the deputies plus one (art. 51). Bills or changes to existing laws would usually be brought forward by the cabinet. Deputies could also ask for laws to be changed but had to send their proposals to the Grand Vizier, who would submit them to the Sultan, who would decide whether or not to charge the State Council (§ura-yi Devlet) with preparing such a bill (art. 53).28

The first and second elections of 1876 and 1877 were performed according to a provisional electoral law, stipulating that deputies would be elected by and from among the existing district and provincial councils, which were controlled by the respective local notables.29 The candidacy age was set at 25 (5 years younger than prescribed in the Constitution).30 Autonomous regions such as Mount Lebanon and de facto independent ones such as Egypt were not represented in the chamber. The number of deputies for each district and province was set by the central government, while the provincial governments decided about quotas for Muslims and non-Muslims.31 Apart from allowing for a relatively quick election process, electing deputies from among the existing councils had the advantage that those who were sent “happened to be eminently conversant in imperial issues.”32 As for the deputies’ social backgrounds, Kemal Karpat has noted that almost all deputies, regardless of the professions they named in the parliamentary statistics, were part of the “upper propertied class” in the provinces.33 This was a social background very different from that of the Young Ottomans, who, as part of the new bureaucracy-intelligentsia, usually depended on salaries and hailed from Istanbul.34 Since property in (still officially state-owned) agricultural land had only become folly tradeable since 1858, and land, now under increasingly capitalist conditions, continued to be the main means of production, we may well say that the chamber represented the interests of the economically dominant class (Karpat makes this point but, somewhat misleadingly, speaks of a “new middle class”).35 Unlike the European bourgeoisie, however, this class was often identical with those urban elites of the ancien régime (higher ulema, guild leaders and merchant families) who had managed to acquire landed property. As property owners, the deputies were interested in reliable, accountable governance and liberal legislation, but their interests were far from adversary to those of the state. There was also no aristocracy standing in their way. With regard to their ethno-religious background, the deputies were quite diverse: the first Heyet-i Mebusan (HM) had 119 deputies, of which 71 were Muslims, 44 Christians of various denominations, and 4 Jews. The second had 113 deputies: 64 Muslims and 49 non-Muslims.36

The Heyet-i Mebusan was initially a relatively weak parliament (just like the contemporary ones in Prussia and Austria-Hungary).37 Compared to the three other-constitutional institutions that were involved in law-making (the Sultan, the State Council, and the Senate), the Heyet-i Mebusan’s rights were limited to grilling ministers and merely asking for investigations against them. Whether pertaining to legislation or disciplinary action, all final decisions were taken by the Sultan, who possessed an absolute veto right and was not responsible before the law.38

The First Constitutional Period was rather short: the first Chamber of Deputies sat between March 19,1877, and June 28,1877. Following a second round of elections, the second legislative period started in December 1877, ending prematurely in February 1878, when Sultan Abdiilhamit II, in the midst of the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878, dissolved the chamber and abrogated the Constitution.

Within these five months, the chamber managed to discuss (among others) such important public matters as a major uprising in Montenegro,39 the Russian declaration of war in April 1877,40 the resulting further aggravation of the Ottoman state’s financial situation,41 and the budget law.42 (Robert Devereux notes that “parliamentary control of financial matters was the one field in which both Palace and Porte appear to have scrupulously observed both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution”).43 The HM also debated the question of military service for nonMuslims and notions of a shared Ottoman citizenship.44 It refused to change the law for the proclamation of a state of emergency,45 insisted on a liberalization of the press law,46 passed a new provincial law,47 and an electoral law. The last-mentioned, however, only came into effect during the Second Constitutional Period (1908 and onward) because it had not passed the Senate by February 1878.4S The very first legal document to be passed by the chamber were the rules of conduct for its own work. They were discussed in the third, fourth, and fifth sessions, on March 23-25, 1877. Following the Sultan’s approval, the nizamname was published and came into force on May 14, 1877.49

Researchers disagree about the models followed by the committee that was in charge of drafting the text of the nizamname. According to Servet Armagan, it was the Italian and Belgian regulations, according to Devereux, “contemporary European parliaments, especially the French and the British.”50 Al-Barazi gives the names of the committee members as Ziya Bey, Namik Kemal, Chamich Ohannes, Ramiz Efendi, Sava Pasa, Abdin Bey, and Hayrullah Efendi.51 Unfortunately, there are no minutes of this committee available. We only know that the draft was submitted to the State Council on February 17, 1877, and ready for discussion in the HM by March 23, 1877.52

The nizamname of 1877 was composed of 16 sections setting the rales for the following procedures: (1) the appointment of preliminary chairmen and preparation of election documents, (2) the election of chairmen and minute takers, (3) formation of branches and committees, (4) preparation of and voting on bills, (5) the interpellation of bills by ministers, (6) complaints about ministers, (7) discussion of bills, (8) petitions to the parliament, (9) declaration of urgency for bills, (10) voting, (11) minutes, (12) deputies’ absence, (13) punishments for violations of the rales, (14) discipline in the chamber, (15) the relationship with the Senate (Heyet-i Ayan), and (16) miscellaneous articles dealing with protocol, deputies’ resignation, and the coming into force of the nizamname.53

According to the nizamname, the Chamber President ought to have been elected by secret ballot, and the deputies’ choice ought to have been sanctioned by the Sultan. Instead, Sultan Abdiilhamit II, in a “flagrant violation of Article

77” of the Constitution, had already named Ahmet Vefik Efendi54 (later Pasa, an experienced diplomat and respected intellectual) as President in February. Since the Istanbul elections had not taken place at this point, Ahmet Vefik was not even a deputy yet, and the electors later had no choice but to sanction the Sultan’s decision.55 Although the document was technically not in force yet, this was also a violation of articles 9 and 10 of the nizamname. According to a British newspaper, Yusuf Ziya[eddin Al-Khalidi],56 deputy for Jerusalem and former mayor of that city, delivered a 20-minute speech denouncing this action.57 The speech appears to have been censored from the minutes, and it is likely that such censorship was also performed later on. This point limits the minutes’ source value considerably. Another caveat when dealing with the minutes is that only those of the public sessions were published. The public ones sometimes mention decisions taken in nonpublic sessions, such as the one taken during the third session that the HM, in addition to Fridays, would also not sit on Sundays.58 There were also secret meetings, which are not discussed in the minutes at all.59

Ahmet Vefik Efendi, President of the first HM, assumed that the rales of procedure, such as those about leave of absence for deputies, were already to be observed even before the deputies were aware of them. This created some irritation.60 Overall, however, the minutes of these three sessions convey the impression that the deputies, far from challenging the nizamname, simply asked questions: what exactly were the five branches (¿ubeler) that the assembly would often be divided into for, and how were they different from committees (art. 2)?61 Why were bills that had been rejected by the assembly only to be brought back in after two months' time? What exactly was an absolute majority? Why would budgetary laws be debated only once, and all others twice? This apparent tameness of the debate is probably partly due to the above-mentioned censorship. Another reason may be the deputies' relative lack of experience, or their awareness of the quite authoritarian constitutional framework that they were operating in. That said, it is interesting to note that the deputies’ right to “grill” ministers was debated quite extensively.62 It was exactly this practice that would turn out to be the most challenging for governments.

Overall, the nizamname prescribed a rather authoritarian framework. Attendance was mandatory, and a deputy who, without asking for permission, did not show up for more than five sessions (or committee/branch meetings) in a row would be counted as absent without leave, being punished by publication of his name in the official gazette (art. 88). The President had far-reaching competences, and Ahmet Vefik Pasa, who held that office during the first period, made ample use of them, enforcing attendance, observance of time limits, and thematic coherence of speeches. His successor during the second parliamentary period (1877-1878), Hasan Fehmi Pasa, is said to have maintained a less strict style. Both fulfilled their duties rather faithfully, only rarely letting the vice presidents chair sessions.63

A peculiarity of the nizamname are the five branches (gubeler) of the chamber. These were to exist parallel to thematic commissions (for defense, petitions, etc.) and to review bills one by one, so that all branches would have seen all documents

Ottoman parliamentary procedure 227 before they were debated in plenary sessions. Devereux speculates that this rule was deliberately designed to slow down the parliament’s work.64 Another reason may be that these branches, which were supposed to be reshuffled every two months by lot, were designed to provide substitutes for party groups, which did not exist in the first HM, in order to allow deputies to discuss matters in relatively small groups. Indeed, the branches seem to have been reshuffled every month, probably accomplishing relative familiarity of deputies among each other.65

Section 10 of the nizamname (articles 57-72) described in great detail how voting would be performed. There were three kinds of voting: open voting by raising hands, open voting by calling every single deputy and him shouting “yes” “no” or “abstention,” and finally, secret voting, either by name, with red and white pieces of paper, or without, with black and white balls.66 The nizamname was not always followed to the letter, but usually in spirit, for instance, when secret ballots were cast not with black and white balls but only white ones.67 Attendance was not as bad a problem as in Prussia and later the German Reich, where usually not more than a third of the (unremunerated) deputies cared to show up.6S The parliamentary minutes were regularly published, not only in the official gazette, but also in the Istanbul papers, a fact that in itself must have transformed Ottoman political culture tremendously. There also existed some official provincial newspapers at this point, and the minutes may have been published in them as well.69

Judging from the (censored) minutes published in Vahit that contain only selected verbatim speeches, the first HM in the spring and summer of 1877 was a very orderly parliament (the second in winter 1877-1878 a little less so). The few deputies dominating the debates were experienced politicians and lawyers who, at times adamantly, insisted on proper observance of the constitutional framework. My observations fit Karpat’s, who has noted that the deputies pressed the state for reliable and orderly taxation, a business-friendly legal framework, privatization of state land, and a rational, regularly paid bureaucracy.70 The chamber also made use of its constitutional right to bring complaints against ministers and request their trial, even interpreting this to mean that former ministers could be held accountable as well.71 As a result, the relations between the chamber and the other constitutional institutions deteriorated quickly, soon reaching the point of hostility. It is telling that the second HM no longer passed bills, instead addressing the myriad of grievances and problems all over the empire, and contributing to the fall of Grand Vizier Edhem Pasa.72 On February 14, 1878, Abdulhamit II, making use of his constitutional right to do so, “temporarily” closed the chamber by simply having a declaration read out during its session. In it, he declared that “as a necessity of the present exceptional circumstances, the parliament be prorogued as of today.”73

These exceptional circumstances were the ongoing peace negotiations with Russia, during which the Porte was probably unwilling to be disturbed (or rather: embarrassed) by an assembly that had already before, in the Montenegrin crisis, adamantly opposed any ceding of Ottoman territory to the insurgents.74 In early 1878, the Ottoman army was facing a humiliating defeat and the Ottoman state was soon, in the Treaty of San Stefano, forced to give up major Balkan territories and the famous three districts (elviya-yi selase): Kars, Ardahan, and Batum in eastern Anatolia. Several contemporary observers speculated that neither the Sultan nor the government could be bothered with a patriotic parliament more royal than the king.75 Following the closing of parliament, ten deputies who had been particularly outspoken government critics were exiled from Istanbul.76

In the following 30 years, the Constitution continued to be in force only on paper. It was printed in the annual provincial yearbooks, and members of the Senate continued to receive their salaries, maintaining their place in state protocol.77 Abdülhamit II ruled autocratically, with the help of press censorship and a sophisticated spying system. The gravity center of power shifted back from the Grand Vizierate (known as the “Sublime Porte” in English), where it had been located during the Tanzimat period, to the Palace. After the territorial losses sanctioned by the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, Abdülhamit II managed to avoid another major war and further major territorial losses.78 He continued to pursue the reforms of the previous decades, if with a more authoritarian note, establishing military and civilian high schools, building railways, telegraphs, and tightening the grip of the state in rural areas.79 Ironically, the school system that was expanded during his rule produced the very movement that would eventually result in his downfall: his military high schools and middle schools offered social mobility and a western-style education to penniless Muslim boys from the provinces. In 1889, students of the medical military academy in Istanbul founded a secret society that came to be known as the Committee of Progress and Union (later: Committee of Union and Progress, henceforth: CUP) and quickly spread to other schools and beyond.80 In the first years of the twentieth century, these unionists started to cooperate with other oppositional groups, such as liberals (who, unlike the CUP, favored decentralization of the Ottoman state) and socialist Armenians, their shared objective being the restoration of the Constitution and the reconvening of the parliament.81 As Tank Zafer Tunaya has observed, all these groups tended to regard constitutionalism “not as a tool, but as a goal in itself.”82 Their revolutionary agenda was influenced by other parliamentary movements, especially those in Russia and Iran and the respective constitutional revolutions in 1905 and 1906.83

 
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