Glass just half-full in Erdoğan’s reform plan

Glass just half-full in Erdoğan’s reform plan

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has divided his much-awaited “democratization” package into two: the steps which need changes in the current legislation through Parliament and those which need only a Cabinet decree or even a letter by a minister to be put into effect.

In that sense, the most immediate and net beneficiaries of the package will be women with headscarves who want to have a government job. Other than military and police officers, judges and prosecutors who have official outfits for the job, women in all other public fields, from teachers to defense lawyers, will be able to wear headscarves as a sign of their religious faith in Islam. This has been a sensitive issue, and which was turned into a campaign against the conservative Necmettin Erbakan government in 1996-97 by the military-led secularist bureaucratic establishment. The ruling AK Parti has been under some pressure from its grassroots for some time to provide equal opportunity for those “covered” against those “opens,” with a pinch of revanchist motivation.

Among the immediate beneficiaries, there are Turkish Syriacs who will get their seized estate for the historic Mor Gabriel monastery and the Roma, who will get a Roma Language and Cultural Institute opened at a university.

The rest, which include many important parts of Erdoğan’s package, from the Kurdish issue to changes in the election system, are subject to parliamentary proceedings which could take some time; and since the prime minister did not reveal any schedule, nobody has any idea about the time span.

On the election system, Erdoğan opened up the lowering of the 10 percent election threshold to a public debate with three options: Keeping it as it is, lowering it to 5 percent with a narrowed constituency model or abolishing it altogether with a single-member constituency model. All indications suggest that the second option is likely to be the case. The lowering of the election threshold from 7 to 3 percent to receive financial support from the Treasury is an improvement for the system which could make the BDP, which is focused on the Kurdish problem, happy a bit. Similarly, the adoption of the co-chairman model in the political party law will make the de facto BDP system de jure. 

The government also promised to legalize political campaigning by parties in “languages other than Turkish,” which in practice will be used widely by the BDP in Kurdish.

But instead of obligatory primary and secondary education in the Kurdish language as demanded by the BDP, the Erdoğan government vowed to allow non-Turkish education in private schools with certain courses in Turkish under the auspices of the Education Ministry – something that could be regarded as a realistic step so as not to irritate most of the population. 

The BDP and Kurdish activists have been awaiting a change in the anti-terrorism law to enable the release of many members of the KCK, the urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is conducting dialogue with the government to end its three-decade-old armed campaign, and which shares the same grassroots with the BDP. That did not happen.

Another disappointment with the government’s “democratization package” was the lack of any promises regarding the Greek Orthodox seminary at Halki despite signals beforehand. There are rumors that recent strong statements by Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos denouncing Turkey as the “invader of Cyprus” might have played a role in removing the item from the package.

Erdoğan said a number of times in his press statement that the “package” was not the last one and there could be more to come, but the biggest disappointment with it was the lack of any improvement regarding the status and demands of Turkey’ millions of Alevi citizens. There had been leaks about the “package” during the last few weeks that cemevis instead of mosques (of the Sunni or Shite faith) could be acknowledged as the community’s place of worship and that they could receive state-sponsored religious benefits from the Religious Affairs Directorate, which operates on the tax revenues of all citizens. But the only modest sentence in Erdoğan’s press statement was a promise to change the name of a university to Hacı Bektaş Veli, the 13th-century leader of the faith.

It was hard to call Erdoğan’s statement as a press conference, because it was announced minutes before his revelation of the package that no questions would be taken afterwards; some of the national papers and television channels had not been invited for the event anyway.

The package has elements of improvement in the name of democratic life in Turkey, but it is fair to say that it fell short of meeting some of the demands, meaning it is very much a case of the glass only being half-full.