Turkey’s democratization package and the Kurdish quandary

Turkey’s democratization package and the Kurdish quandary

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan revealed the details of his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) democratization package on Sept. 30, everyone turned their ears to see how much this package was going to fulfill the demands of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). 

The BDP has long voiced two central political demands, requesting an abolition of the longstanding 10 percent electoral threshold and the provision of political autonomy. The incumbent parties have refused to change the 10 percent rule in order to maintain their electoral advantage. To give an example, the AKP would have lost three seats to the BDP in the most recent parliamentary elections in 2011 if the BDP had run as a political party instead of running with independent candidates. The latter demand of the BDP regarding its so-called “democratic autonomy” goal is a harder issue to resolve, because in this case, it is not only the incumbent party’s interests at stake, but also a widespread belief in Turkish society with regards to the putatively injurious role of any compromise on the unitary structure of the government. 

In his speech, Erdoğan suggested three options concerning the country’s 10 percent threshold: it could stay as it is, it could be reduced to 5 percent while carrying out a narrowed constituency system in groups of five deputies for each constituency, or it could completely be eliminated by implementing a single-member district system. It could potentially be said that the BDP is likely to gain the most from abolishing the threshold. However, it is also possible that a single-member district system could end up serving the interests of the AKP, especially in eastern and southeastern Turkey and could work to the detriment of the BDP in the region. 

The reactions from the BDP circles demonstrate that the package is far from sufficient and satisfactory in the eyes of the BDP deputies. For example, BDP co-chairwoman Gültan Kışanak said the measures fell short of meeting their expectations. 

The AKP’s recent democracy package makes no reference to autonomy demands. On the other hand, the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) has placed it among its three major demands together with the constitutional recognition of Kurdish identity and mother-tongue education in their “Democratic Solution Declaration” 10 days after Erdoğan’s declaration of the package. It seems clear by now that addressing the question of autonomy will be the final and most compelling phase of the peace process. 

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) no longer has the stated goal of achieving independence, but rather regional autonomy. The demand for autonomy has remained the deepest source of quarrel between the AKP and the BDP. Political autonomy is a far-reaching demand that requires a comprehensive transformation of the government in Turkey. Nevertheless, the ongoing peace process and negotiations between the government and the PKK will not reach a final resolution by neglecting the question of decentralization, which will require a mutual compromise. It will be no surprise to see the AKP take further steps and “decentralize” some government functions in the future. Those measures most likely to be in the form of authority transfer from the centrally appointed governors to popularly elected governors.

Such measures are not impossible given the AKP’s emphasis on the need for decentralization in its first two years in the government. On the other hand, the BDP and the PKK will also need to moderate their demands such as on proposed self-defense forces, which are unlikely to be accepted by the Turkish public in the foreseeable future. 

Hüseyin Alptekin and Mine Tafolar are PhD candidates at the government department at the University of Texas at Austin.