Will Erdogan’s reform package boost democracy?

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov
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“We want old Erdogan back,” a Turkish woman tweeted some time ago, referring to Turkey’s charismatic prime minister. “I see no alternative to him at the moment but the future seems bleak without course correction.”

This statement highlights concerns prevalent among many Turks who supported Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reformist government for years since its advent in 2002 but expressed worries as the government has recently become more populist and endorsed only few tangible reforms to improve rights and freedoms of citizens.

Much remains to do to advance Turkey’s democratic posture but the government scaled down its reformist agenda since its reelection two years ago. The government failed to push forward with a new constitution, its top electoral promise, with only months left to municipal elections that will be a test for the government to measure its public approval.

The government’s biggest loss in this process has been the support of liberal voters and the backing of the West. The prime minister has increasingly sharpened his rhetoric to strengthen his electoral base and counter critics of his government. He has frequently demonized and bashed Western nations, even including its close allies, significantly enhancing anti-Western sentiments in the country.

Turks voted for the current government because it promised in rallies to make democratic reforms. In many cases, however, the government adopted reforms as a way of bargaining.

Mahir Zeynalov

On Monday, the government will announce a package of reforms to serve as a shot in the arm to save government’s declining popularity ahead of key elections next year. The government keeps the content of the reforms – so called democratization package – secret.

Erdogan claims that the reform package is simply a continuation of their decade-long agenda to democratize Turkey and rejects claims that it came at the request of jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, as part of a peace process aimed at ending decades-long conflict. With membership talks with the European Union dead and pace of democratic reforms significantly on the decline, the government is trying to repair ailing Turkish laws instead of rewriting the entire rules.

Endorsing democratic reforms is welcome but it will only have healthy impact if the country gets rid of the anti-democratic coup-era constitution drafted by the military junta in 1982 and write a brand new constitution with broad rights and freedoms. It is astonishing how the government drags its feet by putting the blame on the opposition for not being constructive in constitution-writing process. Working with three opposition parties in writing the new constitution is wrong from the start because none of these parties are democratic or promote freedom agenda.

Instead of make things more difficult by cooperating with opposition parties, the government should convene a committee composed of intellectuals from every walks of life and constantly hold consultations with the civil society to write a constitution that is democratic and pro-freedom. The government should then put the draft constitution to referendum. This would constitute a major boost for the government and may bring back key liberal votes before 2015 parliamentary elections.

The government’s bargaining

Turks voted for the current government because it promised in rallies to make democratic reforms. In many cases, however, the government adopted reforms as a way of bargaining, particularly in the case of improving rights of minorities. In the peace process, for instance, the government claimed that PKK militants should fully leave Turkish territory for the government to take a step. It is the ultimate responsibility of the government to grant more rights and freedoms to Kurds with or without the peace process. Leaving Kurds at the mercy of the PKK and bargaining their inalienable rights with an organization long associated with violence and terror is a sure path to a room of trouble.

Another striking example is the rights of non-Muslim minorities. In March, Erdogan said during a televised interview that there is no legal obstacle in opening the Halki seminary, top demand of Greek Orthodox Christians, but they expect reciprocal gestures from Greece to open the school, which was shut down in 1978. It is true that Muslims in Greece face discrimination and the Greek authorities have awkward regulations that anger local Muslims such as the election of their mufti. But why should the basic rights of Orthodox Christians, full citizens of Turkey, become a bargaining chip in dealings with Greece? How is it in line with a democratic agenda the government ferociously defends?

Particularly after protests linked to Gezi Park near Istanbul’s famed Taksim Square, Erdogan tried to create a legitimate public order by his speeches and actions instead of improving liberty of citizens. In the words of Samuel Huntington, “Men may have order without liberty, but they cannot have liberty without order.” Enjoying too much popularity, legitimate public order and a relative stability, Erdogan should use this opportunity and political capital to raise the country’s democratic profile much higher.

Hopefully the democratic reform package will bring back the government that had made sweeping reforms years ago and put the country into a class of modern nations.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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