Erdogan’s reforms: one step forward, no steps back?

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

After raising expectations among the Turkish public, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a package of reforms this week aimed at putting a fragile and deadlocked Kurdish peace process on track while responding to critics that his government still has a reformist agenda.

The most important reforms include removing restrictions on the wearing of Islamic headscarves; providing for education in mother tongue; the restoration of original names of villages, districts and provinces that existed before 1980; sweeping changes in the law on political parties, including the possibility of lowering the 10 percent electoral threshold for entering Parliament; improving freedom of assembly; and other more specific rights for religious and ethnic minorities.

The demands and expectations were high before the reform package was announced. The government said the package mostly meets the demands of the public while the pro-government Turkish media immediately labeled the reforms as “revolutionary.” They also revived the slogan “Yes But not Enough,” a motto used during 2010 referendum to express approval for government-sponsored partial constitutional amendments.

Kurds and other non-Muslim minorities as well as liberals, however, were largely discontent. In an acknowledgement of shortcomings, Erdogan said the package won’t be the last and a set of other reforms will be introduced in the near future to address demands of the people.

Progress for Turkey?

The reform package may be the most important step recently by the government because the ruling Justice and Development Party failed to push forward its reformist agenda since its reelection in 2011. Considering its recent inertia and reluctance in advancing democracy at home, the reform package constitutes significant progress. The content of the package offers little yet it could be the beginning of a series of reforms that further Turkey’s democratization.

The government should devote its full energy to write a brand new constitution that will help settle most problems Turkey is facing today.

Mahir Zeynalov

Liberal commentators, however, lashed out at an idea that the government deserves plaudits for “doling out democracy as how it wishes” instead of endorsing already long overdue sweeping reforms at once. There is some truth in it; the current government could have done much better given its history of democratic reforms that brought Ankara’s membership with the European Union much closer than ever. But it is always counter-productive to dismiss positive steps with the claim that they are based on electoral calculations or basically not sufficient. The government should be given a chance to see that reforms it adopts resonate positively among public, particularly among its liberal supporters that once voted for this government.

The reform package was largely designed to address the demands of Kurds, with nine reforms that include full education in Kurdish language in private schools, restoration of Kurdish names of districts and villages and possibility of lowering electoral threshold. The government should be commended for improving rights of Kurds every year while abandoning past policies of denial and assimilation. But these reforms should not be the subject of bargaining with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization that promotes its agenda with violence and terror. Kurds are full citizens of Turkey and the government must broaden their rights and freedoms no matter if the peace process moves forward or collapses.

Right after Erdogan announced the package, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the PKK dismissed the reforms as an “elections package” and avoided even lauding the positive steps they long demanded – reforms that would be unthinkable before 2000s. Although introducing full education in Kurdish language in private schools is problematic as only rich kids will have the chance to study, it is a very important step by a state that had even denied the existence of Kurds in the past, much less granting them a right to study in their mother tongue.

Instead of supporting the reforms they ferociously asked, the Kurdish party and the PKK stressed the need to release suspects accused of being part of the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK), an umbrella organization of the PKK. Their demands are far from the legitimate grievances of larger Kurdish public and are primarily designed to raise the profile of the KCK. The plan is to establish a de facto Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey with KCK’s coordination after the PKK militants withdraw from the Turkish soil.

The biggest disappointment in the reform package was the lack of reforms regarding the sizeable Alevi minority. The reforms included only the changing the name of a university after a prominent Alevi figure – a move Alevis branded as a “joke.” The government later stated that another package exclusively for Alevis is on the way but it will hardly include recognition of cemevi as an Alevi house of worship -- Alevis biggest demand.

Reopening of Halki seminary was another expected measure. Erdogan later said he expects reciprocal gestures from Greece with respect to the rights of Muslims to open the school for Orthodox Christians. Bargaining basic rights of Turkey’s Christian citizens with another country does not seem a smart policy by a government describing itself as a democratic.

The Turkish government says the package won’t be the last one but it is difficult for Turkey with a divided society to consolidate its democracy with small packages of reforms. The government should instead devote its full energy to write a brand new constitution that will help settle most problems Turkey is facing today.

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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