Turkey PM tries to lure back secularists, Kurds with major reforms

By bne IntelliNews October 1, 2013

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In an effort to lure alienated voters from minority groups and the secularist segment of the Turkish population, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced on September 30 a package of long-awaited political reforms, which include changes to the electoral system and increasing language rights.

In his first major policy speech since the country was wracked by violent street protests in May and June, Erdogan said a major part of the "democratization package" would be a debate in parliament about cutting or eliminating altogether the 10% threshold a political party needs to enter parliament. The limit is among the highest in the world and prevents Kurdish and other smaller parties from entering parliament.

The move will be greeted warmly by parties representing minority groups. The threshold is a major grievance of Turkey's Kurdish minority, who make up around a 20% the country's 76m population.The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fought a vicious insurgency starting in 1983, which has cost more than 40,000 lives. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have made brokering peace a priority, since the drawn out conflict has hurt both Turkey's human rights record and the economy in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.

A deal reached with the PKK in March this year for a ceasefire and a withdrawal from Turkey was hailed as the beginning of the end of the troubles. However, the Kurdish militant wing recently suspended its pull back due to a perceived failure by the government to make political concessions.

These new measures are seen as a move to restart that process. On top of the potential lowering of the parliamentary threshold, Erdogan said the teaching of Kurdish and other non-Turkish languages in private schools is to be allowed, that towns can officially take up their native-language names, that a nationalist oath recited by students at schools will be scrapped, and that an anti-discrimination commission will be strengthened.

Erdogan also vowed to change the laws regulating protests and gatherings, which came to the fore when the Turkish police cracked down on the Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey in May and June, on grounds that the protests were "unauthorized" and thus "unlawful".

"Today our country, our nation, is experiencing an historic moment. It is passing through a very important stage. We are taking important steps to make Turkey even greater," Erdogan said in Ankara, according to newswires. "Our people's greatest wish is to strengthen our domestic peace, further our social cohesion and solidarity, and fortify our tranquillity."

However, the main Kurdish party - Peace and Democracy (BDP) - said the measures fail to go far enough to advance peace with the PKK. "The democratization package does not meet our expectations," co-chairwoman Gultan Kisanak told reporters. "The package does not have the capacity to overcome the blockages in the peace process." Even so, Guney Yildiz of the BBC Turkish service points out that "as long as there is a commitment to further reform in the future, the announcement could set the wheels of the peace process back in motion."

Erdogan also proposed reforms over the restriction on women wearing the Islamic headscarf, a ban that dates back to the inception of the Turkish Republic and has kept many women from joining the public work force. Relatively low female employment in Turkey is regarded as one of the country's economic weaknesses. The new law would allow women employees to cover their heads at state institutions, except for those in the military, security services, and judges and prosecutors.

Erdogan's wife wears such a headscarf and it is a traditional symbolic battleground between secularists and more religious parts of Turkish society. However, its importance has waned over the years, and today there has been little strong political opposition to removing the ban. Even so, it might be regarded as another step in the AKP's creeping Islamisation of Turkey, which has also included restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and punishment of those who fail to adhere to its own narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam.

However, the package of reforms also offers concessions to other minority groups, including Christians. Erdogan announced plans to return land belonging to the Syriac Christian Mor Gabriel Monastery, which had been seized by the state. He did not, however, announce expected measures such as concessions to the Alevi Muslim minority and the Greek Orthodox Church. However, the PM did declare: "This package is not a first and will not be the last of such reforms."

The lack of movement on the Greek Orthodox Church issue disappointed some like Mahir Zeynalov, an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. "In March, Erdogan said during a televised interview that there is no legal obstacle in opening the Halki seminary - the top demand of Greek Orthodox Christians - but that he expects reciprocal gestures from Greece ... It is true that Muslims in Greece face discrimination and the Greek authorities have awkward regulations that anger local Muslims ... 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?"

Whatever the finer points of the package of reforms, it is certainly a strike by Erdogan and his AKP as Turkey is about to embark on a year of elections that will start with local elections and culminate in presidential elections next year. "After his crackdown on the Gezi Park protests in June appealed to religious and nationalist sensitivities, Mr Erdogan now seems to be trying to bolster his popularity with liberal, left-wing and Kurdish voters before an election cycle," says Yildiz of the BBC Turkish service.

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