The new democratization package, labeled by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a “historic moment for Turkey,” has created quite a stir, further dividing Turkey’s already-polarized society.
While the package hardly represents a democratization revolution, at the same time there are some positive elements. With 28 separate legal reforms, it throws a lot into the pot, which is not that surprising in the face of the forthcoming local and presidential elections. No doubt the package is also aimed at cleaning up Erdoğan’s image, particularly in terms of his respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and authoritarian tendencies, which took a bashing following the Gezi Park protests during the summer.
First the positive news. Turkey will have hate crime legislation for the first time, although precisely which crimes this will apply to is not known yet. It also seems that lesbians and gays (LGBT) have been omitted, which is a shame as they are frequently the target of hate crime. Ending discrimination against women wearing the veil in public institutions (although it will remain for police, judiciary and military) is excellent news, as is the decision to lower the election threshold, which should allow for much broader political representation in Parliament. The return of confiscated land of the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery in Mardin province is positive and should reassure Turkey’s Syriacs. While the establishment of a Roma language and cultural institute was pleasant news, as was the new housing that the prime minister said would be built for the Roma, I would hope some EU states may learn from Turkey’s positive approach towards the Roma.
Now for the weaknesses. Turkey’s Kurds had been eagerly waiting this package to see whether its content would be enough to keep the government’s cease-fire deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on track. I would say it only just manages that being a “better than nothing effort,” and certainly does not go far enough. The package seems more aimed at creating a feel-good factor for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than the Kurds. Sure there are some positive points — Kurds will no longer be fined for writing the three letters, Q, W and X, which have been banned since the 1920s, and Turkified towns and villages will be renamed. Clearly, the decision to abolish the pledge of allegiance to Turkey and to being a Turk, which schoolchildren are obliged to chant every morning, will be welcomed, although it has created an uproar in some circles.
Erdoğan may have bought himself some time with the Kurds, but they want and deserve much more. According to some Kurds I spoke to, the package only scratches the surface. First, the fact that limiting mother tongue education to private schools is a big flaw. Public schools should also have been included. Moreover, the wide-ranging definitions of “terror” and “organization membership” that are the cause of the detentions of many Kurdish politicians and activists will remain the same, with legal provisions that enable mass detentions also staying unchanged.
The package also fails to address measures regarding the rights and freedoms of Alevis. Naming one university after their spiritual leader — Hacı Bektaş-ı Veli — is totally inadequate. The failure to grant cemevis the status of a place of worship is a significant shortcoming and sends a very negative signal about the AKP’s approach. Erdoğan has in the past infuriated the Alevi community by stating that cemevis are places of cultural activity, not worship. Apparently a separate package will be launched for the Alevis, although no exact timeframe has been fixed yet. They must do this as a matter of urgency. Meanwhile, the Halki Seminary issue is also left untouched, which is disappointing. The government should learn that one of the keys to a safe, secure and stable state is to pamper your minorities.
This package is clearly a half-full glass. I want to see this glass topped up. Yet, despite the shortcomings it should be welcomed. I would like to see quick and full implementation of all the measures it addresses — although unfortunately the government does not have a good track record in this respect — as well as rapid moves to address its inadequacies.
(This article first appeared in Sunday’s Zaman)