Turkey’s democratisation package: a stage, not the final destination

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It wasn’t long ago when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's powerful prime minister, was wearing the mantle of champion of democracy. Following the government clampdown on the protests sweeping through Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past summer, however, a good number of his fellow countrymen and women began to express doubt over his supposed commitment to democracy. The EU is similarly concerned about the authoritarian turn in Turkish politics – reflected in the monitoring reports issued annually by the European Commission.

On Monday, Erdoğan sought to recover at least in part some of his democratic credentials by unveiling a set of reforms to advance individual freedoms and minority rights. The “democratisation package”, announced at a press conference in Ankara, proposes a number of measures to be taken by the government, notably, lifting the ban on wearing the headscarf in public spaces, relaxing rules on the use of minority languages, Kurdish first and foremost, and the return of lands belonging to the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery, Mor Gabriel.

While such steps are certainly welcome, they do not mark a breakthrough. Instead, the democratisation package is yet another stage in a journey whose destination remains as elusive as ever. For example, Kurdish may be allowed in private institutions but it’s still not part of the curriculum in state schools in the southeast, a key demand of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and others. Even more importantly, though Erdoğan signalled that the 10 percent electoral threshold could be lowered, he came short of proposing a new threshold. Regarding Alevis, the largest religious minority in Turkey, the prime minister promised to rename a university in central Anatolia after Hacı Bektaşı Veli, a prominent 13th century Muslim mystic, celebrated as a saint by the heterodox community. Yet that's hardly the same as giving Alevis equal rank to the majority Sunnis who enjoy a number of privileges (e.g. Sunni imams are civil servants paid by the state).

Erdoğan's initiative is primarily a tool to keep afloat the peace process with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) and the talks with its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan. Over the past tense months progress has slowed. Erdoğan's plan to trade enhanced Kurdish rights, or even political status, for a constitutional change installing a presidential system supported by the BDP fell through as a result of the protests spurred by Gezi Park. The bargain is off the table. Expectedly, fears that the process could be derailed began to emerge, followed by a PKK decision to call off the ceasefire. On 9 September, the armed group halted its withdrawal from Turkey into bases in northern Iraq, accusing Ankara of “irresponsible behaviour”. In Syria, Ankara-backed militias, such as the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra, clashed with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), seen as an offshoot of the PKK. Despite PYD leader Salih Muslim's visit to Turkey in July, Syrian Kurds remain critical of the AKP government. Their views chime in well with those of the government's opponents inside Turkey who are deeply sceptical of Ankara's political and military aid for Islamists of various stripes in Syria.

Facing pressure, Erdoğan had to make a move. To be sure, he missed the 1 September deadline issued by the BDP in August – and he had to, as the last thing he would like at this moment is to appear liable to pressure. He is also certain to miss the 15 October date set by the Kurds to implement the needed legislative changes. Even so, today's democratisation package is an encouraging sign that efforts at resolving the Kurdish issue, and granting rights to other minorities, are still on the agenda.

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