For months now, Turkish officials had been promising they would soon unveil a significant new democratization package, building it up with the kind of hype reserved for Hollywood summer blockbusters. The package, meant to move Turkey further down the democratic road and restore the ruling Justice and Development Party's reformist image after the summer's bruising Gezi Park events, was finally released yesterday, though -- at first blush -- it appears to have failed to live up to the hype, as if it had been cobbled together from outtakes and recycled footage.
The early reviews of the government's package, presented in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, certainly have been mostly neutral to negative. "Package proves disappointing for non-Muslim communities" and "Turkey's Alevis disheartened by democratization package" were two headlines found on the Today's Zaman website yesterday. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also expressed disappointment with proposed reforms. "This is not a democratization package but an election package,” said Gultan Kisanak, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party.
It's not hard to understand their dismay. While the package Erdogan unveiled does contain some important changes (the Wall Street Journal has a good rundown, here) -- among them ending the decades-old practice of having schoolchildren recite a nationalist oath every morning and allowing headscarf-wearing women to begin working in certain public offices -- most of the reforms seem to be cosmetic, failing to get to the root of some of the problems that Turkish society and politics face.
For example, in the case of the Alevis, a minority that by some estimates make up close to 20 percent of the Turkish population, the package offers laughably little. While there had been the expectation that the government's plan would finally officially acknowledge the Alevis as an official minority by giving their houses of worship recognized status, all the package offers in their direction is to rename a university in central Turkey after a 13th-century mystic revered in the Alevi religion.
Considering there is an ongoing peace process between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), there were also high hopes among many Kurds that the democratization package would contain reforms designed to meet their long-standing demands. While the plan certainly offers more for the Kurds, it does little to seriously address those demands. While Kurds have long asked for the right to public education in Kurdish, the package instead offers to allow the teaching of Kurdish in private schools, a step that makes little sense in the impoverished southeast region of Turkey, where most Kurds live. And while Kurdish politicians have made clear their desire that Ankara do away with Turkey's 10 percent election threshold, which has mostly been used to keep pro-Kurdish parties out of parliament, the democratization package offers no concrete steps for doing that. Instead, Erdogan said parliament would discuss the issue, either keeping the current threshold or moving towards two different electoral systems, both of which, as journalist and blogger Emre Kizilkaya points out, would still favor larger parties over smaller ones. (The Hurriyet Daily News makes the same point, here.) The package also contains nothing which would help Turkey decentralize its Ankara-centric governing structure and move more power towards regional and local governments, another long-standing Kurdish demand.
Writes Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch's Turkey researcher, in an analysis of the package:
These steps to promote a more democratic Turkey should be welcomed. However, the package does not tackle some of Turkey’s entrenched human rights concerns, many disproportionately affecting Kurds.
The reforms won’t end the prosecution and extended pretrial detention of thousands of people – including journalists, students and political activists – for participating in terrorist organizations, although they’ve done nothing that could remotely be described as terrorism.
Nor will the changes announced lift the many legal restrictions on free speech, end police violence against demonstrators, or bring justice for the victims of police abuses....
....The limited steps in today’s announcement are positive, but much more needs to be done to address Turkey’s fundamental human rights problems.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2010, political scientist Soli Ozel described Erdogan and the AKP as “a democratizing force, but not necessarily a democratic one.” The government's heavy-handed response to the Gezi Park protests this past summer and many of the inflammatory comments made by Erdogan and other officials during that time certainly further raised the question of if the AKP is at heart truly a democratic force. With its new reform package, the government may be hoping it can at least restore its image as a democratizing force. Based on the early response to the package, though, even that goal may now be out of reach for the AKP.