Is the “democratization package” that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Monday, Sept. 30, the best thing that has ever happened to Turkey? According to the pro-Erdogan media, that was almost the case, and the “Sept. 30 Revolution” had to be applauded with fanfare. According to the anti-Erdogan voices, however, all the democratic reforms that the prime minister announced were either inadequate or illusory, and no one should have been fooled by such tricks.
I guess I am among those who take the third view: Yes, Erdogan’s democracy package was far from creating the ideal Turkey overnight, and it even fell short of some important expectations. Yet still, all the 28 separate legal reforms Erdogan announced deserve praise and support. While the prime minister may have deserved a lot of criticism in the past few years, and especially since the beginning of the Gezi Park protests in June, for his authoritarian tendencies and divisive rhetoric, this time he seems to be doing something right, and why not support him when he does something right?
The bulk of the reforms in question relate to Turkey’s most serious and lethal problem: the “Kurdish question,” or the tension between Turkey’s strict official nationalism and the aspirations of its large Kurdish minority. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Turkish Republic tried to “solve” this problem in very crude ways: simply by banning the Kurdish language and culture and suppressing Kurdish revolts with heavy-handed security measures. Yet, since it came to power in 2002, Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) has replaced both of these longtime policies with legal reforms for Kurdish rights and political dialogue with Kurdish separatists.
In this sense, some of Monday’s reforms can be seen as a continuation of AKP’s general policy on the Kurds. For example, look at these two clauses:
“Education in different languages and dialects other than Turkish in private schools will be allowed.”
“Political propaganda in different languages and dialects other than Turkish will be allowed.”
Here, the “languages and dialects other than Turkish” can of course be anything, but everybody knows that the primary issue is Kurdish. Similarly, the lifting of the ban on the usage of foreign letters such as q, x, w in Turkish names — based on an archaic “Alphabet Law” — is related mostly to Kurds, whose names include those letters. Another legal change, which allows the villages renamed by state — in line with the “Turkification” policies of the past — to return to their original names is a demand voiced by the Kurds more than any other group.
The lifting of a common oath taken by school children is also a reform that may win some Kurdish hearts and minds, since it used to begin with the proclamation, “I am a Turk,” and end with a bizarre line that reflected the totalitarian aspects of Turkey’s founding ideology: “Let my existence be a gift to Turkish existence!”
Two key reforms about the political system will also help Kurdish nationalists more than anyone else: The lowering of the electoral threshold, and the expansion of state aid to smaller parties.
However, the voice of Kurdish nationalism, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — which is as Sinn Fein was to the IRA — the political wing of the outlawed PKK, has dismissed Erdogan’s reform package as inadequate and an “election maneuverer.” But I believe that this BDP rhetoric should not be taken too seriously, for it is the usual line of this party to criticize almost every reform that the AKP does, and for an understandable reason: These two parties are the only two in Turkey that compete for Kurdish votes. The BDP, therefore, prefers to cast itself as the only liberator of the Kurds, and portrays AKP’s efforts toward liberalization as dishonest.
Another major liberalization in Erdogan’s reform package was for conservative women who wear the Islamic headscarf. Turkey’s self-styled and highly authoritarian “secularism” had discriminated against them for decades, banning them from all public schools and jobs. (In Turkey, the secular republic meant “the republic of the seculars,” not all citizens.) But now women who wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, which means roughly half of all Turkish women, will be able to get public jobs — with the exclusion of “uniformed jobs” such as military, police and the judiciary. (Meanwhile, the all-covering niqab or burqa, which is almost non-existent in Turkey, is not a matter of public debate.) This is a much-expected and long-overdue reform which I fully support.
Besides having something for Kurds and conservative women, Erdogan’s package also includes improvements for Turkey’s Roma community, Syriac Christians (a sect within Eastern Christianity) and a symbolic gesture for the Alevis, Turkey’s largest non-Sunni minority. There are also positive steps toward liberalizing the law on the right to assembly and demonstration, and penalizing discrimination and hate speech.
The lack of any real progress for the Alevis is probably the biggest disappointment that Erdogan caused. Yet his deputy Bekir Bozdag announced that a “separate package” for the Alevis will be prepared, and we should keep an eye on that. The other disappointment is the lack of any progress towards reopening the Halki Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The reason, Ankara experts say, is that the Greek government, with which Turkey has a “reciprocity” principle, has refused any reform on the religious rights of the Turks of Greece. Although the narrow-mindedness of Athens cannot justify the narrow-mindedness of Ankara, it somehow explains it.
The final point to note is that while Erdogan’s reforms might indeed be “just a half-full glass,” as Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin put it, there is no major political party that offers anything better. The mainstream opposition, the all-secular CHP (People’s Republican Party), is also quite nationalist and is thus reluctant to create more freedom for the Kurds and other minorities. The third party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), is already the unabashed defender of the most archaic limitations on society. Meanwhile, the liberal intelligentsia, the real promoter of all reforms, has very little support in the broader public.
In other words, while the current package might not be able to hide the less pleasant facts about Erdogan, such as the declining media freedom under his rule, it also reasserts his reformist side, which still might be the most promising path for Turkey’s minorities and overall liberalization. Therefore, it should be welcomed. And Erdogan, when he takes good steps like these, should be supported.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a columnist for Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish