In a press statement made on September 30, PM Erdoğan disclosed the long awaited package of reforms addressing democratic concerns. Discussions on which areas of democratic governance would be strengthened via the package and which issues might be left out has occupied the domestic agenda for quite some time.
To facilitate meaningful democratic reforms that allow for democratic reflexes to grow roots, it is not enough to amend a bunch of laws that are current practise in democratic governance. Internalising its underlying ethos is as important as the formal changes.
Unfortunately, reading between the lines and contextualising issues that are included/excluded, the timing of the package, and the way in which the package was drafted and launched highlights once again that although ‘deepening democracy’ has always been an important part of the AKP’s pragmatist political campaign, the AKP’s paternal instincts and its fondness for authoritarian governance remain as strong as ever.
Who is the democratic package intended for?
In general, the proposed amendments show that the guiding mindset in the writing of the package has been preoccupied with the Kurdish Peace Process. To bring readers up to date, in the last round of peace talks between the government and the PKK (March 21), the action plan was drafted as a ‘three tier process’.
In the first instance, the PKK were expected to withdraw from Turkish territories. Secondly, a process of democratisation where the Turkish state would concede much required fundamental rights and freedoms vis-a-vis the nation’s Kurdish population would be implemented via legal amendments. The third and final step would be a normalisation of relations.
Recently, the peace talks were branded as a dead end street due to frustrations on both sides. While the government criticised the PKK for not sticking to its end of the bargain, PKK withdrawal brought things to a halt on September 9 on the basis that the government was dragging its feet in implementing democratic reforms. The agreed deadline for the reform package was indeed September 1. The construction and fortification of military outposts in hostile eastern provinces in June was another issue that the PKK saw as a betrayal on the part of the government.
Hence, the package announced on Monday is primarily an attempt to pull back on track a derailed peace process and a statement on the part of the government that it is committed to the peace accords.
Furthermore, the protests that raged throughout the summer months across Turkey - reports state that protests were held in 79 cities out of 81 - were embraced by a multitude of identities encapsulating Alevis, Anti-Capitalist Muslims, Armenians, Kurds, Nationalists, Seculars and LGBT activists alike, with the overarching demand of more democracy and more freedom. As such, this democratic package should also be seen as a response to the demands of the Gezi Movement. In short, the unveiling of this democratic package was unavoidable on both counts: prolonging its announcement any longer would have amounted to political suicide.
General reception, benefits and shortcomings
Undoubtedly, there will be those who find the package satisfactory. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç is of the opinion that ‘75%’ of the population is satisfied. It must also be stated that any expansion of democratic avenues is a beneficial development and there are many provisions in the package that expand on democratic governance in areas of political rights and fundamental rights and freedoms.
The amendment that lifts the ban on headscarves in all public institutions apart for the army, police and judiciary is a positive democratic reform. The creation of a cultural institute and language courses for Roma Communities is a very progressive step, even if it is only a beginning. The re-instatement of the Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Assyrian Community is another example of a positive step taken to safeguard the human rights of minorities.
However, the BDP (Kurdish political party) have already stated that the democracy package is inadequate in terms of the expansion of rights and freedoms for Kurds. As far as they are concerned, the proposed changes are mere breadcrumbs and don’t tackle root problems.
Education in the mother tongue, reduced to private schools only, is not a large enough step forward, given that the AKP had already allowed for private language schools to teach Kurdish through legal amendments in 2002.
More importantly, although part of the package allows villages, though not districts or provinces, to be re-named with their Kurdish names, and Kurds will be able to procure ID cards with more accurate spelling of their proper names, the ongoing insistence on a highly centralised political system turns a deaf ear to Kurdish demands for local governance. Essentially the centralist, controlling mindset of Turkish rule remains intact. And of course the largest shortcoming for the Kurdish cause has been the lack of reform of a Turkish Penal Code that has put thousands of Kurdish activists behind bars (the KCK trials).
Similarly, through discussions on social network sites, it would appear that the sections of Turkish society who were active during the Gezi Demonstrations and who have also been calling for an expansion of individual rights and freedom, are equally dissatisfied.
During his long preamble, Erdoğan states that “The attitude that turns a deaf ear to the needs, demands and cries of citizens, but which absorbs them without trace is gone. There is no longer a government that exerts authority in public, or one that turns public spaces into a living hell against citizens who don’t act according the government’s definition of correctness”. This statement could also be turned on its head to describe the reception of some of the AKP’s conservative policies among the public eg. issues around alcohol restrictions and abortion rights – key provocations behind the recent waves of protests.
The package includes only a miniscule amendment to the law that regulates freedom of assembly and an extra hour for protests if and when permission for the protest has been granted in the first place...
At face value, the provisions that strengthen the protection of individual life-styles and discrimination from hate speech are also positive but they contain hidden dangers. Hate speech should never be allowed, but if the amendment is used as a legal platform to punish undesired criticisms, then freedom of expression will suffer even more. I highlight this as a danger because recently, there have been a number of cases where individuals have been persecuted for hate speech under the rubric of desecrating religious values. On the other hand, life-styles that are deemed ‘inappropriate’ by individuals with hardline religious beliefs are openly discussed as such on state channels and private channels alike, without triggering a response from the courts. In particular there was no mention of hate speech and crimes against members of the LGBT community.
One of the largest shortcomings of the package is in relation to a lack of provisions that relate to the demands of the Alevi (Shiite) community towards claiming the same rights as other citizens. The Alevis demand the right to have their spaces of prayer (Cemevi) officially recognised. They also reject compulsory courses on religion (exclusively Sunni), administered by the exclusively Sunni Directorate of Religious Affairs. There was no movement on any of these points. The only amendment in relation to the Alevi Community was the thoroughly cosmetic change in the name of one University, this after all the bragging about naming the third bridge in Istanbul after an ancestor who massacred Alevis.
There are a very lengthy list of issues that were not included in this ‘democracy package’. To mention just a few of the most pressing concerns voiced in recent days;
- The issue of the ‘Special Authority Courts’ was ignored.
- No amnesty was given to political prisoners that include political activists, journalists and MPs and long detention periods were not responded to.
- Obstacles to the democratisation of politics inherent in the Turkish Penal Code, the Anti-Terror Law or the Law on Police Duties and Powers were not addressed.
- Limitations placed on local governance mechanisms which are part of international accords were not lifted.
- Although the Assyrian Church reclaimed the Mor Gabrial Monastery, the Ecumenical Orthodox Church and the Halki Seminary were left out.
Democracy designed behind closed doors
PM Erdoğan’s press conference intended to unveil this democracy package lasted 67 minutes, of which 44 were targeted against the opposition party, the ‘non-democrats’ and any potential future criticisms against the package.
Not only were journalists not allowed to ask questions, but journalists who the government sees as critical to its party were not even invited. This in its own way is as important an indicator to the true health of democracy in Turkey: the presentation of the package is as important as the contents.
The message one gets is that however much Turkey democratises, the choice of areas selected for democratisation is at the mercy of Prime Minister Erdoğan. After all, another criticism levelled against the preparation of the package was the lack of consultation with different parts of society, which received a dismissal en passant from Erdoğan - pre-emptively - who said during his speech that from, “ those afraid of change, innovation and high standards” he only expected “denigration along the lines of the ‘mountain having given birth to a molehill’”. The PM also made it clear that he wasn’t seeking the backing of the opposition. On the contrary, he once again deliberately placed the CHP in the crosshairs.
In short, the package falls short of addressing the central demands of the Kurds and Alevis and is therefore unlikely to reduce tensions and create the conditions for societal peace. Similarly, by not tackling the underlying illiberal and undemocratic governance traditions, those who have been demonstrating against the government with clear and explicit demands, are not likely to be impressed either.
Not all is bad though. I think it is important not to underestimate the fact that this is the first time a reform package has been published without the pressure of outside forces. The meaning and significance of this is great because it throws the spotlight on a deep-rooted societal demand for democratic reform which is not going to go away.