Fixing a broken Turkish democracy

The Democracy Package will only have a short term effect on Turkish democracy and will be incapable of tackling the main problems in our society. 

Sarphan Uzunoğlu
30 October 2013

September 30, 2013 was a historic milestone in Turkey's political life and that of its so-called 'youthful' democracy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a democracy package including some reforms regarding the rights of different groups within society. This declaration was broadcast live by several television stations, a kind of habit in Turkey, whenever the Prime Minister declares anything much at all. However, this time, Erdoğan’s message was really important.

Some deputies in the Peace and Democracy Party (the pro-Kurdish Party in Turkey) even went to Qandil Mountain to watch the declaration being made alongside PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) leaders. The meeting started at 11:00 am but the Prime Minister kept everyone waiting including all the ethnic and cultural minority groups until 11:50 am to declare the reforms, possibly taking the midday break into account. From nationalists to liberals, many different groups were eagerly watching to see the Prime Minister's future plans for Turkey's democracy.

There are of course some major democratic challenges in Turkey - to list them in no particular order; Kurdish self-determination, administration, education in their own language and autonomy; the Armenian genocide, discriminatory state and fiscal policies regarding the Alevi people, the  election system and that chronic disease for Turkey's democracy - the laws regarding the use of headscarves in public service. All these issues were really 'critical' and the 'democracy package' referred to many of them. But the highest expectations were regarding two issues above all, the liberation of Kurdish political prisoners and education in the Kurdish language. The latter has been a leading Kurdish demand for years in order to sustain their national identity, and directly coming up against the existing 'assimilation' strategies of Turkey’s 'national education system'. This has been a major theme in ongoing debates between Öcalan (the Kurdish leader in prison) and the Turkish Government.

What the Government did, spinning this as the best ever reform for Kurds in Turkey, was to allow them to establish their own 'private schools'. This really makes little sense when you look at the fiscal position of Kurds living in Turkey. A population heavily dominated by workers has little to no opportunity to be involved in paying for private education. Some Kurds now respond to the offer by saying, ''now you have to pay money just for being a Kurd.'' Pro-Fethullah Gülen organizations have already started to apply for the license to run the first private school which offers an education in Kurdish, while pro-Kurdish groups for their part hesitate to be involved in such a system which is opposed to the socialist roots of the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey. This was a qualified disappointment however, since the pro-Kurdish party had already made it pretty clear that they had no high expectations from such a government.

On this subject of education in one’s native language the Turkish Government has begun to draw weird parallels between Kurds in Turkey and Turks living in Germany. Turks live in Germany under the status of immigrants, which is different from the position of Kurds in Turkey as the indigenous people of North Kurdistan or what is called the 'southeastern part of Turkey'. Kurds in Turkey are not immigrants and they don't even consider themselves a minority. So this is the first problem. The collective national rights of Kurds have always been a 'scary issue' for those who have statist loyalties in Turkey and Erdoğan is part of this 'conservative nationalist culture' in contradiction with the 'reformist' image which he prefers to propagate and which was certainly uppermost in the article on the ‘democracy package’ published by The Economist. Kurds still regard education in their own language as their 'social right', but these demands have so far been ignored. 

The other and more important dimension of the package for Kurds concerns Abdullah Öcalan and the other Kurdish prisoners. The silence of the Turkish Government on this front bitterly disappointed those who are hoping for peace in Turkey. The Peace and Democracy Party representatives will be in touch with Öcalan over this stalemate, which could determine the future of peace in Turkey at least in the short term. But the Kurds are not alone in their disappointment.

Those fighting to defend LGBTQI and women’s rights have also had their demands ignored. A 'Hate Crime Act' was mentioned, but no reform to include crimes against these groups. It is a well-known fact that the murder of both LGBTQI and women has increased 'dramatically' in the last eleven years, during the AKP's (Justice and Development Party)term of governance.

The package is a genuinely reforming one especially when it comes to overcoming the 'nonsensical’ ban on wearing the headscarf during public service. There are other positive reforms about the 'appearance' of officials which had been a problem during the history of the modern Turkish republic. Headscarved mayors and ministers will be nominated by the Justice and Development party in the next local and general elections. Opposition parties have not felt able to oppose these ideas. Actually some of these parties had already proposed similar acts liberating people from the headscarf ban, but none of their proposals were accepted.

Cengiz Çandar, a prestigious journalist, was however not impressed. His view is that the former slogan espoused by the AKP when it came to the  2010 referendum, ''Not Enough But Yes'' won't work any more and that the only truthful response might be, ''That's enough!''. Çandar's statement is surprising since he is known as a leading pro-AKP left wing intellectual whose support has in the past been really beneficial to the AKP. His 'disappointment' with the Democracy Package suggests that it will only have a short term effect on Turkish democracy and will be incapable of tackling the main problems in our society.  For example, Öcalan's situation in prison remains substantially unchanged, and it is publicly quite evident that the AKP’s attitude towards the Alevi people is based in ignorance and is really 'problematic' due to their own pro-Sunni positioning.

So the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) might alter its 'peaceful' strategy in response to the steps not taken by the current government. The Kurdish liberation movement representative Zübeyir Aydar sums up what many think: ''The AKP has tried to rebuild its pro-democracy image just in time for the local elections.'' These are weak reforms aiming to do just enough to create a veneer of progress for the Turkish electorate.

Kurds will not continue to be satisfied with the previous fillips of 'multicultural' democracy any longer. Already they regard the offer of such 'market based' rights as a humiliation for the Kurdish community. Alevi people will be more active in the 'anti-war' protests taking place in Turkey, since they have little to lose, and the tensions between Syria and Turkey will be felt much more strongly in Turkish streets from now on. Women and LGBTQI individuals will not be silent either. The AKP has created a 'great alliance' of the groups that this package did not satisfy, and the next period is already one in which people feel that the sense of unmet expectations is uppermost.

The AKP has no 'proactive' solution for the problems caused by disappointment with the Democracy Package. The AKP finds it much easier to do its politics in a far narrower sphere. So who should Turkish people turn to to fix our 'broken' Turkish democracy – a process that must involve a thorough, sensible and longterm process of conflict resolution between the main actors. But in a Turkey where thousands of political prisoners languish in jail there is little glimpse of a brighter future for our 'sick' democracy, unless another experience like the Gezi protests comes to our rescue once again.

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