Erdo?an launches democratic reform plan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, yesterday (30 September) unveiled a long-awaited democratic reform plan to bouquets from the European Commission and brickbats from his parliamentary opposition. EURACTIV Turkey reports.

Faced with growing criticism at home and abroad for his government's handling of the “Gezi Park” protests earlier this year, Erdo?an announced a set of measures to help with his country's democratisation process.

The PKK, a Kurdish militant group which Ankara and Brussels deem 'terrorist', recently announced that it was suspending its withdrawal from Turkey, which was required under the first phase of a peace process. It said that the government had not honoured commitments to reforms granting the Kurdish population in Turkey more rights.

Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK's leader, who is serving a life sentence on an island near Istanbul, announced that the group was giving up its three-decades-old claim for independence and armed struggle last March, and outlined a peace negotiated plan.

The PKK, its political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and Erdo?an's government have all blamed each other for not doing enough to implementing the plan in recent months.

Erdo?an said that the 18-point reform package wasn't a result of "pressure, negotiations or imposition". Its bulk seems related to the Kurdish issue.

A Kurdish language ban is set to be lifted, focusing on the use of letters not present in the Turkish alphabet. The Kurdish Latin script includes the letters Q, W and X, unlike Turkish.

Politicians will also be able to use languages other than Turkish during public meetings and in writing.

Erdo?an acknowledged that these restrictions will not be enforced, but said that rules would be changed to allow the legal use of other languages.

According to the plan, private school teachers will be allowed to teach in languages other than Turkish, as identified by the government. The right to education in their mother tongue is a high priority for Kurdish politicians.

Erdo?an also hinted that settlements that have been given a Turkish name in the past may be renamed in Kurdish.

European electoral thresholds

A prominent element in the reform package is reform of the uncommonly high 10% electoral threshold that has applied since the 1980s in Turkish polls. Erdo?an made three offers to politicians: Keeping the threshold as it is, lowering it to 5% and narrowing the constituencies, or adopting a new election system that favours larger parties and abolishes the threshold altogether.

The EU does not strictly require Turkey, an aspirant member, to lower its election threshold. But the Commission states that "the 10% national threshold for obtaining seats in parliament remains the highest among Council of Europe member states" in its yearly progress reports.

Ankara also plans to lower the number of votes needed to be eligible for state financial aid from 7% to 3%, another issue often highlighted by the EU.

Turkey faces three key votes in the coming years. Municipal elections in March 2014 will be the first test for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after this year’s widespread anti-government protests. General elections will then be held in 2015 and voters will also directly elect their next president for the first time. The largely ceremonial position is expected to go to Erdo?an, since AKP’s own rules prohibit their members from standing for a fourth time.

From right to protest to headscarf

Erdo?an also pledged to change the laws regulating protests and gatherings, which came to the fore when the Turkish police cracked down on the Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey in May and June, on grounds that the protests were "unauthorized" and thus "unlawful".

But it is far from certain that Ankara's response to these criticisms will be enough to soothe criticisms. While Erdo?an insists that civil society will now have more say in the protest authorisation process, decisions to ban gatherings will still rest with local governors.

Nils Muižnieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe stated in July that "the legislation and practice [in Turkey] puts too much emphasis on the lawfulness of demonstrations, as opposed to their peacefulness, contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights."

Erdo?an's proposal does not go so far as to remove the 'lawfulness' test for demonstrations.

The reform package also includes an end to the headscarf ban for civil servants, except in the military and security services, and for judges and prosecutors. It also allows land belonging to the Syrian Orthodox Mor Gabriel Monastery to be returned, steps up efforts to combat hate crimes and opens an institute for Roma language and culture.

Erdo?an said that most of the measures in the package will need legislative changes. The prime minister's AKP enjoys a comfortable majority in the parliament.

Erdo?an underlined that the package was not an end in itself and said that it would be followed by further steps towards democratisation.

EU urges opposition participation

The European Commission welcomed the reform package, but urged opposition parties to take part in this process.

Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle's spokesman Peter Stano said during a daily briefing that they welcomed Erdo?an's "reference to the guiding role of the EU acquis communautaire in Turkey's reforms," adding that "the announced measures hold out the prospect of progress on many important issues".

Stano said that they looked forward to progress on "including the opposition in the implementation of the package" and the “translation of the proposals into real life, into legislation.”

Erdo?an's 'go it alone' style of politics on important issues has been frequently criticised in the past and is widely seen as a major factor behind the Gezi Park protests.

Opposition dismisses the package

The three opposition parties represented in the Turkish parliament unanimously dismissed the government's plans.

Vice Chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP), Gürsel Tekin, said that the package was less remarkable than the buzz surrounding it.

CHP MP Sabahat Akkiraz also tweeted that the package did not include anything for Alevis, a group combining Anatolian folk Shi'ism with Sufi elements, that comprises around a fifth of Turkey's population. More rights for Alevis were widely expected in the package, as religious tensions have risen in recent months. Anti-government protests in September that resembled those in Gezi Park were largely concentrated in Alevi-dominated settlements. Ankara’s barely covert involvement in the overwhelmingly sectarian civil war in neighbouring Syria has also been a factor stoking anxieties.

The Kurdish party BDP was equally dismissive of the reform package, with its co-chairwoman, Gültan K??anak, saying that the package did not meet any of their expectations.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which fiercely opposes the 'peace process', also slammed the package. The MHP’s parliamentary leaders suggested that the package was an attempt to appease the PKK.

Progress report in the trash bin?

In Brussels, Stano confirmed that the package would feature in the Commission’s yearly progress report on Turkey, later this month (16 October) along with the reports for other candidate countries. But he refused to comment on how it would feature.

Ankara is bracing itself for this year’s report, as the Commission has repeatedly warned that the Gezi Park protests and the Turkish government’s response will be indicated, indicating that the report may not be flattering for the government.

Commission reports in recent years were followed by heated exchanges between the EU and Turkey, which regards criticisms of its democratic standards as unjustified.  Last month, Turkey’s minister for EU affairs, Egemen Ba???  noted that there were some “interesting” reactions from Turkey to last year’s report and urged his colleagues in the EU to expect “even more interesting” reactions this year.

Last year, Burhan Kuzu, a senior AKP MP, threw a copy of the progress report in the thrash bin during a TV appearance, in reaction to criticisms within it.

But 16 October this year coincides with the religious holiday of Eid al-Adha and Turkish citizens and politicians alike are expected to be on vacation that week, leaving little room for debate.

Turkey's relations with the European Economic Community (EEC) date back to 1959. But it took many years, until the Helsinki European Council of December 1999, for the country to obtain the status of a candidate country for EU membership.

The EU opened accession talks with Turkey in October 2005, but a number of stumbling blocks are holding up Ankara's progress, in particular concerning Turkey's relations with Cyprus, human and minority rights and freedom of expression.

Out of 35 negotiation chapters, so far only one chapter (science and research) has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.

The opening of another 11 chapters has been blocked by the France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.

In 2010, the EU, in a gesture of good faith towards Turkey, opened another chapter in the accession process, increasing the total number of opened chapters to 13. The chapter covers sectors related to food safety, veterinary standards and phytosanitary requirements. On 26 June 2013 EU ministers agreed to open one more chapter – regional policy – which was among those hat France had been refusing to give go ahead since the term of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

  • 16 Oct.: Commission publishes yearly progress reports for EU hopefuls, including Turkey

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