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What Erdogan’s reform package could mean for Turkey

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

By Vedran Obućina 

Many Turkish liberals fear that the ideology of Kemalism has expired with the new reform package presented this month by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The package includes lifting the ban on wearing headscarves at public institutions and removing the requirement that primary school students recite the Turkish pledge of allegiance. These measures may shatter the foundations of Atatürk’s Turkey, as the overwhelming AKP majority in the Parliament will certainly vote for the reforms.

Erdoğan is the most powerful Turkish Prime Minister in Turkish history since Kemal Atatürk. Three election victories for his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) have made him a dominant figure in Turkish politics and internationally.

During his 11-year rule, Erdoğan has brought economic and political stability to Turkey. Internationally, he staged new role for Turkey in the Balkans, and established clear-cut relationships with Israel, Iran, Syria and Iraq, as well as with the European Union. Domestically, he turned Turkey into an export giant with increasing industry. He was not afraid to curb the power of the army, seen as guardian of the secular constitution. Many now think Erdoğan is on his way to transforming Turkey into a real religious society, according to the Islamic values of his political party.

Erdoğan’s opponents are bewildered. This summer’s protests demonstrated the resentment of the “other 50 percent” of Turks. After the riots, this reform package is another blow to the secularists. But these reforms do not only serve the AKP’s Islamic interest. The package also included reforms to provide for education in one’s mother tongue at private schools (especially important to the Kurdish population); the restoration of the original names of villages, districts and provinces; and changes in the law on political parties, including the possibility of lowering the 10 percent electoral threshold for entering Parliament.

The reforms guarantee other, more specific rights for religious and ethnic minorities, such as the return of the property of the Mor Gabriel Monastery, which had been seized by the state, to Syriac Christians.

Students at primary schools, including ethnic and religious minorities and liberal Turks, will not be required to take the everyday oath, which goes like this: “I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. My principle is to protect the younger, to respect the elder, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress. Oh Great Atatürk! On the path that you have paved, I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set. My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence. How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk!’” This strong everyday reminder of Kemalism is being removed from public life.

The policy regarding wearing a headscarf or a beard while working in public service will stay the same for those working as judges, prosecutors and military personnel, as these practices are incompatible with the uniforms these officials have to wear. But all other institutions will allow a practice long present in Turkish society. Erdoğan said the headscarf ban contradicts the freedom of thought and religion and labor rights, and was therefore discriminatory.

The Kemalist ideology did not transform Turkish society into a fierce secular one. The top-down approach of the Kemalist elite suffered with the election of Prime Minister Menderes and later from military coups. Turkish values and identity are embodied in democratic rights.

After drastic mistakes of political actors in 1990s, the AKP embarked on a positive path of wider democratic changes. Unfortunately, Erdoğan applies the old Turkish style of top-down ruling, where he and his party loyalists believe they know what is right for the society. The Gezi protests this summer showed them otherwise.

The AKP presented these reforms just in time to prepare Turks for a municipal election victory. The opposition is thus very careful in its criticism of the actual content of the populist package. Even the main opposition party, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), did not counter with any objection to the headscarf policy, but focused instead on the election threshold, which is even for them a totally insignificant matter. Ninety years of dominant political ideology might die without a single word of objection from the opposition. Even the Gezi protesters remained silent.

The European Commission reacted positively to the reforms but requested more evidence when the text is translated into law. The Commission’s October 16 progress report on Turkey stresses a number of important steps taken by Turkey over the past 12 months, but also criticizes issues the Commission finds anti-democratic. If not for the democratization package, the report that concentrated on the Gezi protests would have given Turkey a bad mark that would perhaps have led to the further suspension of membership negotiations.

The Commission report welcomes the government’s democratization democratization and judicial reform packages, while also emphasizing that the government exerts pressure on the media, it restricts supervision of the Court of Accounts and ignited polarization during the Gezi Park protests.

The reforms themselves are indeed liberal. They provide allowances for religious liberty, make grand concessions to Kurdish and other minorities that until now suffered under Turkish nationalism, and allow many smaller political parties to participate in governance.

The problem is in the attitude of AKP. Latest events show that the party is becoming more and more autocratic from within. Instead of using constructive dialogue, Erdoğan harshly cracked down on the Gezi protests. Conspiracy theories naming the protesters as looters, terrorists and plotters against a democratically elected government sharply contrast with rule of law, freedom of expression, tolerance and pluralism – the public image the AKP wants to have.

Another worrisome sign is that these reforms might be regarded solely as cosmetic changes with a few blockbuster style announcements. Indeed, the headscarf is not a significant problem, as the wearing of a scarf is so widely visible everywhere. The portion of public institutions would succumb to public opinion sooner or later.

Concessions to non-Muslim minorities are important, but what about the Muslim denominations? Erdoğan’s package did not include the rights of Shi’a Alevis, Turkey’s largest and long-persecuted religious minority, whose demands for Alevi houses of worship to be officially designated as such were ignored. Given the AKP’s strong Sunni direction, it is questionable whether the ruling party is really emphasizing religious freedoms or just those freedoms they seek.

Kurds, the eternal question-mark of Turkish domestic politics, are not entirely satisfied as well. Their children will not have to repeat every day that they are Turks, and their towns and villages can now have Kurdish names, but substantial reforms for Kurdish people are still absent. Given that Kurdish is already present in schools as voluntary language course, the introduction of Kurdish as compulsory in Kurdish regions is just officially stating the obvious.

Turkey’s Kemalist tradition has been disappearing daily for at least 20 years. To question the need for democratic reforms and change is folly. Turkey is changing; it only needs a strong institution that will acknowledge it. The AKP embarked on this path with tremendous electoral support but increased its hegemony in the public arena. The first step has been taken. If the “other 50 percent” have no substantial objections, Turkey might witness a profound path of future institutional change.

Vedran Obućina is The Atlantic Post’s Foreign Affairs Analyst, based in Rijeka, Croatia.

Posted on October 21, 2013

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