Jessica Michek and Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
After large protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square at the end of May, quickly spreading across the country, Turkey dominated the news. But as that unrest died down and as the rest of the Middle East grew even more chaotic—Morsi was ousted from power in Egypt, Assad used chemical weapons in Syria—Turkey disappeared from the headlines. In the last several weeks, however, we have witnessed the Turkish government beginning to react to the summer’s events. While not as captivating as the earlier protests, several events, ranging from the cautiously hopeful to the slightly peculiar, are noteworthy for what they indicate about the careful balance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are trying to strike in their politics, both foreign and domestic.
Surrounded by regional instability and seeking Western support, Turkey seems to be attempting to improve relations with the United States through increased cooperation on global terrorism. Yet, repeatedly disappointed by the lack of U.S support on Syria, Turkey has also sought better ties with China. Similarly, facing domestic political pressure, the AKP introduced a package of political reforms meant to address longstanding deficiencies in democracy and human rights, but also used the occasion to further its own Islamist ideology. This range of challenges facing Erdoğan’s government has sparked dissatisfaction within his own party and led to rumors that President Abdullah Gül might rise to challenge him, rumors that Gül’s recent parliamentary address has only fueled. Thus, the three upcoming elections —local (in March 2014), presidential (in August 2014), and parliamentary (in 2015)—will prove critical both to Turkey’s future and Erdoğan’s political fate.
This post will be the first in a series about significant developments in Turkey over the past month, dealing with issues ranging from Turkey’s protection of human rights, national defense, domestic political struggles, to its role in global counterterrorism efforts. For recommendations on how the United States should address these changing dynamics in Turkey, watch out for the report of the BPC’s Turkey Task Force, chaired by former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, that will be released on October 23.
Democratization Package: A Step in the Right Direction or Too Little, Too Late?
On September 30, Erdoğan’s AKP government announced a set of long-overdue reforms to democratize institutions in Turkey. These reforms were primarily enacted to inject new life into the government’s faltering peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Many observers expected the package to also address other concerns as well, including about the government’s violent handling of Gezi Park protests and growing grievances among other minorities, such as the Alevi and Greek Orthodox communities. The hopes for such a broader range of reforms were largely dashed as the majority of the package was directed towards Turkey’s large Kurdish population.
Turkey’s most recent attempt to solve its Kurdish question and end Turkey’s decades-long conflict with the PKK began earlier this year, in the form of a three-phase peace process. However, the peace process has not gone smoothly. The PKK and Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said that the first phase – the withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey – was on track to be completed in the fall, while the Turkish government contended that only a small fraction of fighters have withdrawn. The PKK has also announced it would halt its withdrawal and threatened to break its ceasefire unless the government began the second phase of the process—undertaking political reforms.
The AKP’s democratization package is mean to move the process forward and address Kurdish concerns. It includes several measures intended to lower hurdles for Kurdish political parties seeking to enter parliament. Erdoğan proposed – and the Turkish parliament will vote on – either lowering or eliminating the 10% electoral threshold for entering parliament. This threshold is prohibitively high and primarily hinders Kurdish political parties, who tend to sweep elections in Turkey’s southeast but fail to secure 10% of the national vote. Another measure benefiting Kurdish political parties that Erdoğan proposed is the lowering of threshold for receiving state funding from 7% to 3%.
The package also addressed Kurdish language rights and education, including: allowing for Kurdish language education in private schools; the use of Kurdish in electoral campaigns; returning villages in the southeast of Turkey to their original Kurdish names; and allowing the use of the letters q, w, and x, which are used in the Kurdish but not Turkish alphabet.
In a measure targeted to AKP’s Islamic base, the package overturned the ban on Islamic-style headscarves in public offices, except in institutions that have official uniforms, such as the military or the judiciary. While largely excluded from the package, a few concessions were made to Turkey’s opposition and non-Kurdish minorities, including: stricter punishments for hate crimes; the removal of the compulsory daily nationalist pledge in primary schools; and improving freedom of assembly through easing restrictions on protests and demonstrations.
All of these reforms can be seen as a step in the right direction; however they have still been met with criticism from both the PKK and the BPD – as well as other minority groups whose concerns were not addressed in the package. Crucial to these criticisms is the way the package was put together – in a continuation of Erdoğan’s authoritarian ruling style, the reforms were put forth unilaterally and without consultation with anyone outside the AKP. Also criticized is the failure of the government to comprehensively address their anti-terrorism laws, which have historically been used to incarcerate journalists, anti-government protestors and pro-Kurdish activists. Gülten Kışanak, co-chair of the BDP denounced the package, saying “it is not a democratization package; it is an election package.”