Reforms in Turkey


‘It’s not a democratisation package, it’s an election package”. This portrayal of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan political reforms by a leader of the Kurdish opposition party makes an important point but is rather too dismissive. Intended to head off a resumption of the Kurdish guerrilla campaign against the Turkish state in pursuit of autonomy and cultural rights, the reforms are also motivated by Erdogan’s need to shore up his own political base.

Despite his enduring electoral popularity he faced an unprecedented protest movement this summer against his creeping authoritarianism, facilitation of corporate power and the loss of the reformist credentials early on in his now 11 years in power. He is under pressure from the European Union to deliver authentic reforms in Turkey’s accession negotiations. Turkey’s leading role in its neighbouring region has been called in question by the civil war in Syria and his support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The reform package legalises teaching the Kurdish language in private schools, allows towns to be called by their Kurdish names, abolished the ban on the letters “q”, “w” and “x” used in the Kurdish language and ends the loyalty oath ending “I am a Turk” in state schools. It opens up talks on reducing the 10 per cent threshold of seats allowing minority parties access to parliament, a rule which has kept Kurdish parties out. Kurds make up one fifth of Turkey’s population but like smaller Muslim, Christian and Greek Orthodox minorities have been discriminated against by the monocultural secularist state since independence in the 1920s.

Erdogan’s own Islamic political base has impelled him to change such discrimination, reflected in this package’s decision to end the ban on women wearing headscarfs in state employments where uniforms are not required. Unfortunately he announced nothing to ease the anti-terrorism laws which have jailed thousands of journalists or address the severe repression against street protesters. Pressure should be maintained on him to extend and deepen these limited reforms.