PM introduces landmark reforms, but admits more needs to be done

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Photo: Today's Zaman, Mevlüt Karabulut)

September 30, 2013, Monday/ 10:59:00

Turkey's prime minister has unveiled a long-anticipated package of reforms designed to strengthen democracy and keep on track a fragile settlement process to end the conflict between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the state, but said the newly introduced democratization package is just an additional phase in democratization and does not represent the final stage.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters in a press conference at the Prime Ministry building in Ankara on Monday that the reform package is a result of Turkey's long path of democratization and that it will not be the final set of amendments to consolidate the country's democratization as it won't meet everyone's expectations.

Erdoğan said the package of reforms his government announced on Monday is only part of a decade-long effort to democratize Turkey. The prime minister said the package will "bolster the country's independence" and advance freedom. He added that package is not the "first but also not the last" one that will put Turkey among “modern” nations.

Describing the package as a critical step in stopping bloodshed in the country, Erdoğan emphasized that the package, whose items require amendments in either current legislation or regulations to become effective, will set the stage for Turkey to treat equally all citizens regardless of their ethnic background.

The announcement of the "democratization package" follows the declaration earlier this month by the PKK that it had halted its withdrawal of militants from Turkey because the government had failed to take steps it had agreed to.

Kurdish politicians were seeking reforms to allow full Kurdish-language education, soften anti-terrorism laws, lower the electoral threshold to enter Parliament from 10 percent and strengthen local government.

The most important reforms include removing restrictions on the wearing of Islamic headscarves; providing for education in mother tongue; the restoration of original names of villages, districts and provinces that existed before 1980; sweeping changes in the law on political parties, including the possibility of lowering the 10 percent electoral threshold for entering Parliament; improving freedom of assembly; and other more specific rights for religious and ethnic minorities.

Aside from the Kurdish-related reforms, expected measures also included the reopening of the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary on an island near İstanbul and boosting the rights of the Alevi minority. These demands were not met.

The prime minister's first proposal was a change to the electoral system, long criticized by the main opposition and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Erdoğan offered three alternatives for overhauling the electoral law. He said the current election system with the 10 percent election threshold to enter Parliament could remain. His second proposal was that the electoral threshold be lowered to 5 percent of the national vote. And third, he said the barrier could be eliminated completely and a system called “Limited Small Area Election System” be created. He said these three proposals will be discussed in the coming days and they will choose the best for Turkey. The reform would likely benefit pro-Kurdish political parties, who secure a wide margin of votes in the mainly Kurdish Southeast but fail to garner enough support nationwide to enter Parliament.

Other changes were related to the law on political parties. Erdoğan said parties that exceed 3 percent of votes in general elections will get necessary state funding. According to current Turkish law, parties need to receive at least 7 percent to be eligible for state funding. The prime minister underlined that the amendments will increase political participation and make competition fairer between parties.

Moreover, the reforms bring more freedom for citizens to become party members. Erdoğan said the package includes the lifting of obstacles that restrict citizens from becoming members of political parties.

Another change in the law on political parties regards the language they use in their campaigns. Erdoğan said every party is free to use languages aside from the official Turkish language in promoting their campaigns and platforms.

The democratization package also aims to reduce hate crimes, bringing harsher punishment for these types of crimes. Erdoğan said sentences for crimes related to racist, hate or discriminatory speech or attacks will be increased. He noted that the suspects could be punished with between one and three years of jail time. A council tasked with fighting against discrimination and for equality is also being established.

The prime minister said the amendments will make it easier for groups and particularly individuals to freely perform their religious duties. He said the new measures will protect religious freedom.

He noted that banned letters such as q, w and x -- Kurdish letters that don't exist in the Turkish Latin alphabet -- can now be freely used.

Also among the reforms, coming months after the country was shaken by anti-government protests that stirred accusations of police brutality, were changes in the law regulating public meetings and protests. The reforms include improving freedoms and rights for assembly such as extending time periods for rallies and meetings.

Another drastic and much-anticipated reform regards education in languages other than Turkish. The reforms will make it possible for students to receive education in their mother tongue in educational facilities. The schools will able to deliver education in languages besides the official language of Turkish, the prime minister said. The measure paves the way for Kurds, who have long demanded the government offer full education in the Kurdish language, to establish private schools providing education in Kurdish.

In an amendment to be made to the related law, languages and dialects in which education will be able to be offered by private schools will be determined by Cabinet, while the Education Ministry will prepare regulations these private schools need to respect. “In these schools, certain classes will be given in Turkish as in the past,” stated the prime minister, who noted that the government had also made it possible last year for languages other than Turkish to be taught at schools as an elective course.

Furthermore, Erdoğan announced that the original names of villages, districts and provinces that existed before 1980 will also be restored. This includes restoring the name of Dersim, which was changed to Tunceli in 1934. Kurdish and other original names of thousands of villages and districts have been changed throughout the republican era and the new amendment will make it possible to restore these names.

In contrast to expectations, the package doesn't contain much about Alevis. The only step that may appeal to Alevis in Erdoğan's speech at the press meeting is changing the name of Nevşehir Üniversitesi to Hacı Bektaş Veli, after a prominent and beloved Alevi figure whose tomb is in Nevşehir.

Granting legal assurances for protection of personal data is another change Erdoğan unveiled in his speech. He noted the 2010 referendum on constitutional changes already gave constitutional guarantees for the protection of personal data.

He said the draft law on the protection of personal data will be brought before Parliament soon. According to law, Erdoğan said, it will be impossible for "irrelevant individuals" to share private data of citizens. The government has in recent past come under criticism for various agreements the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) made with a number of public companies, allowing the intelligence organization to obtain personal data illegally.

Erdoğan said the reforms will also remove restrictions on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public spaces. The ban, however, will remain in effect for judges, prosecutors and military personnel. Muslim but secular Turkey has long had tough restrictions on the clothing worn by women working in state offices. “The restrictions violate the right to work, freedom of thought and faith; they were discriminatory.” Erdoğan said, adding: “We will impose a punishment upon those who prevent people exercising or enjoying some rights due to practicing their religious duties.”

The requirement of the primary school oath, a mass recital of the Turkish pledge of allegiance, deemed as a militaristic imposition of republic's founding philosophy, was also lifted.

The reforms include returning properties of religious and ethnic minorities and establishing language and cultural institutes for Roma citizens. Erdoğan announced plans to return the Mor Gabriel Monastery property belonging to Syriac Christians, which was seized by the state. He said efforts are under way to return seized properties of other religious minorities.

He said several restrictions on charity activities are also loosened or lifted.

Parliament returns from its summer recess on Oct. 1 and will vote on the package.

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