Thursday, October 3, 2013

Erdogan's Silent Democratization Package

The Democratization Package that was made public by Turkish Prime Minister Rexhep Tayyip Erdogan on 30 September leaves much to be desired although it could be described as a small step forward.

In today’s polarized political climate, anything the government promotes is viewed with much suspicion in particular in light of the upcoming electoral season beginning next year with local elections in March, the presidential election in August and the general election in 2015. In true autocratic Turkish political tradition, which Erdogan usually decries, the package was decided in back rooms among a small cadre of apparatchiks and unveiled to the rest of us. Obviously, it caters to the conservative-nationalist sensitivities of the Prime Minister’s electoral base in particular with regard to allowing women to wear head scarves in public places (though not everywhere) and token reforms for minorities. Most importantly and ominously, it sets the stage for widespread gerrymandering with a view to the forthcoming elections. The three possible options presented by Erdogan – maintaining the 10% threshold; lowering it to 7%; and a majoritarian system which would eliminate the threshold – all imply that the government will seek to maintain its aura of electoral invincibility by all means possible. 

The Kurds, the Alevis, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Rum community it represents must feel terribly deceived as the expectations which were cultivated by the government have not been met. While the Turkish alphabet has now grown by three letters, Kurdish can only be taught in private schools and political parties polling over 3% can receive state financial assistance; these measures might co-opt somewhat parts of the Kurdish community but the constitutional change needed to allow education in Kurdish in state institutions is nowhere in sight. While a university will be renamed after a prominent Alevi spiritual leader, the Alevi houses of prayer and their religious leaders are still not officially recognized. While the legal impediments to the return of the assets of minority foundations will be removed; the Halki Seminary remains closed. The EU must also feel frustrated as many of the demands of the minorities are prominently mentioned in its Turkey annual progress reports. This also applies to a number of other concerns that the democratization does not address. As a result, EU officials refer to the package as worthy of ‘modest progress.’ 

To some extent the problem stems from the fact that the process to define a new ‘democratic’ Constitution for Turkey has stalled in part because of splits within the opposition CHP party regarding some of the proposed reforms. Consequently, the democratization package only tackles what is doable at this stage and, most importantly, in the interest of the AKP which seeks to maintain if not augment its electoral base. The debate between majoritarian versus pluralist democracy that was in evidence during the Gezi protests is very much reflected here. For now, Erdogan’s ‘silent revolution’ is too silent to make a significant impact on democratic and pluralistic societal transformation.

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