Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan announced his party’s long-expected new “democratization package” with much fanfare but little surprise. As usual, the members and supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supported the package. The main opposition, The Republican People’s Party (CHP) considered the package “a pointless attempt” by the Prime Minister “to seem as a reformer once again.” The Kurdish right-oriented Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) saw it as a “big disappointment.” The Nationalist party claimed it represented a threat to national unity.
The package did increase minorities’ rights. It allowed Kurdish names to be given for towns and villages, and let Kurdish students at private school learn in their own language. Some of the restrictions to becoming a political party member were lifted.
Yet the most sweeping changes proposed by the “democratization package” were again directed towards Erdogan’s conservative base and meant to benefit his party. For instance, the restrictions regarding the wearing of headscarves for public workers were lifted, except for judges and military personnel. Resolving this issue was one of AKP’s chief promises; unsurprisingly, the Turkish media saw the move as a ploy to rally supporters once again.
The second important change proposed involved the election system. The package asked political parties to consider three alternatives: keep the old system, which required 10 percent of the vote to get in parliament—the highest requirement in Europe; implement a narrowed regional election system in which this requirement would be lowered to 5 percent; or a single-member district system. According to calculations made by Tarhan Erdem, a well-regarded Turkish pollster, both alternative systems would increase the number of AKP parliamentarians. In this scenario, Turks will confront a new political evil—gerrymandering—as previously electoral districts in Turkey were divided by stable provincial boundaries.
According to a poll conducted by the MAC consulting firm, the package as a whole has garnered 72 percent support, in a time where, according to polls, AKP gets between 45 and 48 percent approval. Although this result could be positive for the AKP, Kurds make up the extra percentage in favor of the package, and still find it lacking.
Does this reform package mark the end of Erdogan’s authoritarian behavior? Or, as The Economist asked, “Is the grand reformer back?” The situation in Turkey suggests not. Turkey has some of the strictest laws regarding press freedoms, coming in 148th place in the press freedom index. According to a news report by the liberal Radikal newspaper, playing guitar in the streets or negotiating with the police have been counted as a crime. Yet with local elections coming up in 2014, Erdogan’s party expects to retain support and win most of the major mayoral races.
Erdogan appears to think that more of the same makes Turkey work. And for now, AKP’s grip on power seems to be firm. But it remains uncertain whether Turkey will see more turmoil if no substantial reforms follow this superficial democratization package.
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