Turkey premier seeks to repair image with reforms

AFP , Tuesday 1 Oct 2013

Analysts say that that Erdogan has unveiled sweeping reforms in a bid to repair his image, bruised by mass protests and a stalled peace process with Kurdish rebels

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unveiled sweeping reforms in a bid to repair his image, bruised by mass protests and a stalled peace process with Kurdish rebels, analysts said Tuesday.

But Erdogan failed to appease his critics who said the long-awaited reform package did not go far enough and was merely a bid to shore up support ahead of elections next year.

Many of the reforms are aimed at enhancing the rights of minority groups including Turkey's 15 million Kurds, in a bid to revive a deadlocked peace process with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

However the PKK said in a statement that Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had not consulted them on the reforms and was merely resorting to delaying tactics with the goal of "winning another election."

The country votes in local elections in March, a presidential election in August and parliamentary polls in 2015.

"The package shows that instead of a solution, the AKP has adopted the lack of a solution as its policy," the PKK said.

Erdogan also announced the lifting of a long-standing ban on women wearing headscarves in most public offices, however judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel will still be forbidden from wearing them.

While the lifting of the ban gives Turks greater religious freedom, it touches a nerve among those who accuse Erdogan of trying to Islamicise the predominantly Muslim, but traditionally fiercely secular, country where laws on alcohol sales and advertising have also been tightened.

Erdogan's government was hit by a wave of unrest in June as tens of thousands of protesters calling him a "dictator" raged against what they alleged is his increasingly iron-fisted, conservative-leaning style of governance.


Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said the changes were a sign Erdogan was returning to the "reformist agenda" of his early years in government.

Government's crackdown on the summer protests earned Ankara harsh rebukes from the United States and other Western allies.

"In this sense, the package can be deemed as the government's counter-attack," Ulgen told AFP.

However he said government "apparently hesitated to take more radical steps on Kurdish rights for fears of a nationalist backlash and instead intends to move forward gradually."

Erdogan's efforts to broaden Kurdish rights comes amid fragile efforts to end a three-decade old conflict with the PKK, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Kurdish rebels in March vowed to withdraw their fighters from Turkey in exchange for greater rights such as a certain amount of autonomy, education in their mother tongue and the lifting of a 10 percent threshold to enter parliament.

However the PKK last month halted its pullout as both sides accused each other of failing to respect their part of the deal.

Erdogan -- a former Islamic firebrand hailed for bringing economic and political stability to Turkey -- described his democratic reforms as a "historic moment".

"Those who are scared of change .. cannot move even an inch. The coward cannot erect a triumphal monument, " he said.

Erdogan announced the lifting of restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, saying it could be used in private schools. However this is seen as only beneficial to rich Kurds.

Towns can also use their Kurdish name and schoolchildren will be no longer required to recite the pledge of allegiance.

He did not remove the parliamentary threshold, but said it would be "open to debate."

However the main opposition Republican People's Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the package failed to include any responses "to the country's main problems."

One of the reforms' quirkier moves is to lift a ban on the letters Q,W and X which don't exist in Turkish but do in the Kurdish alphabet.

"It deceives the people to present some amendments on subjects long resolved by society, such as the right to use the letters Q, W or X, as democratic reforms," said Kilicdaroglu.

The opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, also accused Erdogan of addressing "voting concerns instead of democratisation."

"Is the package satisfactory in the name of democracy?" asked columnist Mehmet Tezkan in the Milliyet newspaper, adding the package was "a big disappointment" to both the Kurds and the Alevis -- an unorthodox, liberal branch of Islam.

"But we cannot dump it just because it is inadequate ... It contains reputable democratic steps."

A columnist in the Radikal daily newspaper also hit out at the package for giving freedom "to letters, but not for people."

"It would be naive to expect democracy to emerge out of the package" after government's harsh response to the protests which left six people dead and injured thousands.

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