THE BLOG

Turkey's First Post - Tutelary Reform Package

On September 30, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faced the cameras to unveil his long-awaited and much-expected democratization package. The choice of date was symbolic; it was the anniversary of his party's grand convention, in which his governing AK Party had pledged 63 articles of reform for upcoming years. Moreover, the fact that this package came after a summer of discontent, as well as charges of authoritarianism, heavy-handed rule and a majoritarian reading of democracy further accentuated the symbolic importance of the package.

These two features were not the only ones that deserve to be underscored regarding the package and the style in which it was presented. Erdoğan's press conference in which he revealed the package was simultaneously translated into Arabic and English. This demonstrated that it was not only the domestic audience that Erdoğan intended to address through the package, but rather he also sought to convey a message to international audience as well: his government is intent on continuing the reformist agenda which made he and his party's name over most of their decade of rule.

The content of his announcement speech was intended to counter the charge that his party has lost its reformist and democratizing zeal in the last couple of years: it implied that these years should not be treated as the new course, and instead they should be treated as a deviation from his government's normal inclinations "As this is not the first reform package, it will also not be the last one. We will respond to people's new and evolving democratic demands and aspirations through the new reform packages" was a line that he repeated a couple times throughout his speech.

The 28 point package unveiled on this day included articles as diverse as proposing to lowering election threshold from the current 10 percent to 5 percent with district system or abolishing it with single member district system; lowering the threshold for parties to receive public funding from 7 percent to 3 percent; removing restrictions for enrolling in political parties; allowing political campaigning and propaganda in different languages; allowing education in minority mother tongues in private schools; clearing the way for restoration of the old names of villages and towns; lifting the headscarf ban for women in holding the public offices and introducing heavier penalties for hate crimes. The package, beside other things, also included provisions for Turkey's Roma and Syriac Christian communities.

The content of the package reveals that it primarily sought to open up the political system and address the grievances of identity groups. Though all the articles in the package are important, there is nothing extraordinary in this package in terms of trying to democratize the political system and resolve identity groups' relations with the state. In fact, those two goals were essentially what previous packages - especially the ones that have been introduced since 2007 - were trying to achieve. Despite this, two other features of the package set it apart from other previous packages. First, this package came at a time when neither the military nor the civilian bureaucracy (or deep-state elements) can pose a threat to the governing Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) rule. In other words, this package is being introduced at a time when the AK Party feels that it is free of the pressure of the old tutelary regime. Second, unlike the previous packages, in the planning, announcement - and probably execution down the road - of the package, international actors, namely the EU, have played no part.

Turkey's previous democratization process has been facilitated, it is argued, by the AK Party's need to clear political space of the influence of the tutelary system. In this respect, many argued that the AK Party instrumentalized democratization in order to weaken its undemocratic deep - state rivals and consolidate its own power within the system. In other words, this line argues, the fact that the AK Party pursued reform and a democratization agenda from its early years up until 2010-11 does not mean that the party is inherently reformist, nor does it mean that it projects a democratic vision for the country. Instead, it further argues, given the absence of major reform packages in the last two years and the government's handling of the protests of this summer, it is clear that the AK Party in fact instrumentalized this agenda in order to defeat the military-bureaucratic alliance, not to build a fully democratic Turkey. And once it had sent the military back into its barracks and reined in the once powerful and unruly bureaucracy, its need for reform and democratization diminished, so did its appetite for doing so.

Democratization: an instrument or a vision?

This package thus, in a sense, can be seen as the first reform agenda of post - tutelary Turkey. The nature and content of this and prospective upcoming packages would reveal the extent of the AK Party government's democratic projection for the country, since the instrumental value of the democratization as a tool to eradicate tutelary regime is significantly diminished. The fact that the government chose to respond to people's demands through a reform and democratization agenda, though an incomplete one, is a welcome development.

In addition, in the early years of the AK Party's rule, a major part of Turkey's reforms were enacted in order to conform to EU standards and meet its criterions and demands, thus democratization of the early years has been also facilitated by the EU pressure and EU initiatives. Yet in recent years, Turkey-EU relations have come to a stand still and the EU's leverage over Turkey has almost disappeared. Because of that this package is not driven by the EU pressure. Rather, this package is both crafted and announced according to domestic considerations. And this also shows the way forward; it is highly likely that domestic drivers and considerations will take precedence over foreign ones in further democratization packages in the future.

Turkey's first post-tutelary reform package contains some important articles, which certainly further the democratization of the country. The fact that four female MPs could enter the parliament with their headscarves on 31 October, without a major crisis, illustrated the practical significance of this package. But the dynamic nature of Turkey's society coupled with the evolving nature of its demands require other comprehensive reform packages. As the instrumental value of the reform agenda has diminished for the AK Party, from now onward Turkey's reform packages, or lack thereof, will tell us how democratic a future the government desires for the country.