On September 30, 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his government’s long-awaited reform or “democratization” package. In Turkey’s highly polarized political atmosphere, responses ranged from describing the package as a historical victory for democracy that will finally free Turkey from heavy chains imposed upon it for decades, to an electoral ploy designed to polish the country’s badly damaged image as a result of the Gezi Park incidents, with no substantial improvements in democratic standards. As often is the case, the truth lies in the middle. While some of the reforms promised by Erdoğan represent significant democratic improvements, there are many problem areas not mentioned or insufficiently treated. The best overall evaluation would likely be to repeat a slogan often used by liberal democrats during the referendum campaign on the constitutional amendments of 2010: “Not enough, but yes” (Yetmez ama evet).

Looking first at the full half of the glass, the most important item seems to be the possibility of lowering the 10 percent national electoral threshold, which dictates that political parties must obtain a minimum of 10 percent of the vote to secure any representation. A relic of the military regime of 1980-83, the rule has been a matter of debate and complaints. The highest electoral threshold rate in Europe, it practically eliminates minor parties from parliamentary representation and gives an undue advantage to major parties. Its effects have been particularly penalizing for regional minor parties (in the Turkish case, Kurdish parties). These parties, while they have obtained impressive percentages of votes in the southeastern provinces where the Kurdish population is concentrated, have been unable to send any representatives to parliament due to the threshold. In the last two parliamentary elections (2007 and 2011) these parties were able to get around this restriction by nominating their candidates as independents—but with serious practical difficulties and possible resulting underrepresentation.

With regard to electoral reform, Erdoğan proposed three alternatives: maintaining the 10 percent threshold; abolishing the national threshold completely and introducing a single-member plurality (winner-takes-all) system; and lowering the threshold to 5 percent and reducing the size of the constituencies to one in which a maximum of five deputies may be elected (at present the size allows for up to 18 deputies). The last alternative seems to have the best chances for being adopted. Lowering the national threshold to 5 percent will save Turkey from the criticisms of having the highest (and excessive) threshold in Europe. At their present level of electoral support, Kurdish political actors (currently concentrated in the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP) will not likely have any difficulty passing the threshold.

Also in the area of electoral reform, the abolition of the ban on political propaganda in languages other than Turkish will certainly contribute to the democratization of the electoral process. Likewise, all parties that obtain at least 3 percent of the total national vote (at present the figure is 7 percent) will be entitled to receive state subsidies. Under the present distribution of party votes, the main beneficiary will be the BDP Party, which normally gets 5 to 6 percent of the vote.

One of the main demands of the Kurdish political opposition is the recognition of the right to education in one’s mother tongue. This demand is shared by a great majority of the Kurdish population, including those who do not sympathize with the violent insurgent movement, the PKK. The package’s response in this matter only goes halfway, in that education in a mother tongue other than Turkish will be permitted in private, but not state, schools. This will likely be accomplished by adding certain provisions to Law No. 2923 (as amended in 2002 and 2003) on foreign language education. The 2003 amendment had already permitted private courses for the “learning of different languages and dialects traditionally used by Turkish citizens in their daily lives.” Now, it will be broadened to cover private primary and secondary schools. However, this promise did not satisfy the Kurdish political opposition, which insists that this right should be recognized for all schools, including state schools. Nevertheless, given the Turkish state’s traditional unwillingness to recognize Kurdish (and other) cultural identity, this change should be considered an important step forward. Furthermore, more radical steps in this direction will be possible only with the amendment of Article 42 of the current constitution, which states that “no language other than Turkish shall be taught to Turkish citizens in institutions of education and learning as their mother tongue.”

Another important item in the package is the promise to abolish the headscarf ban for the personnel of public institutions, with the exception of armed and security forces and members of the judiciary. The headscarf issue has badly divided Turkish society for a long time. Last year, however, the ban was quietly lifted for female university students without serious opposition. The abolition of the ban for public servants is likewise not likely to arouse stiff opposition from the main secularist circles, except perhaps in regard to primary school teachers.

As for the empty half of the glass, the Kurdish opposition is strongly critical of the lack of any item concerning the vague and broad definition of a terrorist organization and of terrorist propaganda in the current Anti-Terror Law. It is also concerned about the lack of change applied to excessively long detention periods and to broadening the powers of local administrations. The presidential council of the KKC (the political arm of the PKK) announced that the package was only a diversion designed by the government to gain time to win the coming elections, and that this would mean the end of the peaceful solution process.[1] Such an announcement does not necessarily mean, however, the return to armed struggle. Other radical reform steps regarding the Kurdish question are unlikely in the near future, given the approaching local, presidential, and parliamentary elections and the sensitivities of the Turkish majority on this issue. In the meantime, the present tense and uncertain situation is likely to continue.

Two major sources of disappointment concern the Alevis and the Greek Orthodox minority. The Alevis, a heterodox Islamic sect, have long demanded official recognition of their places of worship (cem evleri) on an equal footing with Sunni Muslim mosques. There were high hopes that the package would favorably respond to this demand. That this was not the case created understandably bitter reactions among Alevis. Government spokesmen responded that they are still working on this question.

The second source of disappointment was the absence of any item on the reopening of the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki (Heybeliada). Active since Ottoman times, the seminary was closed in 1971 by an arbitrary decision of the Turkish government, probably in the context of deteriorating relations with Greece. This time, hopes for the seminary’s reopening were high, and apparently the item was taken out of the package at the last moment. The explanation given by the government spokesmen is that it was done as a kind of “retaliation” to certain problems experienced by the Turkish minority in Greece.[2] If this is the case, it is unacceptable, as no civilized state should take retaliatory measures against its own citizens. Turkey is obligated to permit the reopening of the seminary according to the founding Treaty of Lausanne and its own constitution’s provisions on the freedom of religion. Obviously, freedom of religion includes the right of all religious communities to train and educate their clergy. In contrast, the package contains an item that will please the long discriminated-against and small Syriac-Assyrian community by promising the return to them of the legally contested lands of their historical Mor-Gabriel monastery.

In conclusion, once again, “not enough, but yes!” If this trend of democratic reforms continues, even in a piecemeal or incrementalist fashion, it will surely help to restore Turkey’s recently shaken international image and reduce the threatening level of polarization in domestic Turkish politics.


[1] “KCK: Ortada Süreç Kalmadı, Taraf, 2 October 2013.

[2] “Aleviler ve Ruhban Okulu Son Gece Çıktı,” Milliyet, October 2013.