Turkey unveils democratic reforms, including Kurdish rights improvements
Reforms could be key to PM Erdogan's future, as he faces down a flurry of protests.
Turkey's prime minister on Monday announced a long-awaited package of proposals aimed at democratic reform, including lifting some restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language and on wearing Islamic headscarves.
The reforms are seen as key to the political prospects of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has faced down a flurry of protests by Turks weary of what they consider his heavy-handed rule.
Erdogan and his party face a series of elections over the next two years, but it is unclear if the reforms will go far enough to appease his critics, energize his conservative base and help restore momentum to peace negotiations with a Kurdish minority that has been seeking more autonomy.
Erdogan called the reforms a historic step in solidifying Turkey's democracy.
"Turkey is progressing in an irrevocable way on the path of democratization," he said.
The unveiling of the package has been delayed a number of times as talks with Kurdish leaders stalled. Kurdish rebels said this month they were suspending their pullout from Turkey into bases in northern Iraq, arguing Erdogan's government had not made good on promises to enact reforms to improve Kurdish rights.
The reforms had been kept under wraps until Erdogan announced them before reporters in Ankara. They stopped short of some expectations.
Erdogan had been expected, for instance, to announce the reopening of the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary in Istanbul, which was closed by Turkish authorities more than 40 years ago. The school, located on an island in the Sea of Marmara, trained generations of Christian Greek Orthodox patriarchs until its closure in 1971.
While the failure to address the shuttered seminary is unlikely to have domestic political repercussions, it is a sensitive issue in Europe and in the United States. President Barack Obama, U.S. lawmakers and the European Union, which is pressing Turkey to improve religious rights, have called on the Turkish government to allow the seminary to reopen.
Kurdish groups had also demanded that Erdogan go further on liberalizing restrictions on the use of their language, so that Kurdish children would have the right to education in their mother tongue.
Kurds see current restrictions as one of the key tools of cultural repression in Turkey, and the issue has been a source of tension that has fueled more than 30 years of violent conflict. Kurds make up 20 percent of Turkey's nearly 75 million citizens.
Erdogan's proposal would allow private schools to have some classes in Kurdish. The reforms would also allow the letters q, w and x, which are part of the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish one, to be used in official documents.
The seemingly narrow grammatical law had become a nationalist issue on both sides, forcing Kurds, for instance, to spell their traditional spring festival of "Newroz" the Turkish way: "Nevroz." The restrictions have been used to prosecute activists and journalists.
The proposals would also loosen restrictions on political activities in languages other than Turkish.
Following the announcement, Gultan Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, expressed disappointment and said it was aimed more at political concerns than expanding democracy.
"This is not a democracy package, it is an AKP election package," she said, referring to the abbreviation of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.
The proposals include another step toward lifting of restrictions on the wearing of Islamic-style headscarves in this majority Muslim republic that was founded under strict secular principals. The move would allow women civil servants to wear the head coverings. Erdogan said the restrictions would remain for court judges, prosecutors and military and security personnel.
Erdogan acknowledged the package would not meet all expectations, but he called the reforms more comprehensive than any previous steps in the history of the republic. Some of the reforms would still need parliamentary approval, but with a strong majority, Erdogan's party can pass them without opposition support.
Despite the omission of the Greek seminary, Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, said that the commission welcomed the announced reforms, which it is still studying.
Erdogan has been the driving force behind other reforms essential to push Turkey's bid for EU entry. Though the latest reforms are aimed largely at domestic political concerns, they address issues that the EU has criticized Turkey on.