Ten days ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP released the details of their long-promised and long-awaited democratization package, which had been hyped for months as a major initiative aimed at correcting imbalances righting wrongs in the Turkish political system. Since I am late to the game here, I am not going to do a deep dive into everything it entails – a summary can be found here – but most commentary, as typified by this column by Amanda Paul, has focused on the fact that the new proposals are good in some ways and fall short in others. In other words, a decent start but not far enough.
This is definitely one way to view the package. Another way is to think about it through the prism of how the AKP views democracy. In June 2012, Steven Cook and I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which we contended that the AKP was expanding Turkish democracy when you look at measures of participation – meaning the extent to which citizens are able to participate in democracy – but limiting Turkish democracy when you look at measures of contestation – meaning the ability to contest the government’s power. The democratization package appears to break down along this dichotomy, which is unsurprising. Much of the package makes life a little easier for Kurds by allowing Kurdish-language education in public schools; allowing the use of the letters q, w, and x, which are found in Kurdish but not in Turkish; allowing Kurdish and other languages to be used in election campaigns; restoring former Kurdish names of majority-Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. These measures allow Kurds to participate in Turkey’s political and civic life to a larger extent. Other measures that affect the general population do the same, such as allowing government employees to wear headscarves ( which is unabashedly a good thing, no matter how many scary columns you read about the “Islamization of Turkey”).
When it comes to contestation though, there is nothing to cheer about. The proposal to lower Turkey’s electoral threshold to enter the Grand National Assembly from 10% to 5% is not actually being proposed as a law, but is being proposed simply as a topic for debate. Furthermore, the proposal to create single-member districts (rather than keep a system of proportional representation) or to keep a system of partial representation and create districts of 5 or so members would almost certainly benefit the AKP and maintain or increase its percentage of parliamentary seats. In addition, hoped-for proposals on reforming the anti-terror law – which is increasingly used as a cudgel against journalists and government critics – were absent. If it wasn’t clear to everyone that the AKP cannot stand to be challenged in any way even after this summer’s events, it should certainly be clear now. When this government talks about expanding democracy, it only means it in a very narrow sense (and even then, it apparently doesn’t mean it if you happen to be Alevi rather than Sunni).
There is still another way to view this democratization package, which is that it actually intends to do the precise opposite of what it claims. There is a proposal to establish a hate crimes law that would impose three year prison sentences on anyone who commits a crime based on someone’s or some group’s language, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, gender, disability condition, political views, philosophical beliefs, religion, or sect. In theory this sounds like an effort to protect minorities, but given the Turkish government’s track record of prosecuting students who protest against Erdoğan or pianists who insult Islam, I would bet nearly anything that the hate crimes law will be used to go after AKP opponents and critics. Nearly any speech can be criminalized and punished at the government’s behest under this legislation, and Erdoğan has unfortunately demonstrated that he has no qualms about cracking down on things he simply doesn’t like or finds offensive. There is a good chance that the most far-reaching and significant part of this “democratization” package will be an element that does not enhance Turkish democracy but instead greatly weakens it. So yes, there are ways in which the government’s efforts to improve Turkish democracy may be a good start, but there are also ways in which “this doesn’t go far enough” is not quite the criticism that should be leveled. It’s not the absence of certain elements in this proposal that worries me so much as the inclusion of others.