“Goat droppings” is the polite translation for a graphic Turkish expression that describes something insipid: The idea is that goat pellets are relatively inoffensive, lacking the quality of real dung.
The phrase is the perfect epithet for a package of measures the Turkish government unveiled recently, ostensibly to cast off the undemocratic vestiges of the 1982 Constitution, which was written under martial law. Yes, the measures include genuine reforms, and yes, these are a great deal better than no reform at all. But they lack the quality of real democracy.
The package proposes legislation to deal with hate speech and lift all but a few of the remaining restrictions on religious women wearing head scarves. Yet it is very far from being the once-promised blueprint to resolve the country’s most intractable problems. At the last election, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (A.K. Party) committed itself to finishing the job of giving all Turkish citizens equal rights. Turkey is still a country where even the president’s wife faces hostility for covering her head and Kurdish activists are put in jail on terrorism charges for advocating their nationalist cause.
But even as he was introducing the reforms, Erdogan complained that his hands were still tied by what he described as Turkey’s anti-democratic legacy. In a long and somewhat apologetic preamble to a press announcement on Monday, he described the measures as just another step along Turkey’s difficult road to fuller democratization: “This is not the first package, and it will not be the last.”
His government’s answer to the Kurds’ decades-long struggle for cultural equality was an offer to lift a ban, rarely enforced, on the letters q, x and w, which appear in the Kurdish alphabet but not in Turkish. Kurdish-language education will also be allowed — but only in private schools, which not many people in the largely Kurdish southeast of the country can afford.
Erdogan did not mention reforming the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a government agency that funds the Sunni clergy but not the Alevi Muslim minority and that refuses to include Alevi teachings in the compulsory — and decidedly Sunni — curriculum for religious studies in school. Erdogan did offer to name a provincial university in honor of an Alevi saint — implicit mitigation for naming Istanbul’s third Bosphorus bridge after an Ottoman sultan who massacred Alevis in the 16th century.
One measure restores to an Assyrian Christian monastery in southeastern Turkey property that was seized by a court in 2008. This is a laudable but inadequate recognition of minority rights. It would have been more meaningful to allow the Greek Orthodox patriarchy to re-open its theological seminary on an island off Istanbul, which has been closed since 1971, when the military-backed government shut down institutions of private higher education.
Erdogan’s current softly-softly approach might have been justified when he first became prime minister in 2003 and faced an intransigent opposition as well as hostility from generals and judges in his own camp. But 10 years on, the prime minister is in full control of the country. He can, and should, do much better.
Proposing a package granting all citizens a full charter of religious and linguistic rights would have disproved the criticism, common since the Gezi Park protests, that Erdogan has become autocratic, listens to no other counsel than his own and is prepared to consolidate his conservative base by provoking everyone else.
But that couldn’t happen, not so soon before elections.
There are municipal and presidential contests next year and parliamentary elections the year after. And so Erdogan’s package is a sleight of hand, a gesture intended to appease one section of the country without arousing the other: Giving Kurds or Alevis more rights risked alienating his core supporters among Sunni and Turkish nationalists.
Instead of promoting equality among all Turks, Erdogan’s reform package seems designed to consolidate the power of the A.K. Party. The government has been under pressure to abolish a rule that requires political parties to win at least 10 percent of the vote in order to hold seats in Parliament, a threshold that has had the effect of excluding a regional Kurdish party from national politics. The prime minister has proposed two alternative systems, either of which would resolve the problem of Kurdish representation — but also reduce the size of the two mainstream opposition parties now in Parliament, almost certainly decimating the one in third place.
If either proposal is approved and the A.K. Party wins the next election, it could secure a majority large enough to change the Constitution at will. What, then, of minority rights?