Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a series of democratic reforms on Monday, including concessions to the country’s large Kurdish minority. The package earned applause from Brussels – where E.U. officials have long been pushing for such measures — and introduces legislation that would allow the use of Kurdish town names and Kurdish language instruction, as well as the reduction or removal of an electoral threshold for Kurds to gain seats in parliament. The reforms also include expanded rights for Turkey’s religious minorities, and the lifting of a ban on women wearing headscarves in public institutions.
The timing is deliberate. A ceasefire with Turkey’s Kurdish insurgency, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), stalled this September when the armed movement accused Ankara of failing to follow through on promised reforms. The continuing deadlock threatens not only Erdogan’s potential legacy — i.e., that of a unifying leader who peacefully ended a three-decade-old conflict – but his more immediate political ambitions: a presidential bid in June elections. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) will also face national elections come March, the first since violent protests roiled Turkey this summer.
But with his new block of reforms, Erdogan’s looks to have achieved a one-two punch. Lifting the headscarf ban will pave the way for his continued Islamization of Turkey, a gradual rightward shift in line with the prime minister’s stated goal of raising “a more pious generation.” (Other recent initiatives in this vein include backing a law restricting the sale of alcohol, and calling on Turkish women to have three or more babies and eschew birth control.) Erdogan’s nod to headscarf proponents speaks to the prime minister’s electoral strategy, which is rooted in catering to his conservative base.
The reforms also offer Erdogan a way out of the thorny Kurdish question. By placating the minority group before its October 15th deadline for reform, the Turkish leader may be able to propel the peace process forward, all the while avoiding the more extreme concessions — i.e., the release of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — that could alienate conservative voters and nationalist factions.
The gamble may yet pay off. The announced reforms will shift pressure back to the PKK camp, which could accept the concessions for the sake of salvaging the peace process. The package could also further Turkey’s E.U. accession process, which is largely contingent on its improved treatment of minorities. (That said, Ankara has largely cooled towards the European bloc as of late, focusing instead on its Middle Eastern neighbors.)
But when it comes to political gains within Turkey, Erdogan’s reforms may not be enough. In his final term as prime minister — hence his presidential aspirations — Erdogan has been calling for constitutional reforms to expand the powers of the president, until now a largely figurehead role. The proposition is unpopular, even among conservative constituents, and relies on backing from Kurdish legislators, especially given the ruling AKP party’s recent decline in popularity.
Therein lies the rub. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a key player in the PKK ceasefire with 36 seats in Turkey’s 550-member parliament, rejected Erdogan’s reform package on Monday, stating it was not sufficient to reignite the peace process. Or, presumably, allow Erdogan to maneuver for Kurdish support for his constitutional reform. Which leaves the prospect of a Kurdish peace and a strong President Erdogan in equal jeopardy.