— The Erimtan Angle —

At the end of last month, Turkey’s ever-popular yet equally divisive Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched his so-called “Demokratikleşme Paketi” or ‘Democratisation Package’.[1]  A couple of days ago then, the always knowledgeable Andrew Finkel wrote that “the Turkish government unveiled recently [a package of measures, the “Demokratikleşme Paketi” or ‘Democratisation Package’], ostensibly [meant] 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 al”.[2]  But, Finkel continues, “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.[3]  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”.

And then, on Wednesday 8 October, the PM gave a much-publicised speech at this parliamentary year’s first AKP group meeting.

8 October 2013

In his speech, the PM tried to explain the  ‘Democratisation Package’. The online pundit and Social media coordinator at Contemporary Istanbul Sarp Kerem Yavuz interprets Erdoğan’s words in a purely negative light, saying that “the democratic way of life in Turkey, [is] under attack [as a result of] Erdogan’s “Democratization Package” [, which] sounds more like a joke than an attempt at increasing civil liberties”.[4]  Yavuz handily surveys the Turkish media’s reaction to Erdoğan’s package and speech: “Turkish author Elif Shafak recently wrote for the Guardian, criticizing various aspects of the package, including its hypocrisy in delivering rights over certain religious locales to their owners, but failing to do so across the board. Another notable shortcoming (or overreaching, depending on how one looks at it) of the government is the Arizona-like policy that allows the Turkish police to detain people without due process for up to 24 hours if they look like they may protest something. Hürriyet columnist Melis Alphan has written an eloquent article refuting Erdogan’s claim that people’s lifestyles were not being interfered with. She cited a television network being fined 400,000 TL (approximately $200,000) for broadcasting an episode of Glee in which girls wore shorts and tights. Incidents of anti-gay rhetoric, most recently expressed by the mayor of Ankara during an interview, and subway station PA announcements asking for people to conduct themselves “morally” were among other examples she mentioned. Further demonstrations of Erdogan-style “democratization” can be seen in the government’s recent foray into the digital realm. AKP is hiring 6,000 social-media users to monitor Twitter and to use it as a propaganda tool. The government also decided today that instead of cutting 3G service, sub-committees would monitor Twitter if other protests occurred in the future. Moving beyond the familiar social media outlets, AKP also decided to strike a blow at Turkey’s LGBT community, perhaps because of its newfound visibility. [The social media hook-up app] Grindr is now banned in Turkey. One of the most groundbreaking blessings for the Turkish LGBT community, the location-based dating app had played a role in transforming the social landscape. After all, it was the first personal, easily accessible mode of communication any gay man with a smartphone could use”.[5]

[1] Zeynep Gürcanlı, “Başbakan Erdoğan Demokratikleşme Paketi’ni açıkladı” Hürriyet (30 September 2013). http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/24817460.asp.

[2] Andrew Finkel, “Goat Droppings and Real Democracy” International Herald Tribune (04 October 2013). http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/goat-droppings-and-real-democracy/?smid=tw-share&_r=0.

[3] Cfr. C. Erimtan, “Turkey’s Culture Wars: The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the Topçu Barracks & the AKM” Istanbul Gazette (03 June 2013). http://istanbulgazette.com/turkeys-culture-wars-the-yavuz-sultan-selim-bridge-the-topcu-barracks-the-akm/2013/06/03/.

[4] S. K. Yavuz, “Latest News From Turkey is a Joke, Erdogan’s ‘Democracy Package’ is Just a Stunt” PolicyMic (09 October 2013). http://www.policymic.com/articles/66613/latest-news-from-turkey-is-a-joke-erdogan-s-democracy-package-is-just-a-stunt.

[5] S. K. Yavuz, “Latest News From Turkey is a Joke, Erdogan’s ‘Democracy Package’ is Just a Stunt”.


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