Reform challenges for Turkish government

Should we say “better late than never” for the delayed attempt at further democratic steps by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and be thankful to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for finally announcing measures to grant rights that are long overdue? Does this mean we are settling for less than what we were promised in the 2011 election campaign now that the drafting of a brand new constitution is practically dead in its tracks in Parliament?

Or is this simply election maneuvering for the governing party in order to aggressively move to clean up the mess in the months leading up to three critical elections in two years’ time? Does it really matter how we look at it at all considering that a series of bold gestures unveiled by Erdoğan on Monday was in fact a tacit admission of past mistakes partially blamed on his government?

Surely, asking all these fair questions at this moment does not play down the significance of the measures announced, as they are definitely an improvement on the status quo and important steps in the right direction. Similarly, quizzing the government on its belated move does not change the plain truth in Turkish politics that the AK Party is still the sole agent for change in Turkey. Despite all the criticisms one can level against the government, with the control of the legislative agenda and executive powers, the AK Party government is, for the time being, the only hope Turks have in delivering improved fundamental rights, better respect for the rule of law and the promotion of democratic values.

Yet, there are significant problems associated with Erdoğan’s approach to reforms that make it hard to sell to a larger audience in Turkey. First, it may prove difficult for him to repair the damage he has inflicted on his government by dealing blows to his credibility as well as to the credentials of his government with a series of roll-back attempts — some were successful unfortunately — on democratic gains the nation had achieved in the past. The main criticism in that respect focuses on the lack of full transparency in public expenditures, weakened accountability in governance and increased political pressure on the judiciary and security services.

The second challenge for the government stems from the timing of these reforms. The announced measures would have made a bigger difference if they had been implemented a few years back, when Turkey was feeling much more comfortable in its neighborhood. With the fresh mandate the AK Party attained in the 2011 election, when one in every two people voted for Erdoğan’s popular party, the government should have moved in very quickly to adopt reforms. Instead, it rolled over much-awaited reform packages as the opposition dug its heels deeper in the trenches to make the government’s job difficult. Now the prevailing assumption in the nation is that the government is by and large motivated by the immediate challenges it has faced in the Middle East and launched a democratization campaign to stem the wave of spillover risks from increasingly sectarian confrontation in Turkey’s neighborhood. Hence the sincerity of the government is called into question against the backdrop of an increasingly security-oriented grip in the thinking of the government.

The third challenge is the lingering — or rather growing — perception problem the government failed to overcome in disassociating the democratization drive from the ongoing settlement process to disarm the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with the hope of paving the way to resolve the decades-long Kurdish problem. Most initiatives unveiled in the government package would have been welcomed by Turks if these steps were not perceived as quid pro quo in the PKK talks. By linking reforms to PKK demands, albeit unwillingly, the government has exposed itself to exploitation by the nationalists, who are certainly poised to portray this as bargaining with terrorists rather than a sincere attempt by the AK Party to unchain the nation from the grip of a highly centralized and state-controlled Turkish system.

Regrettably, another drawback on the part of the government is the lack of constructive engagement with opposition parties that would have been key to securing ownership by large segments of the public in Turkey. Instead, the government chose to go “solo” on the democratization package and touted this as part of the AK Party’s own manifesto — perhaps to claim credit on its own as the AK Party did in the 2010 public referendum. The same tactic may not work to the advantage of the AK Party this time around because the package includes not very popular measures, such as granting further rights to non-Muslims, Alevis and Kurds — a cluster of voters that are not necessarily supporters of the AK Party. The opposition may not pull the rug out from under the government in Parliament where the AK Party has the majority. But the trade-off in terms of a lost vote will be significantly higher for the AK Party as some nationalist and conservative blocs within the AK Party support base may shift to other parties. In the election campaign, we will see that both nationalist and ultra-conservative parties will be eager to abuse these issues, hoping to peel away some voters from the AK Party constituency.

The fifth problem is that the announced reform proposals by the AK Party government may very well fall victim to the government’s confrontational style, especially Erdoğan’s harsh and abusive rhetoric, which has undoubtedly left a bitter taste both in its domestic and international audience in recent months. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s deliberate escalation of tension in Turkey with the Gezi Park events, during which an environmental rally quickly turned into anti-government protests, eroded what was left of the middle ground that the nation stood on to weather crises. What is more, the growing resentment of the deepening entrenchment of Erdoğan and his close advisors, who have given every indication that they are determined in consolidating and even monopolizing political and economic power in Turkey, will not make it easy to sell the announced measures as “democratic” to the people.

AK Party officials also need to make sure reforms are not perceived as a simple election maneuvering tactic for a stop-gap measure to prevent the ruling party from bleeding further. The cracks in the support for the AK Party since the last election were partially attributed to a lackluster appetite in government circles to pursue reforms. That led to the alienation of these groups from the government and increased criticisms across the board. If the package was seen as simply a plan to win them back on the eve of elections before dumping them in the next stop as opposed to a sincere attempt to address decades-long grievances in the country on a sustainable level, the chance of survival for these breakthrough measures would be dim.

The last challenge may come from the way this reform package was conveyed to the public. Leading up to the announcement day, Erdoğan and his people have really raised the bar of expectations, risking possible frustrations in the general public. He invited editors-in-chief and Ankara representatives of most media outlets to his office while his speech was simultaneously broadcast in English, Arabic and Kurdish. By trumpeting the government’s reform plans too loudly, the government may in fact be helping the opposition both in politics and bureaucracy to entrench resistance to change.

Despite all these shortcomings and challenges, the AK Party is still the only channel to introduce and deliver reforms in Turkey as the opposition is still in tatters. Let’s hope this democratization package will relieve tensions in the society to a significant degree and pray that it will be a catalyst to further and bolder reforms the nation needs. It may even push the AK Party in turning to its “factory default settings” that were hailed by a large coalition of people in Turkey, from liberals to conservatives alike. On a more positive note, we have to give credit to Erdoğan who, unlike many politicians in Turkey, is known for his boldness and risk-taking nature. He raised the bar in Turkish politics when he stood up against the once-powerful generals, gangs and archaic judiciary in the past. Since the 2011 election victory that gave the government a broader mandate, Erdoğan has faced less resistance from these groups, giving him a free hand to implement reforms. Yet he failed to do so as the government reform engine has sputtered.

If we see a comeback kid in Erdoğan with this reform initiative in a true sense, we will have more reasons to be hopeful for the future of the country.

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