Latest News From Turkey is a Joke, Erdogan's 'Democracy Package' is Just a Stunt


Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced his much anticipated "Democratization Package," a series of reform bills designed to make Turkey more equal for all.

Taking his time, the prime minister spent 45 minutes discussing at length the series of reforms he and his party had established since their rise to power in 2002.

He then stressed the history of Turkey as one that goes back 1000 years. The popular narrative of AKP, his political party, is that Turks are the sons and daughters of the Ottoman Empire. This narrative diminishes the role that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a secular, Western-oriented leader, played in the formation of the Turkish Republic. The removal of Kemalism from the Turkish narrative has been an ongoing concern for those opposed to Erdogan, and this concern was further cemented when Erdogan announced that the youth vow, recited every Monday of every school week by grade-schoolers, was to be recited no longer. In other words, children will stop pledging allegiance to Turkey and swearing to uphold Atatürk's values.

The vow is complex due to its dogmatic nature but benevolent structure. I distinctly remember it becoming a jumble of promises that we unwillingly muttered in class, if only due to the tedious nature of making grand and nationalistic promises at 9 in the morning. It was, however, a practical and constant reminder of Kemalist values.

Such values, along with the democratic way of life in Turkey, are under attack. Erdogan's "Democratization Package" sounds more like a joke than an attempt at increasing civil liberties.

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 visibilityGrindr 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. It is possible to circumvent the ban on the app using alternate DNS settings, a protocol many Turks are familiar with after the lengthy Youtube ban that was lifted in 2011. There is also an online petition to lift the ban.

Another surprising, and some might say too democratic, development is also underway as part of Erdogan's package: Abdullah Öcalan, founder and ex-leader of the Kurdish Liberation Army, was Turkey's public enemy number one for quite some time prior to his U.S.-assisted capture in 1999. When Turkey decided to abolish execution, Öcalan's death sentence was switched to a life sentence. Hürriyet mentions that it will become technically possible for Öcalan to enter Turkish politics if he is released with a full pardon. It is no longer implausible to think that this man, who still has considerable clout within the Kurdish community, can enter the Turkish parliament in the not-too-distant future.

More immediate government actions following the Democratization Package announcement include the Ministry of Health opening up an investigation into pharmacies that distributed prescription drugs during the Taksim Square protests over the summer. Pharmacists and medical personnel who used medical supplies and equipment to support the protests are facing heavy fines. 

Yet despite the fact that the government demonstrates it is fully capable of demanding accountability, the Turkish police appear to be exempt from such thorough treatment. Amnesty International prepared a video that demonstrates the impacts of the police violence in Turkey and notes the lack of official reprimand the armed forces seem to be enjoying.

The video could not have come at a better time, as a forensics report just proved that Abdullah Cömert, whose police-induced death was challenged by the authorities, was in fact shot in the head with a tear-gas canister.

With so many loose ends and gaping wounds, has Turkey truly become more democratic under AKP rule? Perhaps the package should have been simply referred to as a reform package. It's going to take more than the legalization of w, q, and x, Kurdish letters that were banned for almost a century, to convince us that there is real democracy in Turkey.