Erdogan Eases Headscarf Ban as Kurds Say Reform Plan Falls Short

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan set out a reform program that includes a loosening of the ban on Islamic headscarves and omits key measures that the country’s Kurdish minority has demanded.

The measures, announced by the premier at a news conference in Ankara today, will allow women in government offices to wear headscarves, meeting a longstanding demand by supporters of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party. The country’s military, shorn of much of its political influence under Erdogan’s 11-year rule, had helped block previous efforts to ease the ban, on the grounds it would undermine Turkey’s secular principles.

Erdogan also promised to allow private education in Kurdish, remove the daily oath of allegiance to the Turkish nation that schoolchildren swear, and review an election system that has made it hard for Kurdish parties to enter parliament. His government is in talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK to end a three-decade conflict, and in recent weeks the militant group has threatened to break off the process if reforms aren’t announced.

Erdogan’s proposals “fell short of meeting the Kurdish nationalist movement’s demands on a number of fronts, including devolving meaningful powers to local authorities” and allowing Kurdish into state schools, said Naz Masraff, an analyst at political-risk assessor Eurasia Group in London. Without further reforms, “which seems unlikely ahead of the elections, the PKK will find it difficult to justify the ongoing cease-fire without suffering damage to its credibility and prestige.”

Election Time

Stocks and bonds extended losses after Erdogan’s announcement. The benchmark equity index dropped 0.5 percent, and yields on two-year lira bonds rose 11 basis points to 8.55 percent.

Turkey will hold local and presidential elections next year, the first test of Erdogan’s popularity since protests against his government swept the country in June, followed by a parliamentary vote in 2015.

Erdogan said he’d open a debate on the electoral system, in which parties must currently get 10 percent of the national vote to win seats in parliament. Pro-Kurdish parties in the largely Kurdish southeast usually can’t cross that threshold. The premier said the limit could be cut to 5 percent, or eliminated altogether.

‘Fell Short’

Meeting Kurdish demands is risky for Erdogan because they are unpopular in much of the country, where Kurds are viewed as instigators of a war that left tens of thousands dead.

While Gultan Kisanak, co-leader of pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, said today that the package “fell short of their expectations,” the measures came under attack from the opposite direction too. Behic Celik, a lawmaker from the opposition Nationalist Action Party, said in a phone interview that freedom to speak Kurdish in private schools and the removal of the oath were threats to national unity.

The main opposition Republic People’s Party also attacked the proposals. Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Kurdish lawmaker from the group, said they fail to amend anti-terror laws and other legislation used to jail Kurdish politicians. He said demands of religious minorities also weren’t addressed.

Turkey’s Alevis, a group affiliated to Shiite Islam that makes up the largest religious minority, have been pressing for recognition and state support for their places of worship. There were no steps in that direction in Erdogan’s announcement, though he said the government would rename a university after the 13th-century mystic philosopher Haci Bektas Veli, whose teachings inspired Alevis.

‘Complete Disappointment’

Ali Balkiz, former head of an Alevi umbrella group, said by phone today that the package announced by Erdogan was a “complete disappointment” for Alevis.

Peter Stano, spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, said the measures “hold out the prospect for progress on many important issues.” The EU, which has put Turkey’s entry application on hold in recent years, is due to publish a report on the country’s progress toward meeting membership criteria on Oct. 16.

Removing the headscarf ban would fulfill a pledge that pre-dates the election of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in 2002. The group’s Islamist predecessors were regularly shut down for advocating it, and Erdogan’s party narrowly escaped a similar fate in 2008. The curb will remain in force in the army, police and judiciary, Erdogan said today.

In further gestures to the Kurdish minority, which makes up as much as one-fifth of the population, Erdogan said villages that were renamed in Turkish can take their old names back, and political parties can use Kurdish on the campaign trail.

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