Turkish PM Pushes Reforms For Religious Minorities, Kurds

Turkey's prime minister announced Monday a long-awaited package of democratic reforms for parliamentary approval, including language and political rights long sought by Turkey's Kurdish minority. The package would also end a legal ban on women wearing headscarves in certain state institutions, and make goodwill gestures toward religious minorities. Kurds say the program doesn't go far enough, but analysts hope the moves will keep a fragile Turkish-Kurdish peace process alive.

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Today in Turkey, the government announced a new package of democratic reforms. The package includes granting some rights long sought by the Kurdish minority. A tenuous peace process between the military and Kurdish militants is hanging in the balance.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul that the proposed reforms would also lift a ban on women wearing headscarves in some state institutions.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It was a scene reminiscent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's early days. The prime minister was on the stump for democratic reforms, something his supporters were eager to see after the international condemnation of his government's crackdown on protesters this summer. The stakes are high. A historic effort to make peace with militant Kurdish fighters could collapse if the reform effort fails.

Fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party have ceased their attacks for months, waiting for the government to recognize the Kurdish language and make it easier for Kurds to compete in the political arena.

Today, in an address from the capital, Ankara, Erdogan took a step in that direction.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Erdogan raised a big political issue for the Kurds, lowering the bar for winning parliamentary seats from 10 percent of the vote to five percent. But he refused to endorse it, saying it will have to be debated. He also said Kurdish and other minority students could be taught in their native language, but only in private schools, not much help to many Kurds who are among the poorest of Turks.

Kurds would also be allowed to write in their own language. Currently, using certain letters that exist in Kurdish but not Turkish is illegal.

Erdogan says these reforms are another step in the effort to carry on the work of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, to make the country a modern and developed state. But the most attention-grabbing part of the package will not please some Ataturk followers.

ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: If this package is approved, Erdogan says, Turkish women will be allowed to wear headscarves in some state institutions. It's a controversy that Erdogan's AK Party has long wrestled with. And even under this package, the headscarf ban would remain in place for judges and members of the police and military.

Initial reaction from the leading Kurdish party was disappointment that the reforms don't go further. Political scientist Gokhan Bacik, at Ipek University in Ankara, says with local elections coming up, Erdogan seems mostly interested in sending a positive signal to keep Kurdish militants in the game - that is, engaged in the peace process.

GOKHAN BACIK: I'm not sure it will be enough to keep them part of the game. Any democratization move will be welcomed by Kurds. But there is a clear reality. I think it is quite late to satisfy Kurds with some package details. Turkey requires a grand new paradigm to satisfy Kurdish demands.

KENYON: What the government is offering instead are cautious steps toward reform, the approach that brought Erdogan much political success a decade ago. Whether it will work again for him, analysts say, is an open question.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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