Kurdish rebels, politicians say Turkish reforms not aimed at peace

ANKARA Tue Oct 1, 2013 12:11pm EDT

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan waves as he leaves a news conference in Ankara September 30, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan waves as he leaves a news conference in Ankara September 30, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Kurdish militants and politicians dismissed on Tuesday a set of political reforms proposed by Turkey's ruling AK Party, saying they were not meant to end a 29-year conflict with the state and that the insurgents would present their response next week.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Monday announced a much-vaunted list of reforms ranging from changes to the electoral system to the broadening of language rights.

While Erdogan maintained his "democratization package" was not driven by efforts to end the fight with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the proposed changes are largely viewed as an attempt to advance the flagging peace process.

The PKK insurgency has marred Turkey's human rights record and crippled the economy in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country. More than 40,000 people have been killed in fighting since 1984, most of them Kurds.

"It is apparent that the AK Party does not understand the Kurdish problem and is not serious in its approach," the KCK - the rebels' umbrella political group - said in a statement.

"This package shows the only thing that is being considered is winning another election," it said, and the PKK leadership would respond in a declaration next week.

Turkey will hold local elections in less than six months, the start of a voting cycle which also includes a presidential election next August - in which Erdogan is expected to run - and parliamentary polls in 2015.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Turkish officials began peace talks almost a year ago, and in March the rebels called a halt to hostilities.

The ceasefire has largely held but last month the PKK halted its withdrawal of fighters from Turkish soil and warned that attacks could resume without concrete action by the government.

The government accuses the militants of failing to live up to their side of the bargain, and Erdogan has said only 20 percent of PKK fighters had withdrawn from Turkey.

FRUSTRATION

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has 29 seats in parliament, has said the reforms fall well short of their list of demands, and on Tuesday suggested the insurgents could return to violence.

"Our expectation and our efforts will be for the continuation of a state of non-conflict. However, desire is one thing and reality is another. We want this and we will endeavor to achieve this," BDP co-chairwoman Gultan Kisanak said.

Kisanak told Reuters she could not predict exactly how the militants would react as the party did not speak for the PKK, but there was now a renewed sense of discontent among Kurds.

"There is frustration and there is a deadlock and the government's stance and approach are not directed toward easing this frustration or breaking this deadlock," Kisanak said.

Central to Erdogan's proposals are changes to the electoral system whereby parliament would debate reducing the threshold for a political party to enter parliament to 5 percent of the national vote, or even eliminate the barrier completely, and introduce a "narrowing" of the current constituency system.

The current 10 percent threshold, among the highest in the world, has kept pro-Kurdish groupings outside of parliament and has been one of the main grievances of Turkey's Kurds who make up around a fifth of the country's 76 million population.

But Kisanak said that while the BDP supported the elimination of the vote barrier, the proposed alternatives would still favor larger parties because of Turkey's centralized system of government.

That Erdogan presented the existing voting system as one of three proposals, she said, showed the government was not serious about introducing change.

Kisanak said the proposals on language rights, including education in Kurdish, were a facade as this would only apply to private fee-paying schools beyond the means of most Kurds.

Kurdish politicians and activists say their demands on education reform are also not simply about language but about altering the curriculum which they say often gives a distorted history of the Kurds and other minorities.

A proposal for parties to campaign in their mother tongue also falls short, the BDP says, because it only applies to the period before elections.

The major reform proposals announced by Erdogan will have to be passed by parliament in order to come into effect. However, Kisanak criticized the fact that the AK Party brought all the measures to the house as one single package, forcing lawmakers to either accept or reject all the proposals in one go.

"Because they are all in one 'sack', they leave people with a dilemma when they have to make their choice. This is not a democratic procedure," she said.

(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, editing by Mark Heinrich)

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