The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency has tarnished Turkey’s human rights record and crippled the economy in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.
Erdoğan has invested much political capital in the peace initiative, which has drawn strong public support but is increasingly attracting fierce nationalist criticism over perceived concessions to militants officially deemed terrorists.
In a major policy speech, Erdoğan said parliament would debate whether to reduce 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.
However, a co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said the proposals failed to go far enough to advance peace with the militant PKK, which this month halted its withdrawal of fighters from Turkish territory on grounds that the government was not moving swiftly enough to see through its end of the deal.
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.
Erdoğan said the so-called “democratization package” would also allow for education in languages other than Turkish at non-state schools, another long-held demand by Kurdish politicians.
“Today our country, our nation, is experiencing an historic moment. It is passing through a very important stage. We are taking important steps to make Turkey even greater,” Erdoğan told a specially convened news conference in Ankara.
“Our people’s greatest wish is to strengthen our domestic peace, further our social cohesion and solidarity, and fortify our tranquility,” Erdoğan said.
While Erdoğan reiterated that the proposed reforms are not directly linked with efforts to end the 29-year conflict with the outlawed PKK, the changes are largely viewed as an effort to advance the flagging peace process.
But BDP co-chairwoman Gultan Kisanak said the measures fell short. “The democratization package does not meet our expectations,” she told reporters. “The package does not have the capacity to overcome the blockages in the peace process.”
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and Turkish officials began peace talks around a year ago and in March called a halt to hostilities in a conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people. The ceasefire has largely held.
Earlier this month the PKK warned that hostilities 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 Erdoğan has previously said only 20 percent of the PKK fighters had withdrawn from Turkey.
Erdoğan also proposed reforms to restrictions on the Islamic head scarf, saying women employees would be allowed to cover their heads at state institutions except in the military and security services, and for judges and prosecutors.
The regulation on head scarves dates back to the inception of the Turkish Republic and has kept many women from joining the public work force. Relatively low female employment in Turkey is regarded as one of the country’s economic weaknesses.
Erdoğan also said the state would return land belonging to Mor Gabriel, the world’s oldest Syriac monastery in southeastern Turkey. Some 20,000 Syriac Christians live in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, having fled their ancient homeland for economic and security reasons.
However, Erdoğan did not float any plans that would allow a Greek Orthodox seminary to reopen on the Istanbul island of Heybeliada (Halki in Greek). Shut in 1971, the school is seen as key for the survival of the Church in Istanbul, where it has been based since the 4th Century, and the European Union and the United States have urged Erdoğan to allow it to operate.
Erdoğan further announced reforms to improve the rights of the Roma community but made no mention of the largest religious minority, the Alevis, who comprise 15-20 percent of the population and have been lobbying for enhanced rights for decades.
The new reforms are also being scrutinized by the European Union, with which Turkey entered into formal accession talks in 2005, negotiations that have since faded.
“The announced measures hold out the prospect for progress on many important issues. We look forward to progress on these issues and we look forward to … engagement of the opposition parties in the implementation of this package,” said European Commission spokesman Peter Stano.