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Turkey presents reforms aimed at pressing Kurdish peace process

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara September 30, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara September 30, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Jonathon Burch and Gulsen Solaker

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey on Monday announced reforms seen as designed to salvage a peace process with Kurdish insurgents, including changes to the electoral system, broadening of language rights and permission for villages to use their original Kurdish names.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said the proposals, presented by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, were not enough to satisfy Kurdish militants who this month halted their withdrawal from Turkish territory.

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. More than 40,000 people have been killed in fighting since 1984.

Other reforms include allowing election campaigns to be conducted in languages other than Turkish and decriminalizing the use of Kurdish letters not found in the Turkish alphabet.

All primary school students in state schools will now also no longer have to recite a deeply nationalistic vow at the start of each week, which begins with the words: "I am a Turk".

Erdogan 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, Erdogan 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.

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.

Erdogan said his "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," Erdogan 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," Erdogan said.

While Erdogan 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.

KURDISH EXPECTATIONS

But BDP co-chairwoman Gultan Kisanak said the measures still fell short. "The democratization package does not meet our expectations," she told reporters. "The package does not have the capacity to overcome blockages in the peace process."

Kisanak criticized Rogan's proposed reform on mother tongue instruction in schools as this would only apply to private fee-paying institutions. She reiterated the BDP's demand to eliminate the vote threshold entirely, saying any lowering of the barrier would not justly represent the votes.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Turkish officials began peace talks almost a year ago, and in March rebels called a halt to hostilities. 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 a bargain, and Erdogan has previously said only 20 percent of the PKK fighters had withdrawn from Turkey.

Erdogan 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 early days 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.

The issue has also exacerbated tension between religious and secular elites, one of the major fault lines in Turkish public life. Erdogan has already eased the ban on head scarves at universities and religious schools, drawing criticism from secularists who see the government pushing an Islamic agenda.

Erdogan 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, Erdogan 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 Erdogan to allow it to operate.

(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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