Turkish parliament on Sunday for passed a crucial package of reforms aimed at boosting the country's chances for starting membership talks with the European Union.
Turkey hopes it will be one of the stars on the EU flag
Ankara took the unusual step of calling for an urgent parliamentary session on Sunday to quickly pass a penal code reform package ahead of a crucial EU Commission progress report to be issued Oct. 6. Both the government and opposition parties overwhelmingly supported the measures, after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to drop a controversial plan to criminalize adultery.
Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Only weeks before, the introduction of the reform package had been hotly contested after members in Erdogan's conservative Islamic-based party refused to pass the new penal code, which includes laws against rape, pedophilia and torture as well as improvements of human rights standards, because it did not mention adultery as one of the punishable crimes.
No ban on adultery
Prior to Erdogan's U-turn on the issue, the debate had raised eyebrows in Brussels, and caused many in the EU to wonder if Ankara was really on the straight road to Europe.
Following fence-mending talks with EU Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen in Brussels on Thursday, Erdogan said that the plans to criminalzie adultery had been abandoned and appealed for a special parliamentary session to finish work on the penal code reform.
Waiting for an invitation
Günter Verheugen, the European Union's enlargement commissioner, right, shakes hands with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sept. 23, 2004
Verheugen, for his part, said there were "no more obstacles on the table" ahead of the release of the Commission's progress report, which forms the basis for a December 17 decision by EU leaders on whether to begin membership negotiations with Turkey, a vast and relatively poor Muslim country that has been left in limbo since gaining official candidate status in 1999.
Erdogan, who has made joining the EU his top party, expressed confidence that Brussels would give his country the green light. "I would like to state very openly, clearly that I am hopeful that a date for accession talks will be determined in December this year," he said during a televised address to the nation late Saturday.
"We will finish up the final things that are missing until the report is announced and start waiting for the good news," he added.
Turkey hopes to become a full-fledged member of the EU
EU officials have indicated that the bloc's report is likely to recommend beginning the talks. But many leaders have also signaled that it will be years before Turkey becomes a full-fledged member.
Despite the connections between Erdogan's Justice and Development Party and the conservative Islamic movement, the prime minister has been able to push through sweeping democratic reforms, broadening the freedom of expression, granting greater rights to the Kurdish minority and trimming the role of the military in politics -- prerequisites set by Brussels.
More work ahead
Erdogan told his country that if Brussels should give Ankara a date, a long and difficult path still lies ahead. "But we will head down it with enthusiasm. We are aware that we should work with sincerity, determination and patience throughout the negotiation process," he said.
Parliament has already debated a good number of the reform bills in the penal code, which has generally been welcomed for granting greater individual freedoms and calling for heavier penalties for torture and the abuse of human rights.
Women's groups, however, still remain critical of several amendments on the grounds that they discriminate against women. Critics say the draft fails to entirely ban virginity tests despite limiting their implementation to judicial cases, keeps an article on the books that can be used to reduce the sentences of perpetrators of "honor killings" and punishes consensual sex between minors.