Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 139

On July 20, the embattled pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) elected Ahmet Turk (born 1944) and Emine Ayna (born 1968) as its co-chairs during a party congress in Ankara. As the Turkish Political Parties law does not provide for the sharing of the leadership of a political party, Turk is expected to serve as the DTP’s de jure chair.

The leadership election was made necessary by the resignation earlier this year of former leader Nurettin Demirtas (born 1972), following his arrest on charges of falsifying a medical report to avoid military service, which is compulsory for all male Turkish citizens over the age of 20. On April 29, Demirtas was transferred to a unit of the Turkish gendarmerie to begin his military service (NTV, April 29).

The DTP was founded in 2005 as the latest in a string of six pro-Kurdish parties formed over the last 16 years. Four of the DTP’s predecessors were closed down by the Turkish Constitutional Court on charges of fomenting separatism. The court has yet to rule on a case filed against the fifth, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP).

Twenty members of the DTP were elected to parliament in the general election of July 22, 2007. On November 16, 2007, Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya applied to the Constitutional Court for the closure of the DTP on the grounds that it had become a “center of activities aimed at damaging the independence of the state and the indivisible integrity of its territory and nation” (see EDM, November 19, 2007). Yalcinkaya also called for 221 members of the DTP, including eight current members of parliament, to be banned from membership of a political party for a period of five years.

Given the Constitutional Court’s past record, few expect it to allow the DTP to continue operating. As a result, in addition to electing Demirtas’s successor, the party congress of July 20 was regarded as offering an indication of the likely direction of the successor party that will eventually be formed, once the DTP has been closed down.

Opponents of the DTP accuse it of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently waging a violent campaign to try to pressure the Turkish state into granting the Kurdish minority greater cultural and political rights. There is little doubt that a significant proportion of DTP’s members and supporters are sympathetic to the PKK’s goals, if not always to the brutal methods with which it tries to achieve them.

There is also evidence to suggest that some leading DTP members are in regular contact with PKK militants. But it is also true that any politically active Kurdish nationalists are faced with a dilemma. The PKK has long sought to present itself as the sole representative of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and has frequently used threats and violence against any potential rivals. Instead of providing them with protection, the Turkish state has consistently persecuted even those Kurdish nationalists who are opposed to the PKK. The result has been to play into the hands of hardliners who argue that the Turkish state’s refusal to allow even the expression of peaceful opinions leaves Kurdish nationalists with no option but to resort to violence.

There was speculation in the run-up to the DTP congress that the closure case and Demirtas’s arrest would strengthen hardliners in the party. The election of Turk and Ayna as co-chairs appears designed to create an image of consensus and unity. A tribal leader and one of the older members of the Kurdish nationalist movement, Turk is generally regarded as a relative moderate. In contrast, Ayna is seen as a representative of a younger generation of hardliners.

In his address to the party congress, Turk explicitly called on party members to pursue their aims by peaceful means. “We should rid ourselves of the perception of being a people who seek to secure their rights through the use of arms,” he said. “Even if the PKK fights for another five years, this problem will not be solved through war” (Andolu Ajansi, July 21).

But there were also signs that, despite Turk’s call for moderation, recent events have strengthened the hawks in the DTP. Hardliners dominated the 80-member Party Assembly elected at the congress. Several of the speakers at the congress were careful to refer to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan by the respectful “Mr. Ocalan,” while some of the delegates chanted PKK slogans from the floor and even unfurled a huge poster of Ocalan (Hurriyet, Radikal, Milliyet, Zaman, July 21). The local public prosecutor subsequently announced that he was initiating a judicial investigation against the congress under Article 215 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it an offence to praise crimes or criminals (Anadolu Ajansi, NTV, July 21).

Ironically, the DTP congress was held the day after the Public Prosecutor in the northwestern city of Bolu decided not to press criminal charges against Isin Ersen, a journalist with the local newspaper Bolu Express (Radikal, July 20). In an October 2007 article, Ersen had called for one member of the DTP to be killed for every member of the Turkish security forces slain by the PKK; and he listed the names of members of the DTP National Executive and DTP mayors in southeast Turkey (Bolu Express, October 7, 2007). Under Turkish law, inciting a crime through the media is a criminal offence. Few members of the DTP will have had any doubts about the judicial consequences if a Kurdish journalist had published an article calling for the murder of Turkish nationalists.