For the first time in ten years, pro-Kurdish candidates have won seats in the Turkish parliament. Twenty-four independent candidates affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) were elected on Sunday, July 22. An additional four non-affiliated independents also won seats. These new lawmakers will bring new voices and issues to the Turkish legislative halls (Turkish Daily News, July 24).
Eight of the DTP-independents are women. One (Sebahat Tuncel, from Istanbul’s third district) was elected from prison, and another (31-year-old Ayla Ata, from Batman) will be the youngest member of parliament. DTP-independent Akin Birdal also won his seat in Diyarbakir. He is the former president of Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), and in 1998 he miraculously survived six gunshot wounds from a would-be assassin who walked into his Ankara office.
Turkey’s electoral laws place a 10% nationwide vote threshold for parties to enter parliament. The DTP failed to enter parliament in 2002 because of this barrier, and the seats it would have won were divided among the pro-Islamic AK Party and Republican People’s Party (CHP), which both passed the threshold.
In the 2007 election the DTP-affiliated candidates failed to win as many votes as in 2002, however, losing some of their support to the ruling AK Party (Zaman, July 24). Only in Tunceli and Sirnak provinces did the total DTP vote exceed that of the AK Party. Mus province DTP-independent MP Sirri Sakik stated on Turkish television that the DTP “would have to engage in some self-reflection to evaluate the reasons for this apparent decline in support” (July 23).
According to Turkish law, 20 or more parliamentarians may form a political group once elected. The elected 24 DTP-independents therefore plan on now gathering under the DTP banner (Gercek Demokrasi, July 24). They promise to serve as “the key to democracy” in Turkey, pursuing a moderate platform of conciliation, democratization, and achieving an end to armed conflict in the country (Gercek Demokrasi, July 24). The 24-strong DTP bloc also intends to trade its support in the ongoing presidential election debate to any party willing to help them remove Turkey’s 10% vote threshold for the next elections (Turkish Daily News, July 24).
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far-right National Action Party (MHP), stated that his party would try to prevent new crises from dragging the new parliament down, and also remain vigilant to make sure that all of Turkey’s constitutional values are respected. He promised that the MHP would pay particular attention to “politicians with hidden agendas” (Zaman, July 24). In the MHP discourse, this refers to pro-Kurdish politicians suspected of supporting the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels and wanting to separate the Kurdish regions from Turkey.
In general, the July 22 elections appear to represent another step forward for Turkish democracy. The ruling AK Party emerged from the military’s pseudo-intervention of April 27 (referred to as an “e-coup” when the military posted on its website vague but serious warnings about the AK Party’s choice for the next president of Turkey) with even more political capital than before. They intend to use this political advantage to keep pursuing EU democratic reforms, which include a clear separation of the military from politics as well as minority rights.
The election of both Kurdish and non-Kurdish independent parliamentarians also promises to contribute to the openness of debate in Ankara. In the run-up to the July 22 election, pro-Kurdish candidates received very little coverage in mainstream Turkish media. Immediately following the election, however, they and their agendas took center stage on Turkish talk shows, news programs, and print media. Many ethnic Kurds have also placed a great deal of hope in the return of pro-Kurdish parliamentarians to Ankara. Election results in Kurdish towns where these candidates won were followed by huge outdoor celebrations. The DTP-independents now have an official channel with which to communicate their concerns to both the rest of Turkey, as well as the to EU and the international community in general, a channel they plan to use to keep minority rights issues center-stage in Turkey.