The election to the Turkish parliament of 24 members of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) looks set to challenge both the Turkish state’s commitment to freedom of expression and the DTP’s ability to establish itself as an independent political force, free of any links with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In the general election of July 22, the DTP candidates stood as independents in order to overcome the legal requirement that any Turkish political party receive at least 10% of the national vote in order to win seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament. However, the successful DTP candidates have indicated that they will rejoin the party after they have been formally sworn in as MPs in early August (NTV, July 25).
The DTP was established in 2005 as the latest in a series of pro-Kurdish parties, all of whose predecessors have been closed down by the Turkish authorities on charges of links to the PKK, which has been waging a 23-year insurgency for greater political and cultural rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The DTP has faced similar accusations and the election of its members of parliament has caused outrage in the Turkish nationalist press, which has noted that 12 of the successful candidates have convictions for alleged ties to the PKK (Yeni Cag, July 27). One of the successful candidates, Sebahat Tuncel, was in prison at the time of the July 22 elections, facing charges of membership in an illegal organization. Prosecutors alleged that she had undergone training in a PKK camp in northern Iraq. She was released under parliamentary immunity as soon as her election was confirmed (NTV, July 24). Another, Aysel Tugluk, who is expected to resume her position as DTP co-chair once she rejoins the party in August, formerly served as one of the lawyers of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. At the time of the July 22 election, Tugluk, although not imprisoned, was facing 33 different charges related to the PKK.
After the election results had been announced, Selma Irmak, DTP deputy chair, claimed that the party was completely independent of the PKK. “We are nobody’s front garden or back garden,” she said (Radikal, July 24).
But members of the Turkish security forces remain unconvinced. In conversations with this Jamestown correspondent, members of the anti-terrorism unit of the Turkish police insisted that, even if not all members of the DTP were PKK supporters, PKK sympathizers within the DTP used the party for recruitment and propaganda. They also claimed that interrogations of suspected PKK militants suggested that the DTP still served as the main conduit for those who wished to join the PKK, particularly in the major cities of western Turkey, where the PKK no longer has an established infrastructure.
Anti-PKK Kurdish nationalists also tend to regard the DTP as an extension of the PKK and have criticized the party for not severing its links with the organization (Nazname, July 27).
In fact, severing links with the PKK is not as easy it as it may appear. The PKK has traditionally opposed all alternative powerbases among Turkey’s Kurdish minority and has consistently tried to infiltrate and influence organizations and NGOs active in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. Sources close to the PKK told this Jamestown correspondent that one of the reasons for the organization abandoning a five-year unilateral ceasefire in June 2004 was because it feared the emergence of rival organizations that would challenge its self-perceived role as the sole voice of Turkey’s Kurds. In recent years, the PKK has backed up its policy of threats and intimidation by assassinating Kurdish politicians who have attempted to pursue a line independent of the organization.
Under Turkish law it is illegal to advocate, even by peaceful means, an independent Kurdish state. The tendency of the Turkish authorities has been to regard all Kurdish nationalists, even those who are resolutely opposed to violence, as being PKK sympathizers. In practical terms, this has included refusing to provide protection for any Kurdish politician who publicly opposes the PKK. As a result, Kurdish nationalist politicians who wish to pursue a line independent of the PKK have usually been faced with the prospect of both prosecution by the Turkish state and intimidation, even assassination, by the PKK.