Is the “Politicization” of the Kurdish Struggle in Turkey a Security Threat?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 24

For almost three decades, Turkish governments and the military establishment have had to fight back a violent armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state. Despite increased attacks in recent months by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), what Ankara has invariably tagged as its “top security threat” is changing appearance as the military wing supporting Kurdish autonomy begins to leave the floor to a political wing. With the Turkish-Kurdish body count numbering over 30,000 lives lost and tens of billions of dollars spent to counter the PKK, it would seem the Turks would not be averse to the idea.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Democratic Society Party (DTP)—the country’s leading pro-Kurdish party—on November 20 to choose “democracy or armed struggle” in an attempt to break the alleged link between the rebels and Kurdish politicians. The call by Erdoğan came after the chief prosecutor’s office in Ankara launched an effort on November 16 to ban the DTP on charges of separatism and ties to the already banned PKK. Despite increasing pressure on the DTP, Erdoğan acknowledged that excluding Kurdish lawmakers could “push them toward the mountains” and bring them closer to the rebel organization. “We should especially encourage them to make politics… let them make politics within the limits of the constitution” (Sabah, November 16).

Is the DTP a Political Front for the PKK?

As the Turkish Armed Forces launch cross-border attacks against Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq, some analysts say the country should be prepared to confront the rebels in the political arena, warning that the DTP could turn into a political front for the PKK. General Yaşar Büyükanıt, chief of the Turkish General Staff, complained during a security services conference on the PKK in Ankara that the existence of Kurdish lawmakers—accused of links to the guerrilla organization—amounts to a sanctioned politicization of the outlawed organization. “Terror has become both politicized and legalized, only its armed wing has not been legalized yet,” Büyükanıt told an audience of senior commanders, academicians and journalists (Anatolia, December 10). As he left the conference hall, Büyükanıt was stopped by a group of journalists who asked him what he meant by “the legal part” of the group, to which Büyükanıt replied, “I meant the part in Parliament” (Milliyet, December 11).

Ahmet Türk, a senior member of parliament and former leader of the DTP, responded to Büyükanıt’s accusations within hours: “There is no need to make statements that could fuel tensions. We expect all parties to make statements that consider [political] sensitivities… Our people sent us to make democratic politics. We are members of the parliament” (Cumhuriyet, December 12).

Cengiz Çandar, a political analyst, drew a comparison between the PKK and the IRA in a column in the Turkish Daily News on November 21. “The connection between the IRA and Sinn Fein almost exists between the PKK and the DTP, too. That is an ‘organic’ bond,” Çandar wrote. “The DTP is valued up to the point that it is forced to make politics within the frame of parliamentarian legitimacy and [can] be used for the disarmament of the PKK, [even] eventually for the PKK’s ‘elimination’.” Çandar warned that banning the DTP would only aggravate the tense situation and that “the political constituents of the PKK-DTP will become ready to be taken over by a new party stronger than before.”

Turkey’s leaders have accused the pro-Kurdish party of having ties to the PKK and insist that Kurdish politicians must declare the PKK a terrorist organization to prove their allegiance to Turkey and convince a skeptical public that they are not after separatism. “You either prefer guns or democracy,” Erdoğan said. The prime minister then added: “the first step that has to be taken by those who are engaged in democratic politics is to stand against terrorism” (Turkish Daily News, November 24).

The DTP Responds

Resisting Turkish calls to declare the PKK a terrorist organization, Türk said any solution that excludes both the PKK and its jailed leader would not be realistic and doomed to fail. “If the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan are not seen as part of the problem and are not incorporated into the process of a solution, then we cannot be sure of a solution, because it is not possible… We have to take note of someone that has the sympathy of millions and an organization with a force of 6-7,000 armed fighters” (New Anatolian, December 5).

DTP representative Sırrı Sakık attempted to separate the party from the PKK’s armed revolt during a speech in parliament: “Disarmament of the PKK is our binding duty. We do not defend an armed struggle. If cleansing it from arms and violence is our mission, we will resolve this matter through discussions” (Turkish Daily News, December 7). The prime minister, meanwhile, said an existing amnesty could be expanded in order to convince more Kurdish guerrillas to lay down their arms and voluntarily surrender to Turkish security forces (Doğan News Agency, December 12).

President Abdullah Gül said during a ceremony in Ankara that “democracy would isolate terrorism and the terrorist” (Akşam-Türkiye, November 21). Both the United States and the European Union have labelled the PKK a terrorist organization and the EU has called on Kurdish politicians in Turkey to distance themselves from the rebels. The rebel group began fighting for an independent state in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast in 1984, but it has gradually decreased its demands to autonomy and the recognition of Kurds in Turkey as an ethnic minority.

The Prosecutors Attack

Turkish Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya said in an indictment released on November 16 that “speeches and actions by party leaders have proved that the party has become a focal point of activities against the sovereignty of the state and indivisible unity of the country and the nation.” Yalçınkaya asked the Constitutional Court to disband the party and expel eight of its 20 legislators from Parliament on charges of separatism (Turkish Daily News, November 24). The case was launched against the party after its November 8 call for autonomy for Kurds living in Turkey’s impoverished southeast. In his indictment, Yalçınkaya argued that the Kurdish political party was “based on blood,” adding that party officials were receiving orders from imprisoned rebel chief Abdullah Öcalan, who was captured in Kenya in 1999. Several predecessors of the DTP were banned by Turkey’s Supreme Court on similar grounds.

General Ergin Saygun, deputy chief of the General Staff, defended the case to disband the party while rebuffing criticism from Europe: “Though all European countries remain silent in the face of tough measures taken to curb terrorist attacks waged against their countries, they are critical of a court case opened to closedown a political party that explicitly supports a terrorist organization” (Zaman, December 12).

The DTP has long expressed its readiness to mediate peace between Turkey and the rebels. Three DTP legislators traveled to a rebel camp in northern Iraq and helped facilitate the November 4 release of eight Turkish soldiers who had been abducted by Kurdish guerrillas on October 21. Prosecutors, however, regarded their efforts as rebel propaganda. “By implementing orders they received from the leader of a terrorist organization in prison, (they) have openly shown their allegiance to the terrorist organization and its leader,” Yalçınkaya said in his November 16 indictment. The prosecutor said the party should be barred from taking place in elections during the trial, a demand which is likely to prevent the party from running in local elections in March 2008. Yalçınkaya also asked the Constitutional Court to ban 221 party members, including eight lawmakers, from participating in politics for five years.

Separately, state prosecutors have demanded jail terms for 54 seemingly pro-Kurdish mayors in southeastern Turkey for suggesting that Abdullah Öcalan may have been poisoned. The mayors are accused of praising Öcalan and his actions at a news conference in March (Today’s Zaman, December 12).

The DTP suffered a severe blow on December 17 when the party’s leader, Nurettin Demirtaş, was arrested on his return from a stay in Germany. Demirtaş was elected leader of the party in November, but has yet to gain a seat in parliament. The DTP leader was remanded in custody on charges relating to the use of a false health certificate to evade mandatory military service. Prosecutors are seeking a 2-5 year sentence for the Kurdish politician (Sabah, December 19).


Turkey’s leaders and intellectuals both say the existence of armed rebels is a great obstacle for Kurdish efforts to enter the political arena and win more cultural rights for the Kurdish population. “As long as those armed men stand there, nobody can dare to take a further step,” wrote Ertuğrul Özkök, a prominent columnist of the leading daily Hürriyet. “If the PKK’s command decide to lay down their arms and convince (Turkey), the rest could come up, but it is a fact that they are far from such maturity” (Hürriyet, November 21).

The Turkish mindset about the politicization of the terrorist threat is not monolithic. Although Erdoğan’s government encourages politics along Kurdish lines, the state establishment views the “metamorphosis” from a military to a political struggle as a strategic threat. In the view of security officials, the PKK is a tactical threat that can be dealt with by military means, but a politicization of the Kurdish struggle creates a different challenge.