On June 20 the Democratic Society Party (DTP) requested and received extra time to prepare its defense in the closure case it faces. The closure case against the DTP was launched by Chief Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya in November 2007. The DTP stands accused of praising and aiding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as serving as “a center of activities aimed at damaging the independence of the state and the indivisible integrity of its territory and nation” (The New Anatolian, June 17). The party was supposed to submit its defense to Turkey’s Constitutional Court on June 26 but was able to postpone its official defense hearing to September 16, claiming that the complexity and extensive nature of its defense case required more preparation time (Turkish Daily News, June 21).
The likely closure of the pro-Kurdish DTP has been largely overshadowed by a similar closure case launched in March against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is charged with acting as a focal point for “anti-secular activities” in Turkey. When the closure case was opened against the DTP just four months earlier, the AKP government failed to speak out or take any action in defense of the much smaller pro-Kurdish party, which had only 20 deputies compared with the AKP’s 341. In May an AKP deputy told Jamestown that his party’s failure to defend the Democratic Society Party against closure amounted to a “big mistake, a mistake that weakened democracy for everyone in Turkey.” The AKP’s protests against the “anti-democratic nature” of judicial party closure thus appeared hypocritical, especially among Kurds in Turkey. The Turkish Constitutional Court has closed 24 parties since it was established in 1963.
Due to the extension given for the DTP’s defense hearing, the Constitutional Court’s rulings on the two parties’ closure cases may occur in the fall for both parties. With nationwide municipal elections also scheduled for the fall, both the DTP and AKP must scramble to contest the elections, defend themselves in the Constitutional Court, and prepare successor parties in case of closure.
In the case of the DTP, a successor party already appears poised to contest municipal elections. On May 9, 42 DTP-linked politicians formed the Peace and Democracy Party (EDM, May 13). The quick formation of a new party appears especially important for the DTP, given that its closure was originally expected earlier than that of the AKP. Two hundred and twenty-one DTP members, including 8 DTP deputies in the National Assembly, also face a five-year ban from politics should the party be closed, compared with the 71 deputies from the AKP that face a ban. In the coming municipal elections, the new Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) will no doubt replace the DTP to form a new pro-Kurdish secular option in Turkish politics.
To some observers both inside and outside Turkey, the Constitutional Court’s periodic closing of political parties, followed by their reformation under a new name, appears to be a somewhat pointless exercise. Both the DTP and the AKP are the latest incarnations of almost a dozen pro-Kurdish and pro-Islamic parties, for instance. Although many top party leaders and officials are also banned from politics for five years when a party is closed, they typically designate surrogates until they can re-enter the political arena.
The party closures nonetheless serve several purposes. From a legal perspective, many Turks view the process as an affirmation of the rule of law. Political parties that violate the Turkish Constitution, including its articles guaranteeing secularism and the territorial integrity of the state and the unity of the nation, must be held legally accountable. Since no party or politician generally announces the intent to violate the constitution, each must be judged by its actions and statements after they have already entered the political arena, rather than by their official founding programs or pre-election promises. Those parties judged to have violated the constitution in deed or word therefore face closure.
On a more practical level, the periodic party closings also serve to handicap the political parties that the Kemalist establishment disapproves of, without completely gutting the democratic system. Replacing experienced and popular politicians for five years, creating a new party, renting new offices, reorganizing everything from election banners to business cards, and hiring legal teams to defend a party in front of the Constitutional Court all require a good deal of time, effort and money. Parties not faced with closure cases are meanwhile free to devote all their resources to the next election.
From the perspective of the European Union, however, a party should only face legal closure for advocating or engaging in violence. The current cases against the DTP and AKP have thus come under heavy criticism from European countries and do not help Turkey’s EU accession efforts. Additionally, precise definitions of essential Turkish Constitutional principles such as secularism and territorial integrity have proven very elusive. According to AKP deputies, their party is secular. DTP deputies likewise feel that nothing about Kurdish autonomy or federalism undermines the territorial integrity of Turkey. Both parties, of course, will have a difficult time selling their definitions of secularism and territorial integrity to the judges of the Constitutional Court.