Less than three months after 20 pro-Kurdish MPs entered the Turkish parliament in the July 22 general election, hopes that their presence in the assembly would create a platform for a solution to the 23-year-old insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are already fading fast. The PKK is likely to be extinguished if, as expected, parliament votes tomorrow (October 17) on a motion authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops into northern Iraq in military operations against the PKK. Nobody doubts that it will be approved overwhelmingly. Only the members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) are expected to vote against the resolution.
The DTP’s opposition to the motion will almost certainly cement the party’s increasing political isolation. Both its opponents and many of its supporters regard it as being closely affiliated with the PKK. When the party’s MPs first took their seats in parliament they caused a sensation by walking across the floor to shake hands with the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which had based its election campaign on calls for a crackdown on the PKK. At election rallies, MHP Chairman Devlet Bahceli had frequently punctuated his speeches by waving a rope that he promised that, once in power, the party would use to hang PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali.
The DTP’s unprecedented gesture took the MHP by surprise and prompted even its more hard-line members to wonder whether it heralded the beginning of new era that would finally see the end of a conflict that has cost close to 40,000 lives. However, as the death toll from PKK violence continued to mount through the summer, the DTP steadfastly refused to characterize the PKK as a terrorist organization and remained silent when its members attended the funerals of PKK militants killed in clashes with security forces. Nor did the Turkish establishment appear prepared to allow the DTP any respite from the judicial persecution that has resulted in the banning of a string of pro-Kurdish political parties over the last 20 years.
In the past, once someone has been elected to parliament, judicial proceedings have been suspended on the grounds that the accused enjoyed parliamentary immunity as long as s/he was a MP. However, the Turkish courts have made an exception for the DTP.
At the time of the July 22 election, DTP MP Sebahat Tuncel was in prison facing charges of being a member of the PKK. Although she was released from prison to take her seat in parliament, the Turkish courts refused to suspend proceedings against her. On October 11, a court in Istanbul ruled, on doubtful legal grounds, that the charges against her fell outside the scope of parliamentary immunity, as they related to offences against the state (NTV, CNNTurk, DHA, October 11). If convicted, Tuncel faces up to 15 years in jail.
Several other leading members of the DTP face similar charges. On October 5, the Public Prosecutor announced that he had launched a new judicial investigation against the DTP’s co-chair, Aysel Tugluk, after she referred to Ocalan in a speech in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on September 3, 2006. On October 8, five municipal officials from the DTP were taken into custody after allegedly making public speeches praising Ocalan (Anadolu Ajans, October 9). When a deputation of DTP MPs arrived at the gendarmerie headquarters in Adana asking to be able to see one of the detained officials, the local gendarmerie commander refused even to acknowledge their request, leaving them waiting at the gate until they finally gave up and left (DHA, October 9).
The recent spike in PKK killings (see EDM, October 11) looks set to deliver the coup de grace to the party. After 13 Turkish conscripts were killed in a PKK ambush on October 7, the DTP issued an official statement referring to them for the first time as “martyrs”; the preferred official term in Turkey for any state employee killed in the line of duty (Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, Vatan, October 8). However, the party still avoided describing the PKK as a terrorist organization and chose to call for an end to all violence rather than just for the PKK to lay down its arms.
In the aftermath of the ambush, as the government came under increasing public pressure to take revenge by hitting at the PKK’s camps in northern Iraq, the DTP was alone in speaking out against the operation. Some party members even went as far as to warn that a military operation would devastate the local economy in Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey and could even trigger a civil war (Vatan, Hurriyet, October 12). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan effectively accused the DTP of threatening the government, provoking a furious response. “If Turkey goes across it will not be a cross-border operation but a war between peoples,” said DTP MP Hasip Kaplan. “The dictators, soldiers, and oppressors who have led the Turkish republic for the last 84 years have tried to silence the Kurds. But they couldn’t succeed” (DHA, October 15).
In his column in the center-right daily Sabah on October 16, the maverick journalist Huncal Uluc called for an end to the pressure on the DTP, claiming that it was the only Kurdish organization with which the Turkish state could engage and that it needed to be given a chance to help find a solution to the conflict (Sabah, October 16). However, Uluc was in a tiny minority. Most of the Turkish media reacted to Kaplan’s statement with outrage. There is increasing speculation that the judicial authorities may soon take the opportunity to close down the DTP altogether.