The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) held a leadership conference on November 8, during which Nurettin Demirtas was elected the new party leader. Demirtas is thought to be less moderate than outgoing party leader Ahmet Türk. Türk surprised everyone in July when, upon entering the National Assembly for his swearing in ceremony, he crossed the floor to shake the hand of far-right National Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli (Turkish Daily News, November 9). The gesture raised hopes for a less contentious atmosphere between the pro-Kurdish DTP and very Turkish nationalist MHP.
During its leadership conference, the DTP also announced a “Democratization and Peace Declaration,” calling for an end to armed conflict and advocating for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey (Yeni Ozgur Politika, November 8). Demirtas stated that the Kurdish problem in Turkey remains the most urgent issue in need of a political solution. DTP leaders also cited the example of how expanded minority rights and freedoms for the Turkish minority in Bulgaria allowed for a “peaceful and democratic solution” to conflict there (Hurriyet, November 9).
The mainstream Turkish establishment will not receive DTP calls for autonomy well. Most Turks view autonomy and federalism as euphemisms for, or a prelude to, secession. Simply calling for autonomy may lead to criminal charges being filed against DTP leaders, as various provisions of the Turkish Constitution forbid “undermining the territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic” whether by word or deed. Autonomy demands have in the past been interpreted by both Turkish prosecutors and judges as an attempt to divide Turkey and led to prison sentences.
The DTP’s demand for more cultural, linguistic, and other minority rights may also engender hostility from more Turkish nationalist circles, who are already very uncomfortable with the modest minority rights reforms that Turkey implemented in the past eight years as part of its European Union reforms. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains favorable to deepening these liberal reforms, however, and this stance accounts for part of the AKP’s recent electoral gains in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. From the right, however, the AKP faces increasing charges of being “soft on security” and giving in too much to Kurdish demands. These charges have, in turn, made it more difficult for Erdogan to resist calls for sending the Turkish military into northern Iraq to fight Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants based there.
While Turkey’s ongoing efforts to comply with EU norms have provided some tangible and encouraging cultural and linguistic reforms for Kurds, such as the right to play Kurdish music and publish Kurdish language newspapers and books, the pace and depth of the reforms fall short of many Kurds’ expectations. When the right to broadcast Kurdish language television was acknowledged by Ankara, for example, these broadcasts were then limited to one hour a week, often at awkward times. Kurdish language education likewise remains inaccessible except for a few private and legally heavily circumscribed institutes in large cities like Istanbul. A somewhat paradoxical trend may therefore be emerging within Turkey’s Kurdish population: While a majority seems to continue placing their hopes in reform from within the legal parliamentary system – meaning the AKP ruling party and the DTP pro-Kurdish opposition – others may be losing faith and turning back to the armed militants of the PKK.
The PKK, in turn, has worked hard to shed some of its more militant Marxist-Leninist baggage, cease its attacks on civilian targets, and even dropped its original demand for a separate Kurdish state. The PKK instead limits its demands to autonomy and expanded cultural, linguistic and minority rights for Kurds (author’s interview with Congra-Gel Vice-President Ramsey Kartal, April 26, 2004, Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan). Of course, this sounds very close to what the DTP just asked for at its leadership conference, which will increase many Turks’ perception that the DTP acts as a front for the PKK. When on November 4 three DTP deputies traveled to northern Iraq to successfully secure the release of eight Turkish soldiers held by the PKK, their efforts only earned them more accusations of treachery and collaboration with the enemy from mainstream Turkish media. An Ankara prosecutor then launched legal proceedings against the three DTP deputies.
With the PKK renewing armed operations and leaders in Ankara continually failing to provide economic development for the Kurdish southeast, dragging their feet on minority rights reforms, and threatening to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, the “Kurdish question in Turkey” thus risks becoming hotter than ever.