On October 17 lawyers for imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan claimed that prison personnel had physically attacked Ocalan and threatened him by saying that when the time came he would be killed (Firat News Agency, October 17). Immediately after the statement was released, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its legal wing, the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP), asked Kurdish people to protest against both “the conditions Abdullah Ocalan is exposed to in Imrali prison, including isolation, torture, and bad treatment, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.” The PKK and the DTP asked shop owners several times in 2006 to close their shops in solidarity with Ocalan, but the shopkeepers declined to do so (www.peymaazadi.com, May 15, 2006). This week, however, the shop owners responded positively. It was the first time since the 1990s that business owners have taken part in this form of protest, this time against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Diyarbakir (CNNturk, October 20). For the last three days, the cities in Kurdish-populated regions and the Kurdish communities in the suburbs of western cities have been in a state of unrest. Protesters, mostly Kurdish youth, including eight to 12-year-old children, have taken to the streets clashing with the security forces (Hurriyet, October 22).
Although the pro-PKK press argues that the reason behind the recent unrest is the bad treatment that Ocalan has received while in prison (www.yeniozgurpolitika.org, October 18), the real reason behind the disturbances is the leadership rivalry betweenOcalan and Mesut Barzani, the leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, and the election competition between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the DTP.
It has been reported that whenever the Turkish government attempts to establish a dialogue with the Kurds in Iraq, Ocalan’s lawyers come up with an allegation that Ocalan is receiving bad treatment. On February 23, 2007, for instance, the National Security Council stated that “the government should establish communications channels with the Kurds in Iraq.” Ocalan’s lawyer claimed “Ocalan is being poisoned in prison.” On June 27, when it was announced that Erdogan would visit Iraq and meet with Iraqi Kurdish president Jalal Talabani, Ocalan’s lawyer claimed “Ocalan’s head was shaved against his will.” On October 10 President Abdullah Gul revealed that Turkey had established channels of dialogue and communication with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. Immediately after Gul’s statement, Ocalan’s lawyer claimed that “Ocalan has been threatened and has been receiving bad treatment and isolation in prison” (Zaman, October 23).
All allegations have been vehemently denied by the government. It is no secret that Ocalan is in competition over leadership with the Kurdish leaders in Iraq. The recent surge of violence should be discussed partly in the context of this competition.
In addition to the leadership competition between Kurdish leaders and Abdullah Ocalan, a contest over the forthcoming local election should be kept in mind. One of the AKP’s priorities is to win the Diyarbakir municipality in the elections to show the state elites, including military generals and Supreme Court judges that the AKP is the only Turkish party able to reach out to the Kurdish communities (Milliyet, April 28). In the July 2007 general elections the AKP showed that it could, in fact, win more votes among the Kurds than the Kurdish nationalist party. The 2007 election results put the DTP in disarray, and it now seeks to defend its stronghold cities including Diyarbakir, Batman, and Tunceli. Whenever the competition over Diyarbakir municipality becomes an issue, the DTP seems to resort to violence or escalates the tension.
The fierce election competition first sparked a quarrel between Erdogan and Osman Baydemir, the DTP mayor of Diyarbakir. When Erdogan declared that one of his goals was to win the Diyarbakir municipality, Baydemir replied “The prime minister and AKP ministers harshly criticize Diyarbakir municipality for not providing good services to the people of Diyarbakir. If they declare war on us, we will challenge them; we are here. Diyarbakir is our fortress. We will not surrender” (Milliyet, September 3, 2007). Since this quarrel, the DTP has gradually advanced the language of violence over the past year by underpinning how important it is for the DTP to win in Diyarbakir and other municipalities in the Kurdish region. In February Ahmet Turk, the head of the DTP, once again stressed the importance of winning in Diyarbakir and the surrounding cities: “If we lose in Diyarbakir, Batman, and Dersim, there is no reason for the Kurdish struggle. We should therefore fight hard with this point in mind” (Hurriyet, February 5).
As was to be expected, as the election season approaches the violence in Kurdish cities is escalating. Political observers think that the PKK will intensify violence in order not to lose Diyarbakir municipality. The PKK would do anything to win there (Radikal, October 8). Ocalan has said, “Kurds should work hard day and night to win. They should not give a single vote to the AKP. The votes that are cast for the AKP return as war and bombs on the Kurdish people” (Firat News Agency, October 17). The PKK’s recent attack on Turkish military posts and convoys and the DTP-organized street demonstrations in the Kurdish populated city centers are, in fact, closely related to the coming elections. As a result of the upsurge in street violence, political observers think that Kurdish nationalists have recently regained the psychological advantage after the AKP’s decisive victory in the July 2007 elections (Referans, October 14). Ahmet Turk stated that the recent clashes in Kurdish populated cities are a way for the Kurds to exercise their democratic right to protest (Hurriyet, October 22). Emine Ayna, a Member of Parliament and a representative of the hardliners in Kurdish politics, said, “With the election season on the horizon, we are working as hard as we can to expand our influence. Erdogan claims [he will] win in Diyarbakir, Batman, and Dersim; but he cannot even come to Diyarbakir. He is afraid that the protestors will throw eggs and tomatoes at him” (www.gundemonline.org, October 18).
It appears that Emine Ayna is right, but with one exception: The Kurdish youths have indeed been protesting Erdogan’s visit to Diyarbakir, but instead of nonviolent protests and throwing tomatoes and eggs, they are now throwing rocks at the security forces and the shops that remain open.
At this stage, it is not yet clear how Erdogan will react to the DTP’s strategy of violence to win the Diyarbakir election. The liberal daily Taraf reported that Erdogan had promised NGO representatives in Diyarbakir that the AKP government would launch a new political approach to address the problem (Taraf, October 22). Since Erdogan has issued similar statements in the past and has not taken any action, however, one should not be too optimistic about his new promise to introduce reforms on Kurdish cultural rights.