Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 153

The results of the Turkish general election of July 22 suggest that Turkey’s Kurdish minority is looking increasingly to Islam rather than the secular nationalism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) is generally regarded by both its opponents and its supporters as being very closely associated with the PKK (EDM, July 27). In the July 22 elections DTP candidates ran as independents in order to circumvent the legal requirement that any Turkish political party receive at least 10% of the national vote in order to be represented parliament. After being officially sworn in as deputies on August 4, a total of 20 independent deputies formally joined the DTP (Hurriyet, August 5). It was the first time in Turkish history that a pro-Kurdish party had secured the 20 seats required to be recognized as an official parliamentary group; which in theory gives the party rights such as participation in parliamentary committees.

However, an analysis of the votes received by the DTP deputies suggests that the party actually lost ground in the July 22 election. The DTP was founded in 2005 as a successor to the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), which was closed by the Turkish authorities. In the November 2002 election DEHAP won 27.2% of the popular vote in the 20 largest cities in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish eastern and southeastern provinces. On July 22, the DTP members running as independents won 20.5% of the vote in the same cities. In contrast, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK Party) almost doubled its share of the vote in the same 20 cities from 27.3% in 2002 to 52.6% on July 22 (Referans, August 6).

Some of the reasons for the decline in the DTP’s vote were technical. A substantial proportion of the electorate in southeast Turkey is illiterate and, when voting, usually rely on being able to identify the party logo next to the candidate’s name. However, independent candidates are only allowed to write their names and there were so many candidates in some constituencies that the ballot papers were nearly two yards long, making it very difficult for illiterate votes to identify their chosen candidates. However, such technical issues do not fully explain the DTP’s relative failure on July 22.

Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces have traditionally been not only the most underdeveloped in the country but also the most devout. The PKK was founded as an explicitly Marxist organization. In recent years it has downplayed its communist credentials in favor of secular Kurdish nationalism. But to the majority of Turkey’s Kurds it is regarded as being, at best, indifferent to Islam and, at worst, anti-Islam. During the early 1990s the PKK even fought a war against the most powerful violent Islamist organization in eastern Turkey, the Turkish Hezbollah, which is unrelated to the Lebanese organization of the same name.

In January 2000 Huseyin Velioglu, the leader of Turkish Hezbollah, was killed by Turkish police and most of the organization’s cell network dried up. However, in recent years, Hezbollah has rebuilt its organizational network, although at the moment it operates through a number of religious foundations, charities, and publishing houses and so far there is no indication that it is planning a return to violence. To date, Hezbollah has concentrated on propaganda and providing support to the poorer sections of society, such as running soup kitchens (Referans, August 6). Although Hezbollah regards the AK Party as being too moderate, during the recent election campaign it mobilized support for the AK Party in preference to the DTP (NTV, July 31).

In recent years, other non-violent Islamist organizations, such as the Sufi brotherhoods known as tariqah, have also stepped up their activities in eastern and southeastern Turkey. The most active has been the Naqshabandi, which, like Hezbollah, has been vigorously conducting propaganda activities and social work in the region, including soup kitchens, free Koran courses and scholarships and subsidized housing in dormitories for students wishing to attend university in western Turkey. Although there are no organic links between the Naqshabandi and the AK Party, many of its leading members, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have close ties with the order. In conversations with Jamestown, leading Naqshabandis have never made any secret of their support for the AK Party.

In comparison, the DTP lacks both the financial resources and the ideological appeal of either militant organizations like Hezbollah or the Sufi orders. The DTP’s brand of secular nationalism is a very new phenomenon for Turkey’s Kurds. The results of the July 22 election suggest that it is already losing ground to Islam.