Turkey's Kurds Know Democracy Is Out of Reach

"The Democratic Society Party" - that's an ironic name for a political party that was banned by order of Turkey's Constitutional Court earlier this month. But the Kurds in Turkey, who belong to that party, know that in that country, a democratic society is far beyond their reach. After all, this is not the first of their parties to be closed down: It was preceded by the People's Work Party, the Freedom and Democracy Party, the Democracy Party and the People's Democracy Party. All were pro-Kurdish organizations whose members moved from one party to another following the closures. Now, too, in light of the court order, it appears that some of them will join the new party established a year ago, the Peace and Democracy Party. The latter was established in order to create a political refuge in the event that the Democratic Society Party was banned.

The 500-page report that was filed in the court and sealed the party's fate included details of its members' activities, its connections to the Kurdish Workers Party (widely known as the PKK), which is locally defined as a terrorist organization, and its members' activities against the "unity of the homeland" - a particularly tough clause in the Turkish constitution aimed at those who support political rights for Kurds. The result? The party's 37 members are now forbidden to be involved in politics for a period of five years, and chairman Ahmet Turk, who actually prefers political solutions to violence, was thrown out of the parliament, along with another party MP.

By taking these steps, the court effectively prevents other pro-Kurdish MPs from organizing a new independent faction. The banned party had 21 MPS. In order to form an independent faction they need at least 20 members, but the expulsion of their second MP along with Ahmet Turk precludes this possibility. Even a mass resignation will make things difficult for them. If that happens, the number of empty parliamentary seats will reach 26 (counting the seats of former members who resigned or were expelled), but according to the constitution, new elections can only be held if there are 28 vacant seats. Since the other political parties are opposed to elections being held at this time, they can nip the process in the bud by refusing to authorize the resignation of Kurdish MPs, as is required The only thing left for the Kurdish MPs is to remain in the parliament as independent individuals.

However, it must be said that Kurdish citizens flooded the streets of Istanbul in a violent protest against the court decision a few weeks ago, and in addition, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his efforts to advance Kurdish rights would not cease because of the decision.

The suggested reform, called the Kurdish Initiative (also known as Openness to Kurds), could cause a dramatic change in the definition of Turkey's national identity. Erdogan is determined to present the plan to parliament at the beginning of 2010 and has already undertaken a series of steps to advance it, and to equalize the rights of the Kurds with those of other citizens even though they are a separate ethnic population. For example, according to the proposal, the 15,000 Kurdish settlements forced to take on Turkish names during the Ataturk era will be permitted to take back their original names, if they so desire, following a public referendum.

Furthermore, Turkey is granting a pardon to members of the PKK who currently live in the mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, allowing them to return to Turkey if they have not been involved in acts of terror. The first group returned last month and was greeted with cheers by thousands shouting slogans in Kurdish. Television and radio broadcasts in Kurdish, currently limited to a few hours a day, will no longer be curtailed, according to the reform. Moreover, the ban on the use of Kurdish in election advertising will be lifted and the Koran will be translated into Kurdish. Kurdish political prisoners will not be released in a sweeping pardon, but will enjoy a lightening of sentences; also, criminal law will be changed so that public support for Kurds will no longer be a justification for indictments.

Such measures have sparked a profound disagreement between Erdogan and the opposition: The democratization of the Kurdish community is depicted by his opponents as conceding to terror. "Terror came down from the mountains to the cities and terrorist attacks became routine, proving the government's weakness," accuses Deniz Baykal, chairman of the Republican Party. The Openness to Kurds plan is thus "a project without time limits, which will lead the Kurds to demand more and more." Baykal also hinted that the initiative is being put forward jointly by the ruling Justice and Development Party and the PKK.

'Warped' ideals

"The Justice and Development Party is the architect of a socioeconomic scheme in which nationalist ideals are warped. Polarization and tension have become management tools and solidarity is damaged," said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing National Movement Party.

The seven soldiers killed in a terrorist attack by the PKK in the Tokat region last week probably did not make Erdogan's plan to advance his Kurdish initiative any easier, but he remains determined. This determination does not depend only on his view of civil rights, as a leader who has spent time in prison and whose party is also in danger of being banned. Erdogan's Kurdish initiative stems from an understanding of a politics, and a strategy that states that improving Kurdish rights in Turkey is likely to undermine the PKK's status as a leader in the fight for the Kurds.

This a sober, logical political approach, based on the fact that decades of war against the Kurds and the deaths of more than 35,000 people did not lead to the peace the nation aspires to. But the strategy is likely to fail because it is spearheaded by the wrong man and the wrong party, which is itself suspected of trying to shatter the Kemalist principles that unite the various parts of the population. It is true that Erdogan's religious party won a big victory in the elections, but it is a misleading victory: The party's majority in parliament was forged thanks to intricate election-related mechanisms and a complex process of allocating seats - which have in essence left half the population unrepresented.

This is the same half which views the "unity of the homeland" as a principle that cannot be relinquished, and which cannot accept the granting of ethnic rights to 14 million Kurds. Erdogan's party has angered members of the army, which pays the price in the war on terror, and which views the party suspiciously as aiming to promote a religious agenda. Indeed, any initiative that advances national reconciliation is regarded as suspicious. So Erdogan has found himself in the middle: between the necessity of supporting the court decision and his political aspirations.

"I am against banning parties, but even the most enlightened countries cannot tolerate support for terrorism," he said. This is a strange statement, uncritically accepting the decision of the Constitutional Court - whose members Erdogan would like to replace some day.

But what he cannot say aloud, the Turkish newspapers can. In an incisive article, paradoxically appearing in a newspaper known for leading the struggle against the Erdogan government, Mehmet Ali Birand - one of the most important and veteran journalists in the country - wrote recently that Erdogan's initiative is brave and significant, but the government has failed to offered a truly workable plan. But Birand aims his sharpest arrows at the opposition, which, he wrote, "committed a historic crime" in opposing the initiative simply because it feared losing votes.

"We are all guilty," Birand declared. "The government, the opposition, the Kurds, the Turks, the army and the scientists. We all slaughtered the possibility of peace. We didn't see ourselves as worthy of comfort and peace."

An intriguing thought, but there is not much the Kurds can do with it. So, they will try once again to enter parliament with a new party - and wait once again for the next Constitutional Court ruling.