pro-Kurdish party DTP: in the shadow of the PKK

The Turkish pro-Kurdish Party for a Democratic Society (DTP) loses voters to the governing AK Party. No reason for DTP-leader Ahmet Türk to soften his opinions: “Amnesty for PKK fighters must be discussed and the murderers of Kurdish politicians, journalists and human rights activists must be brought to justice.”

The end is near for DTP, the “Party for a Democratic Society”. If it is not banned by court order, it will probably be beaten in the next (local) elections. Once again a pro-Kurdish party that fails to survive the Turkish political arena.
And it all started so hopefully, in the spring of 2007. The general elections were approaching, and the DTP decided to get around the ten percent threshold by fielding independent candidates. This turned out to be a good move, as twenty DTP-members were elected. Never before was the Kurdish representation in parliament – with a total of 550 seats – so big. Nor did they ever seem to be so accepted: DTP-parliamentarians even shook hands with their colleagues from the ultra-nationalist MHP. That a few DTP-members, when asked to list their knowledge of foreign languages on official papers, answered ‘Kurdish’ besides their mother tongue Kurdish, caused rage but was eventually forgiven.

Democratic solutions

But a lot has happened since the parliamentary elections in July last year. Most important is the intensifying fight against the PKK, which has fueled the already strong nationalistic feelings in Turkey. The DTP doesn’t distance itself from PKK violence, and that is strongly held against them. Indeed so strongly that the public prosecutor last November decided to start proceedings to close the DTP down, accusing the party of having connections with the PKK and making separatist propaganda.
Ahmet Türk, leader of the DTP parliamentary group, says his party has always preached democratic solutions. But, as he explains in his office in the parliament in Ankara, calling on the PKK to lay down their arms is useless. ‘The government takes no measures at all to give Kurds more freedoms and end their poverty. Only when that is done can we call on people to accept the solutions, to no longer support violence and lay down their weapons.’ Which doesn’t mean, he adds, that there are connections between the DTP and the PKK, or that the DTP can effectively ask them to end the violence. ‘We don’t have such power. Only the dynamics of democratic solutions can stop violence.’

A rose and an axe

It is not true that the government is doing nothing to solve the problems of Kurds in Turkey. Around the beginning of this year, the Erdogan government presented proposals for a new constitution giving minorities more rights and which can also have a positive outcome for Kurdish politicians. The ten percent threshold will not be abolished, but some of the seats in parliament will be reserved for delegates from parties that got at least one percent of the votes. Moreover it will become much harder to ban political parties. In recent years, Turkey has lifted the ban on Kurdish media and more space was created for the Kurdish language.
According to the DTP, it is not enough. Ahmet Türk explains: ‘In the new constitution the rights of Kurds have to be specified. Just like the Spanish constitution gives Catalans the right to express themselves freely. Look at how violence in Northern Ireland was eventually brought to an end: democratic formulas were found.’ DTP wants an all-embracing solution for the Kurdish question, Türk says: ‘We have to discuss an amnesty for PKK fighters, and the government-protected murderers of Kurdish politicians, journalists and human rights activists have to be brought to justice. Also the burning of Kurdish villages in the nineties has to be accounted for. But the only thing that is spoken about in this country is PKK violence, which is not fought with democratic means, but with more violence. Prime Minister Erdogan holds a rose in one hand and an axe in the other.’

Lots of Kurds think differently. The DTP might have reached a historic number of 20 seats in parliament, but the election results were no reason for celebration. The governing AK Party got 41 percent of the votes in the Kurdish southeast. The AKP is a people’s party that wants more religious freedom in strictly secular Turkey, and that achieved economic growth and got inflation down to less than ten percent. That appeals to the population in the southeast, who are not only Kurdish but also Muslims, and who are mainly poor. The AKP decision to attack PKK camps in northern Iraq could lessen the popularity of the party among Kurds. It remains to be seen how many Kurdish voters once again turn their backs on the AKP in the local elections, next year March. Maybe not too many: PKK violence also hits Kurds.

Legal system

The DTP has something to fear from the AKP, but also from the PKK. Instead of giving the democratic representation of Kurds a chance, PKK violence helps to undermine the party. It is as if they cannot tolerate any power in the southeast other than themselves – not the AKP, but also not the DTP. The more PKK violence there is, the more Kurdish politicians are cornered, the less opportunity they get to spread their points of view and the more they are associated with PKK violence, until inevitably a prosecutor will decide to try to close the party down. That’s how it has always gone, Ahmet Türk says: ‘One of our predecessors strongly rejected PKK violence but that party was also banned. It doesn’t matter what we say, we get into trouble anyway.’
He continues: ‘There is no ground for banning the DTP. In the official complaint, there are no concrete accusations, it only says what we don’t do, like condemning PKK violence. Do I have faith in Turkey’s legal system? In my experience the system is under pressure from politics and public opinion, but I hope this time the judges will resist that pressure.’

Apart from the popularity of the governing AKP, maybe rising nationalism and Turkish reluctance to openly speak about the Kurdish question will do more to bring the DTP down. PKK violence will give the party the last blow. But that’s not something you will hear from Ahmet Türk. You will not hear him speak as strongly about the PKK as about the Turkish state. During the interview, several times he talks about the time when Kurds were not even recognised as a people by the Turkish state. Those times are long past, and both friend and foe have to admit that the PKK helped to put the Kurdish question in the spotlight. But you will not hear Türk recognize that fact. When the idea is suggested, he turns to the interpreter with a smile on his face: ‘What does she want? To have me in prison?’

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