Saturday the Turkish parliament was opened for the new legislative year. Usually just a ceremonial procedure, this time a historic day: the pro-Kurdish BDP party ended its boycott of parliament, and thus Kurdish activist and politician Leyla Zana also returned to what now is again a bit more like the heart of Turkish democracy. Leyla Zana changed the oath a little bit as she took it. I attended the ceremony, and afterwards I thought: could the oath as Leyla Zana took it be the oath of the Turkey of the future?
The opening of parliament started with a speech by President Abdullah Gül. He talked, among other things, about one of the first and most urgent matters the new parliament needs to work on: writing a new constitution. The current constitution dates back to 1982 and was written by the military government of those days, after the 1980 coup. Gül pointed out that that constitution ‘attempts to restrict Turkey’s democratic maturity and diversity, and ignores the richness that Turkey represents’. The new constitution, he said, ‘should benefit from the dynamics of society and be designed based on freedoms.’ (Read the whole speech in English here.)
Then the BDP MP’s, who had been boycotting the parliament since the June 12 elections because some of their MP’s are still in jail, took their oaths. One of them, Leyla Zana, changed a part of a sentence. She didn’t say ‘the great Turkish people’, but ‘the great people of Turkey’. She didn’t think about it in advance, she stated afterwards, it just came out that way. I believe her – this difference and the meaning of it must be so deeply rooted in her system, that this is just how she says it. Her changed words reflect the fact that not all citizens of this country are Turks, but they are all people of Turkey. A fundamental difference.
Now let’s go back to twenty years ago, when Leyla Zana (then the first Kurdish woman ever to enter Turkish parliament) also took the oath. At the time, she added a sentence to it, and she spoke in Kurdish, saying: ‘I take this oath for the fraternity between the Turkish and Kurdish people.’ This, and other things she said on several occasions, cost her years of judicial problems and ten years in jail. And in recent years she has been convicted of remarks that are supposed to be protected by the freedom of speech.
Since then, some restrictions against Kurdish culture and language have been lifted. Total cultural freedom hasn’t been achieved (yet?), but for sure progress has been made. President Gül used the words ‘Kurdish question’ in his speech in parliament Saturday, which was totally unthinkable ten years ago. He even said the Kurdish question is ‘the product of long years of negligence of democratic deficiencies in our country’. (Let’s for a second focus not on what remains to be done, but was has been achieved in ten years, after the very Kurdish identity was totally denied for at least seventy years.)
In his speech, President Gül mentioned the Kurdish question in the ‘chapter’ about terrorism, but maybe he should have mentioned it in the ‘chapter’ about the new constitution. Because that is where lies part of the solution to the Kurdish problem in so far as Parliament can influence it. Like he said himself, the constitution should reflect the richness that Turkey represents. We’re not just talking Turks and Kurds here, but many different ethnic groups that live in Turkey and who were for decades all considered to be Turks. So what could be more logical than changing the text of the oath, as written down in article 81 of the Turkish constitution, in the spirit of how Leyla Zana said it?