Analysts see ruling as a positive symbolic step, but its practical impact is unclear. The Constitutional Court decision easing restrictions on use of Kurdish in political activities has received mixed interpretations, with observers offering cautious praise amid lingering uncertainty over the ruling’s legal ramifications.
The decision, which went into effect last week after being issued in July 2012, overturned article 117 of the political parties law, which outlined legal sanctions for violating the ban on using languages other than Turkish in political activities. However, article 81 of the law, which sets the specific restrictions, remains in force. The result is bans on use of Kurdish in political activities are still on the books, but no longer punishable by law.
Ramazan Demir, a lawyer who works for Kurds being prosecuted for political offences, outlined the ruling’s technical details. “Article 81 of the law on political parties says the use of any language other than Turkish [in political activities] is an act that must be punished, while article 117 arranges the punishments. The Constitutional Court ruling said that article 117 is against the constitution,” he told SES Türkiye.
Demir added that the ruling declared the two provisions unlawful under article 38 of the Turkish constitution, which states that only individuals can be held liable for criminal offences. “Article 81 holds the political party responsible for violations, so the Constitutional Court considers it against the constitution to punish a person for something he or she according to law can’t be held responsible for.”
Further reforms will be needed to clarify the uncertain status of article 81 of the political parties law in the aftermath of the court ruling. “The court gave the government the opportunity the repair the law, but the government hasn’t taken any action yet,” Demir told SES Türkiye.
Article 81 could be amended to allow courts to hold people responsible for the language they use during political activities. This seems unlikely, however, as restrictions on Kurdish have been liberalised in recent years. In 2010, for example, AKP-backed legislation amended the election law to allow use of Kurdish during political campaigns.
Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group Turkey director, said further changes to the political parties law would be central to a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. “For a long-term, comprehensible solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey and the end of PKK violence, the law on political parties has to be changed,” he told SES Türkiye.
Pope sees use of Kurdish as a way to protect cultural diversity, dismissing the idea that it will threaten Turkey’s unity. “Is Kurdish a threat or is Kurdish under threat? I think the latter, just as, for example, Arabic is [endangered] in Hatay province, where many Arabs live. Turkish is taking over,” he said.
He added that reforms facilitating use of Kurdish would carry mostly “symbolic” importance for daily political activities, since most Kurds understand Turkish.
“I think you can compare it to the Kurdish demand of having education in mother tongue. You can wonder how many people would actually really want it, but that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that it has to be made sure that there is no discrimination.”
Kurdish politicians often say that they need to speak Kurdish at political rallies because some in the audience don’t understand Turkish. Meanwhile, there are many Kurds who don’t know their mother tongue very well either, and wouldn’t understand speeches if they were made in Kurdish.
Ertugrul Kurkcu, an ethnically Turkish BDP-affiliated parliamentarian representing Mersin, agreed that the court ruling will have little impact on the party’s daily political operations. “We never waited for such a legal change, we already use Kurdish during meetings and rallies,” he toldSES Türkiye. “The laws concerning the use of other languages than Turkish in political propaganda should be liberated, just as using mother tongue in court was recently allowed by law.”
Commenting on Mersin, Kurcku added: “It’s a Turkish city with a heavy Kurdish population. If the BDP has a rally there, the Kurdish speakers usually prefer to speak in Kurdish. I speak in Turkish, and some others do, too. Our rallies are bilingual.”
On its website, the AKP said it has created “revolutionary openings and practices on the Kurdish issue,” adding that “the use of mother languages, local languages in political propaganda is no longer a crime”, which is in fact incorrect. The new ruling will lead to the acquittal of individuals facing prosecution or punishment for violating article 81 of the political parties law, according to Demir.
“A hearing is needed in which the judge decides to acquit the defendant. Judges have to follow rulings of the Constitutional Court, so in the coming months these people’s cases will come to an end one by one,” he said.