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Emboldened Kurds Press Demands in Turkey


The imprisoned leader of the Kurdish rebel group the PKK set a June 15 deadline for Turkey's government to start negotiations to resolve Kurdish demands or face a return to conflict. Since the threat, made in April, Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, the BDP, scored advances in last Sunday's general election, increasing its representation from 20 to 36 in the 550-seat assembly.

The success of the pro-Kurdish BDP in Sunday's elections comes as concerns are being expressed that Turkey is the verge of a return to conflict and civil unrest because of the unmet aspirations of its Kurdish minority. One of the newly elected deputies, Altan Tan, has a stark warning to the new government:

"We want a new constitution, we want an agreement with the government, which will give us our rights. If they don’t solve this problem, they could not do anything. We will make Kurdistan like Egypt, like Yemen, like Syria. We don’t want this," Tan said.

His warning follows the arrest over the last two years of nearly 2,000 party members, including 12 elected mayors, all accused of having links to the outlawed PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984. The imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, has warned that the rebels will end their cease-fire on Wednesday unless the government starts negotiations to meet their demands.

The escalating situation follows the collapse two years ago of government attempts to end the conflict, an effort known as the 'Kurdish opening."

"Until now Turkish politicians have put condition to negotiate -- stop the armed struggle. Kurds did. Nothing happened, with the exception of (the) short-lived Kurdish opening. As long as there is no political process, the armed struggle will probably continue," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar, from Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

In his victory speech following the re-election of Turkey's ruling party, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan committed himself to a new constitution, which he said will be a politically inclusive process. But during the election campaign, in which he courted Turkish nationalist voters, he took a tough stance against Kurdish demands for education in Kurdish and greater autonomy. Mr. Erdogan even said he would have hanged PKK leader Ocalan if he had been in power when Ocalan was captured in 1999.

But if Mr. Erdogan is prepared to negotiate, he may find more willing partners than in the past among the newly-elected pro-Kurdish deputies. according to Sinan Ulgen of the Turkish research firm Edam:

"On the positive side, they have also included some representatives who have not been associated [with the] more radical line of the Kurdish movement. That might allow them to play a more constructive role on the Kurdish issue," Ulgen said.

But a political scientist at Istanbul University, Nuray Mert, questions whether any of Turkey's main parties are ready to address the Kurdish movement's warnings and calls to negotiate.

"Unfortunately, neither the governing parties nor parties in opposition, they refuse to take it seriously, and think if [they] recognize [the] seriousness of the problem, it will be a surrender to Kurdish demands," said Mert.

During his campaign, the prime minister said there was no longer a Kurdish problem, but rather the problem lay with the BDP inciting unrest. The BDP countered that they represented Turkey's last chance for a negotiated settlement, warning that the generation following them will be far more militant.

That threat is real, according to the deputy head of the ruling AK party in Diyarbakir, Mohammed Akar.

He says that if there is disappointment, the whole idea of integration will end. Separation and conflict will come to the fore. He says that if he can see this, the prime minister, the state should see it as well. Akar adds that "The danger that is lying ahead is a nightmare," Akar said.

Since the start of the PKK's armed struggle, more than 40,000 people have been killed. Observers warn that Turkey's new parliament may find the country at a crossroads - either peace or a return to conflict and civil strife.

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