News / Europe

Kurdish Issue Heats Up Before Turkey's Parliamentary Vote

Kurdish demonstrators clash with riot police in Istanbul, May 16, 2011
Kurdish demonstrators clash with riot police in Istanbul, May 16, 2011

With just weeks to go before Turkey’s June 12 parliamentary vote, tensions are rising over Turkey's Kurdish minority's demands for the greater rights. The election campaign has already been marred by violent demonstrations , clashes between the army and the PKK rebel group as well as many  arrests.  But the ruling AK party are committed to taking a tough stance against the unrest.

Kurdish youths clash with police in the center of Istanbul.

Similar clashes have also occurred across much of Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. It is in response to last weekend's killing by the Turkish army of 12 members of Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or the PKK.

Tough stance

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media during a news conference in Ankara, April 7, 2011
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media during a news conference in Ankara, April 7, 2011

Since the start of his election campaign, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a tough stance against the rebel group and the country's main pro-Kurdish party, the BDP.

"We can’t get anywhere with those who try to undermine the democratic will of the people," he said in an address to parliamentary candidates. "There is no longer a Kurdish question in this country. I do not accept this."

That stance differs from 2005 when the prime minister declared in  a speech "There was a Kurdish problem." 

Greater cultural rights

In the last general election in 2007, Erdogan campaigned on the platform of meeting Kurdish demands for greater cultural rights. In the past few years, the government developed a 24-hour state Kurdish TV station and launched what it called the "Democratic Opening" to end the 26-year conflict with the PKK. But that broke down in mutual recriminations.

"The whole government was disappointed, even resentful, about their attempts towards the Kurds. But they saw the benefit of getting nationalist votes away from the nationalistic party. They saw there is a solid support ground and they can easily get more votes by underlining their nationalist credentials rather than democratic credentials and this explains their present policy," Political columnist Nuray Mert explains.

Increasing legal pressure

Peace and Democracy party's first campaign for Turkey's election in Diyarbakir, 14 May 2011
Peace and Democracy party's first campaign for Turkey's election in Diyarbakir, 14 May 2011

In last few years the pro-Kurdish BDP has been getting more organized and has high hopes of defeating the AKP in the predominantly Kurdish southeast in the upcoming elections.  But the party is facing increasing legal pressure.  

Last month there were nationwide protests by Kurds when many BDP-supported parliamentary candidates were banned by Turkey's electoral commission because of alleged links to the PKK. The decision was later reversed, but during the unrest one person was shot dead by the police and hundreds arrested.  According to the Turkish-based Human Rights Society, in past 50 days more than 2500 ethnic Kurds have been detained by the police. This month, Aysel Tugluk a leading BDP supported parliamentary candidate gave this warning about the crackdown.

"A calamity is just around the corner. I am not pessimistic," she says. "I only possess the sensibility that emanates from intuition and foresight.  Once again we are at a crossroads. Everyone who is concerned about the Kurdish issue should know that we are moving toward ground zero, and fast."

So far, the AKP has defended the measures taken against the BDP. The prime minister accused the party of being involved in an attack earlier this month by the PKK on a campaign bus of its members returning from a rally.  

AKP parliamentary candidate Volkan Bozkir, is a former Turkish ambassador to the European Union. "It is not because they have said something. But they are part of a terrorist organization. They have been helping those terrorists who are killing young people,” he said.

PKK's uttimatum

A person holds a poster of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as Kurdish demonstrators march in Istanbul, Turkey, April 19, 2011
A person holds a poster of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as Kurdish demonstrators march in Istanbul, Turkey, April 19, 2011

Last month imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan issued an ultimatum that unless talks start over greater Kurdish rights within three days of the general election, fighting will resume.

But Political scientist Cengiz Aktar says any hope of dialogue is remote. "The government have extreme difficulties to understand that they should talk to Kurds. In their minds there are plenty of bad Kurds and a few good Kurds who belong to their party. When there is vacuum in policy others come in and fill this vacuum, both the Turkish military and PKK may come back. Unless the government solves the Kurdish problem through political means the military will always be around," he said.  

The ending of the Turkish army's interference in politics is heralded by the ruling AK party as well as the EU which Turkey is seeking to join - one of its most important democratic accomplishments of Erdogan’s rule. But that breakthrough came at a time of relative peace. A return to widespread conflict, observers warn, could well unravel many of the country's achievements.

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