ISTANBUL — The immunity of nine parliamentary members in Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) is under threat, following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s warning he will do whatever is necessary to facilitate their prosecution. The deputies are under investigation after TV images were broadcast of them embracing Kurdish rebels, who stopped the convoy they were traveling in.
But BDP deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu says hugging is not a matter for prosecution.
"They talked to us and we talked to them and they gave us a hug what can we do? We reacted like a civilized person maybe some of us had more smiling faces than others. But this is not a matter for the judiciary," said Kurkcu.
The Kurdish rebels Kurkcu met belong to the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for greater minority rights and autonomy since 1984, a conflict that has claimed over 40,000 lives. Both the European Union and the United States consider the group a terrorist organization. But political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University warns any parliamentary vote to lift the deputies' immunity threatens to escalate the conflict.
"It would mean the end of the political process," said Altar. "There will be more alienation of the Kurds, this alienation amongst the youngsters is already there. I think we may end up in alienating even integrated Kurds who, although against violent action, nevertheless are voting for the BDP, because we should not forget that the BDP has 2.5 million votes."
But with the PKK in the past few months intensifying its operations, killing dozens of Turkish soldiers, the government’s room to maneuver is limited says Suat Kiniklioglu, former deputy for the ruling AK party and now director of the Stratim research institute.
"I think we need to make a clear distinction between violent means of political objectives and peaceful ones," said Kiniklioglu. "It is a difficult line to draw but there is a huge public outcry to make clear to everyone, whether there are members of parliament or not that simply you cannot support people who act or implement terrorist attacks."
The last time parliament voted to remove the immunity of pro-Kurdish deputies was in 1994. The four parliamentarians were prosecuted and served 10 years in jail for threatening the integrity of the state. Their jailing is widely blamed for inflaming the conflict with the PKK, which peaked in the 1990s.
Parallels with that bloody era are now being drawn by analysts. But the political geographical map is now very different with Turkey's neighbors, says international relations teacher Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
"In the 1990s we only had vestiges of an Iraqi Kurdish political entity in the making. We now have almost a full-fledged state which is quasi-independent, very autonomous. Second, in Syria yet another possibility for another Kurdish entity. The Kurds are coming to the stage of history claiming what they were unable to get in the settlement in 1918-22 when the Brits and French put together the political geography and the system that we know," said Ozel.
But political columnist Asia Aydintasbas of the Turkish Milliyet newspaper says, with local, presidential and general elections scheduled in the next three years, the fate of the BDP deputies may ultimately rest with voting calculations.
"He is just like every politician," the columnist said. "He wants to do better in the upcoming elections. Erdogan wants to be president of Turkey and this is an overwhelmingly Turkish country. But unfortunately in the last few years Turkey has become more polarized between Kurds and Turks. So part of it, he his just looking at numbers and he knows which constituency to play for."
The fate of the deputies may well be determined by whether prosecutors decide to file charges against them. Observers say, with fighting continuing to intensify with the PKK, it will be difficult for the ruling party to oppose any vote that lifts their immunity.