As in every general election in Turkey in the past two decades, the country’s Kurds are again trying to circumvent an unusually high constitutional barrier to send their folks to the parliament in Ankara. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is mainly backed by nationalist Kurds supports its members to run as independent candidates to avoid falling below the 10 percent election threshold. On June 12, over 60 independent candidates backed by the party will race to grab at least 35 seats in the 550-member legislature. The Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of Turkey’s nearly 75 million people.
Sirri Sakik, was one of the senior members of the Peace and Democracy Party before stepping down to run as an independent. He is expected to return to his party to form a parliamentary group if he wins the elections along with his other comrades. The 54-year-old Kurdish politician’s remarks to the VOA correspondent were far from unexpected - “The Kurdish issue is the most fundamental challenge the country is facing and Turkey must recognize the PKK reality.”
The latter is a rebel group which has waged a bloody campaign against the Turkish state in search of Kurdish autonomy in the country’s southeast since 1984. The 27-year-old conflict’s death toll is above 40,000 and is likely to climb if no political solution is found. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a.k.a the PKK is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Turkey not a free country
According to Sakik, Turkey will never be a free country unless the Kurdish issue is solved. “For years, Turkey has been wasting its time on the policies of denial," he said. "The people of Turkey have been paying the heavy cost since the founding of the Republic [in 1923]. The Kurds have paid the cost of existing in this country with their own lives."
"The government has tried everything: assimilation, repression, arrests and killings, but it was not able to put an end to the problem. That is why the Kurdish question is the most fundamental problem of Turkey. The issue will remain to be the most scorching, unless a solution is made, unless the Kurds are given protection under the country’s laws, and unless the Kurds are given a say in the government,” he added.
The Peace and Democracy Party this year came up with its own plan to solve the Kurdish issue. The document is highly critical of the “centralized, nation-state” structure of the Turkish state and is calling for autonomy for Kurds within a democratic framework. The party underlines Turkey’s territorial integrity, on the other hand prescribes a federal framework.
Rebels could take up arms again
The ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) is BDP’s main rival in Turkey’s southeast. The pro-Islamic party is set to win the elections third time in a row. Sirri Sakik stressed that replacing the constitution must be the first job of the new government. The constitution, which was written by the military government in the 1980s has been amended several times.
The Kurdish politician also cautions that the PKK’s might turn to guns again if the government acts irresponsibly. The militant organization’s unilateral cease-fire expires on June 15.
“We must write a new constitution that will comprise all ethnic groups in this country," he said. "We hope the other political parties will act responsibly, because we know it is highly likely that the PKK’s unilateral decision for ‘inaction’ could very well turn into ‘action’ on June 15.”
Sirri Sakik also lashed out at Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold, which makes it harder for smaller parties to enter the parliament. The Kurdish politician said that he hoped the new government would take steps this year to replace the current constitution in order to remove that barrier.
“This new constitution should be a new social contract. Everyone must be represented at the Parliament," he said. "The ruling Justice and Democracy Party has never done anything in that direction. They are the ones who promised to punish the military rulers of the past, but on the other hand they embraced the 10 percent threshold that was also enforced by the same military."
"This party has never intended to reconcile with the other segments of the society. The new constitution they will write will only serve them, not the people of Turkey. Not only the parliament members, but also those outside the parliament, NGOs, professional associations and others must have a right to say in the new constitution,” he continued.
The AKP promises to replace the 1982 constitution in the new term.
Terrorist vs. hero
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, along with its predecessors which were banned for inciting separatism, is seen by many in Turkey as the political wing of the PKK, just like the affiliation between Sinn Fein in Ireland and the now-defunct Irish Republican Army.
Asked whether the BDP could alienate itself from the militant organization to help solve the Kurdish problem, the Kurdish politician said, “The PKK is a reality of Turkey.” Sirri Sakik’s brother Semdin, once the PKK’s number two, now serves life in a Turkish prison.
“This is our reality. Listen, at least one relative of all of us are either fighting or supporting the PKK, or in jail, or even dead for that cause," he said. "The PKK was born out of the heart of the Kurds. The government is aware of it. They can call these fighters ‘terrorists’ but the Kurdish people call them ‘our heroes’. The Kurds will not ignore those people who fight out there in the mountains for their rights. This is why the government has to accept this reality.”
The Turkish government is believed to be holding private talks with the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan in his maximum-security island prison in northwest Turkey. Although Ankara denies such talks, an optimistic sounding Sirri Sakik said he believes the government is now taking “this reality” into consideration during talks with Ocalan.
(correction made in first paragraph to reflect correct date [Sunday} of election)