Turkish Parliament poised for tug-of-war over Kurdish question

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Aug 5 13:49:44 UTC 2007

*Eurasia Insight*:
Yigal Schleifer: 8/01/07

Amidst rising tensions about Kurdish activities in northern Iraq, the new
Turkish parliament, which will convene for the first time on August 4, will
offer a sharp -- if not potentially combustible – study in contrasts.

In one section will be the 22 members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society
Party (DTP), among them a lawyer who once represented jailed Kurdish rebel
leader Abdullah Ocalan, one of the most reviled figures in Turkey.

Meanwhile, not far from the DTP parliamentarians will be sitting the 70
members of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a hardline group
that openly declared during the recent election campaign that, upon
election, it would bring back capital punishment and hang Ocalan, who headed
the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Although its 14 percent of the vote was less than some polls had predicted,
the nationalist MHP is now the third largest party in Turkey's parliament,
behind the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which will control the body
with 341 seats and the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), which has

During the politically turbulent 1970's, the party was known for its fascist
leanings and street gangs, known as the Grey Wolves, who engaged leftist
groups in running battles. Some 5,000 people died in the political violence,
which ultimately led the military to seize power in 1980 in order to assert

Under its current leader, though, a former economics lecturer named Devlet
Bahceli, the party has tried to clean up its image, kicking out many of its
radicals and reining in its youth wing, which was responsible for the street

Observers say the party has pulled itself from the fringes of Turkey's
political spectrum and closer towards the right side of the Turkish center,
which many see as itself shifting to the right, increasingly defined by more
open expressions of religious belief and nationalism.

"The MHP is trying to claim the center. As long as they don't represent a
kind of extremism, which is what the MHP did in the 70's with its armed
street gangs, they will be in the center," said Umut Ozkirimli, a an expert
on nationalism at Istanbul's Bilgi University. In the days following
Turkey's July 22 parliamentary vote, Bahceli and other party members have
already tried to portray the MHP as a responsible player, announcing it
would not oppose the AKP's choice for a new president, and also promising
they will not provoke the DTP parliamentarians.

"As long as they don't challenge us, there won't be any fight," Bahceli said
in a recent speech at the MHP's Ankara headquarters.

But the potential for conflict still remains. This time, between members of
the DTP and the MHP, over the government's Kurdish policy.

The MHP's priorities in parliament all circle around questions related to
the Kurdish issue. Gunduz Aktan, a respected former diplomat who is one of
the new MHP parliamentarians, lists the party's main concerns as preventing
the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, eliminating
the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq and making sure that the oil-rich
Iraqi city of Kirkuk does not fall under the control of the Kurdish
administration there.

"These are the most significant issues for Turkey right now," Aktan said,
adding that he would not feel "very comfortable sitting together with people
who do not condemn the PKK and did not do so in the past." At the same time,
they also seem to be increasingly critical concerns for Turkey's military
and government. Government officials have expressed concern that
insufficient attention is being paid to PKK activities in northern Iraq.
Reports have also circulated of a troop buildup on the border with Iraq.

That common ground could put the ruling AKP in a tricky situation. "The
basic challenge is that the MHP and CHP will always provoke the AKP, so that
they would have to ally themselves with the Kurds in parliament, which would
make the government look bad in terms of where it stands on Turkish
nationalism," commented Volkan Aytar, a researcher at the Turkish Economic
and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank. Running a
campaign that tapped into fears over the surging number of attacks by
Kurdish rebels in Turkey's southeast and a growing public perception that
Turkey is not being dealt with fairly by the European Union, which it hopes
to join, the MHP was able to reenter parliament after being shut out in the
previous election.

Analyst Aytar, however, contends that the party does not have the votes to
block reforms that the Justice & Development Party needs to pursue for
Turkey's chance at EU membership.

MHP parliamentarian Aktan says his party does not oppose Turkey's drive to
join the EU, only the way some European countries – such as Germany and
France -- and leaders have treated Ankara's membership bid. "They are still
expecting a privileged partnership for Turkey, rather than full membership,
and Turkey can never accept that. They are constantly dragging their feet on
everything. They are doing this so that we don't have a hope for full
membership," he said. "Under these conditions, I can't imagine why we should
insist on membership."

As with the Kurdish question, for now, outside observers can only watch and

*Editor's Note*: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist and photographer
based in Istanbul.

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