Turkey: Kurdish Party prepares for return to Parliament

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Aug 5 15:44:46 UTC 2007

*Eurasia Insight*:
Yigal Schleifer: 7/27/07

Using a successful campaign strategy that saw all its candidates running as
independents in order to circumvent Turkey's high election threshold, the
pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) managed to get 22 of its members
elected in the recent Turkish elections, enough to allow the stealth
candidates to regroup in parliament under their party's banner.

Although some forecasts had predicted the party winning as many as 35 seats
in the July 22 election, the seats won represent the largest electoral
victory ever by a Kurdish party and the first time a pro-Kurdish party will
sit in parliament since 1991.

The victory, analysts say, serves as an important test of both the party's
and the Turkish public's political maturity. It will also present a good
opportunity for making progress in resolving the lingering Kurdish problem.
[For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"If we had from an earlier date allowed the Kurds representation in
parliament, I think we would have been much more successful in integrating
the Kurdish demands into the parliamentary process, so this is a new window
of opportunity to do that," says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political
science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "But there is also a risk of
them becoming a source of conflict in the parliament."

Added Alpay: "The fact that their views and demands will be heard in
parliament is a welcome thing. … It's another important step forward towards
the consolidation of the democratization of Turkey."

The DTP's presence in parliament, though small, is certain to test Turkish
public attitudes, especially coming at a time when the separatist Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK) has been increasing its attacks against security forces
in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast, and the Turkish military has
threatened to invade northern Iraq to go after the organization's bases
there. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Meanwhile, among the DTP's new faces in parliament are a lawyer who used to
represent jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan – perhaps the most reviled
figure in Turkey – and another successful candidate who spent the election
campaign in jail, awaiting trial on charges of separatism. (She was released
after being elected, since Turkish parliamentarians have legal immunity).

Elif Kalaycioglu, a researcher at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies
Foundation (TESEV), says she believes the Turkish public, which has steadily
become more accustomed to discussing the once taboo Kurdish issue, might now
be more ready to accept a major Kurdish representation in parliament. "In an
ironic way, the secularism debate during the election campaign was so
intense, that the question of the independent candidates was not really
discussed. They slipped under the radar," she says. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. "Now there is some anxiety about them, but it's
not as intense as it would have been before," Kalaycioglu said.

Another question being asked is how ready the DTP is to play a constructive
role in the legislative process. The last time a pro-Kurdish party was
represented in parliament, in 1991, its members insisted on taking their
parliamentary oath in Kurdish, a provocative move that eventually led to
their being ousted from the body.

Another concern is how the DTP will get along with the members of the
right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which won 71 seats in the
election and which has traditionally taken a hard-line position on the
Kurdish issue.

During the election campaign, the DTP's candidates sought to create goodwill
by sending out conciliatory messages and promising a changed approach. "We
will be in the parliament with realism," said Aysel Tugluk, one of the DTP's
top leaders who will represent the predominantly-Kurdish southeastern city
of Diyarbakir in the new parliament.

Tugluk said the Kurdish party would also be happy to work together with the
ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won a decisive reelection
victory on July 22, winning 47 percent of the vote. "If we can find a way to
communicate with them and to work to solve the problem of the Kurdish
society, then why not?" she said.

Among the party's priorities in parliament, Tugluk said, is the introduction
of a civil constitution to replace the current one, written by the military
following a 1980 coup, as well as pushing for more support for Kurds
displaced during the fighting between the PKK and the government during the
1980's and 90's. The DTP will additionally press for more reconstruction
funding for villages destroyed during the fighting. "The idea is to have a
Kurdish voice in parliament. This society really needs something like this,"
she said.

In a certain way, getting into parliament with its small, but possibly
influential contingent, may force the DTP to move beyond mere rhetoric, some
observers believe. "Once they get into parliament, they will have to start
dealing with the every day problems of people," suggested Cuneyt Ulsever, a
columnist with Hurriyet, Turkey's largest daily. "Their voters will come to
them and ask for food, employment, the construction of a hospital and they
will have to deal with these issues, not only solving the Kurdish problem."

The pressure on the DTP to deliver on everyday political promises may
quickly build. While the DTP (and its predecessor parties) have enjoyed
strong support among Turkey's Kurdish voters, this past election saw the AKP
make serious inroads in the southeast, playing on its more liberal approach
to Kurdish issues and its increased services to the economically-deprived
region. For example, in Diyarbakir, considered the capital of Kurdish
politics in Turkey, the AKP managed to win 41 percent of the vote in the
recent election, compared to 16 percent five years ago.

TESEV's Kalaycioglu says the AKP's large number of votes in the southeast
"really undermines the DTP's claim that it is the sole representative of the
Kurdish people. The erosion of the DTP's position also came at a time when
it was clear that the party would send representatives to parliament. "This
is [the DTP's] chance to go to parliament, say something substantial, but
not take their voters for granted. It's a chance for them to use this
political opportunity for actually representing," Kalaycioglu said.

*Editor's Note*: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in

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