Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kurdish Openings and Closings

Largely seen as a dove within the DTP, its leader Ahmet Turk was one of two parliamentarians to be banned from participating in politics for five years. PHOTO from Milliyet

The recent decision by Turkey's Constitutional Court to close the Democratic and Society Party (DTP), Turkey's primary Kurdish political party, will make the government's recent initiative to provide more rights and economic opportunities for the country's Kurdish minority all the more difficult. Not only this, but the decision will play directly into the hands of the terrorist Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), which will, of course, use the Court's finding as evidence that the Turkish state has little interest in having Kurds represented in Turkey's parliament or dealing with them on an equal basis. The DTP had 21 seats in Turkey's parliament, and performed quite well in municipal elections held on March 29. While not representing all of Turkey's Kurds, there is little question that the party is a powerful force and could have been a hugely potential ally for the AKP-led government's effort to "open" Turkish society to greater Kurdish political participation and rights protections.

The Court's decision was announced on Dec. 11, and effectively not only closed the DTP, but banned 37 of its members from participating in politics for five years. Most important of these 37 are parliamentatians Ahmet Turk, the party's leader, Aysel Tugluk, both largely considered moderates in their party. Interestingly, the Court's decision did not ban some DTP members who have adopted a harder line against the government's initiatives and have made less of an effort to make gestures toward peace and reconciliation. After the decision, the Court's head, Hasan Kiliç, said the DTP had become "a focal point of activities against the state's unity." As Amnesty International reports, Kiliç also said the DTP was at odds with the "independence of the state, its indivisible integrity within its territory and nation."

The indictment that initiated the case against the DTP was filed in November 2007 by the same prosecutor who filed against the AKP the following March. Legal scholars have criticized the evidence presented in both indictments as shaky and not meeting international standards. Turkey's Law on Political Parties easily allows parties to be closed, and thus closures have become commonplace in Turkey's political terrain.

However, since the adoption of Article 90 into the Turkish constitution in 2004, which stipulates that the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms trumps national law, legal scholars like Ergun Ozbudun have insisted that the Consitutional Court must follow European standards despite the fact that it has yet to amend its Law on Political Parties. Amendment of this law has has long been requested by the European Union (EU) and human rights groups, and the AKP pledged to make the legislation a priority after its own near closure experience last year. Amending the Law on Political Parties is essential to Turkey meeting the Copenhagen political criteria for EU acccession. Recently, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the EU parliament's rapporteur charged with reporting Turkey's progress toward accession, pointed to Turkey's failure to change its party law during a discussion about the DTP closure case.

The Venice Criteria

Significantly, the Court's verdict followed its rapporteur's decision that the DTP had strong enough ties to the PKK to consider it deserving of closure under the Venice Commission's criteria for party closure. The Venice Commission, formally the European Commission for Democracy Through Law, is an advisory organ of the Council of Europe set up to legally advise European democracies of proper legal procedure. Under the Commission's Guidelines on Prohibition and Dissolution of Political Parties and Analogues Measures, it is legally appropriate to close "parties which advocate the use of violence or use violence as a political means to overthrow the democratic constitutional order, thereby undermining the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution." Whether the DTP had in fact done either is contested, the question of fact likely to eventually go before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). However, as a note, undermining the perceived unity of the Turkish state or calling for autonomy does not in itself meet the Venice Criteria and so the Constitutional Court's final judgement will make an interesting read. For DTP's part, its leaders have repeatedly denied having "organic ties" to the PKK, which the ECHR used in June to uphold the Spanish government's closure of Batasuna, a Basque party affiliated with ETA. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International agree that the Venice Criteria cannot be applied to the case of DTP. A broad swath of human rights groups in Turkey have also widely condemned the ruling, including the Human Rights Association (IHD). However, many of those who thought the DTP's closure might well be justified under the Venice Criteria were opposed to it since the politial impact will indeed be great. (For one example, see Ihsan Dagi's column from last year.)


After the closure case, protests broke out throughout the Kurdish southeast, as well as in Istanbul and Ankara. From Jurgen Gottschlich:

Thousands of angry demonstrators fought bloody street battles with the police and gendarmes. In Hakkari, Van and Diyarbakir Kurdish youths barricaded off whole districts and held prolonged skirmishes with the police.

On Saturday 12 December businesses in all Kurdish cities remained closed in protest against the ban. For some time there has been talk of a Kurdish intifada.

. . . .

The PKK has meanwhile declared that with the constitutional court's decision, dialogue can definitively be said to have failed. The PKK prisoners said that state, media, military, police and judiciary had shown their racist, colonialist faces.

The prisoners have announced a hunger strike and called on the population to show "resistance on the streets". With the attack on a military vehicle last week, for which the PKK claimed responsibility just a few hours before the constitutional court's judgement last Friday and in which seven soldiers were killed, the mood was already tense.
These protests succeeded a an earlier round sparked by reports on the prison conditions of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The earlier round led to a 23-year-old university student shot in the back by police. The PKK is already using the closure case to mobilize more street protests, and it is likely PKK attacks will escalate as the group reorganizes and finds its bearings post-DTP. Indeed, political analyst Mehmet Ali Birand wrote before the closure case that many in the PKK were desperately hoping that DTP would be shut down since "the PKK is fed up with difference in opinion within the DTP and is looking for a new party and members that will strictly obey."

Pressed by Turkey's recent retrenchment with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and fears that the government's Kurdish initiative might actually turn out to be successful, the PKK is now likely to experience an increase in new recruits, and perhaps, greater sympathy with Kurdish leaders in the KRG who have previously denounced PKK violence and sworn to crack down on the terrorist organization.

The Closing of the Kurdish Opening?

With increased hostilities and the likelihood of more PKK attacks akin to the PKK shooting of 7 Turkish soldiers in Tokat earlier this month, the AKP is likely to find the political atmosphere for reform more difficult. While the AKP has stated its opposition to the closure case, calling it a regrettable development and having Interior Minister Besir Atalay meet with Turk, it has not taken a strong line nor does it plan to push for political parties reform any time in the near future -- both gestures that would strengthen its legitimacy with Kurds.

Prime Minister Erdogan has been particularly critical of the DTP since he announced his initiative in July. Erdogan's announcement followed Ocalan's declaration that he was drawing up a roadmap for peace to be released Aug. 15. Erdogan beat Ocalan to the process, and Ocalan's roadmap ended up not being released, falling instead into the hands of an Istanbul prosecutor. Erdogan's criticism of DTP was particularly virulent following DTP-planned celebrations surrounding the rather bizarrely planned surrender of 26 fighters entering Turkey from Northern Iraq as "peace messengers." The prime minister will no doubt find more difficulties following the removal of moderate figures like Turk. In June, speaking ahead of the announced initiative, Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Gunay declared Turk to be the most important person for peace in Turkey.

Kurdish Politics

As to the future of DTP, after announcing that the 19 remaining MPs would resign from parliament, the party has reversed its decision and plans to join the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), established shortly after the closure case was opened in November 2007. In order to form a parliamentary group, independent MP Ufak Uras will likely join the party to meet the threshold of 20 MPs required to do so. Ironically, more hardline Selahattin Demirtas and Emine Ayna are now among the contending figures to be elected as chairs of the new party.

DTP is the fourth Kurdish party to be closed in Turkey. For a basic accounting, see Ayse Karabat's reporting on party reorganization efforts after the March elections. For more understanding of developments and rivalries within the party, see past posts, especially Aug. 12, 2008 and July 22, 2008, as well as Ayse Karabat's reporting on an open conference DTP held this past July when both the government and Ocalan were talking about reforms, the peace process, and potential amnesty for PKK fighters. After it became clear that the AKP would not push amnesty for PKK fighters as part of the peace process, the DTP became particularly insistent on the point, as well as on Ocalan's release, and moderate voices in the party were drowned out.

In the past, figures like Turk had treaded a middle line, frequently denouncing violence as a legitimate strategy (as he did this past May following a mine blast that killed 6 Turkish soldiers) and praising government intiatives like the Ergenekon investigation and limited cultural rights reforms. In recent months, though, even Turk has become harder line. At Newroz festivities in March, he compared Ocalan to Nelson Mandela and stood by as more militant Leyla Zana -- who is not a member of DTP, but was among the 37 politicians banned by the court (she is actually serving a prison sentence at the moment) -- insisted disarmament be a final step in the peace process, some might argue thus tacitly legitimizing violence. He has also recently insisted that the Kurdish problem will not be solved until Ocalan is released. However, Turk's constituency must also be kept in mind, and him urging for Ocalan's release and saying it is necessary for peace in no way means he supports PKK violence.

Many politicians and intellectuals in Turkey have long argued that Turkey's peace process is contingent on negotiating with the PKK, following examples of negotiations with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland and, recently, the Spanish government's negotiations with ETA after the group declared a permanent ceasefire in 2006 (though ETA's ceasefire was broken nine months later and negotiations ended).

FYI -- For a nice briefing and short analysis of the AKP's recent initiative, see former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Mort Abramowitz and Kurdish expert Henri Barkey's recent article, "Turkey's Transformers," in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.

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