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Shadow Of 'Kurdish Spring' Threatens To Spoil Erdogan's Victory Parade

  • Robert Tait

Supporters of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) carry an election banner of independent candidate Hatip Dicle during a protest against the election board in Diyarbakir on June 23.

Supporters of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) carry an election banner of independent candidate Hatip Dicle during a protest against the election board in Diyarbakir on June 23.

Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party was reelected in a landslide, Turkey faces the prospect of being plunged into political crisis after the country's main Kurdish party vowed to boycott the new parliament.

The threat stokes fears that Kurds in Turkey could embark on a mass civil uprising similar to the Arab Spring, with consequences that could spill over into neighboring countries.

The pledge by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to boycott the 36 seats it won in the Turkish general election on June 12 was made in protest at a decision by the electoral board to strip one of the newly elected deputies, Hatip Dicle, of his seat because of a recent conviction on terrorism charges.

Veteran Kurdish politician Serafettin Elci announced the BDP's boycott after a special session of the party in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir on June 23, saying, "We will not go to the parliament until the government and the parliament takes a concrete step to clear the way for democratic politics."

The move will leave Turkey facing multiple by-elections for the vacant seats and sours the landslide victory won by Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in this month's poll.

Constitutional Implications

The AKP won 50 percent of the vote and Erdogan immediately promised to embark on a process of consultation aimed at achieving consensus backing for his goal of writing a new constitution to replace the document drafted in the wake of a military coup 30 years ago.

Prospects for such a consensus appear dim in light of the BDP's anger. Ahmet Turk, leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Congress, said the decision to bar Dicle "aims to drag Turkey into a process of conflict."

"Our people will react to this undemocratic decision," he added.

That forecast appeared to be borne out by the reactions on the streets of Diyarbakir, where many openly welcomed the BDP's boycott.

"This is a very positive decision," demonstrator Hafiz Deniz said. "Imagine, on the one hand, they ignore people's free will and bar a political symbol for our nation, and on the other hand a few MPs will be represented in the parliament. They took the right decision. Otherwise we wouldn't recognize them as MPs anyway."

Risk Of Unrest?

The danger now, some analysts fear, is that the dispute will herald a new phase of Turkey's long-running Kurdish conflict, in which an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in clashes between the army and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since 1984. Thousands of villages in the mainly Kurdish southeast were razed and depopulated in a military operation aimed at rooting out the PKK, which was fighting for a separate homeland.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media at his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) headquarters in Ankara on June 8.

But according to Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank, a return to an all-out military conflict is unlikely.

"I suspect the nature of the confrontation will change from what existed in the 1990s and in the 2000s," Hakura said. "What I suspect we will see is probably mass popular mobilization of the Kurds against manifestations and representations of the Turkish authorities. We saw that before the election, [when] the board that regulates the electoral process in Turkey disqualified seven pro-Kurdish candidates. The Kurdish masses were mobilized in the southeast, which led to heightened levels of violence and bloodshed, which eventually put a lot of pressure on the election regulator to withdraw its disqualification."

Such action, Hakura said, could mirror the mass uprisings seen this year in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and other Arab countries. There is a danger, too, he said, that Kurd unrest in Turkey could affect neighboring countries' Kurdish minorities, not least Syria, which is currently in turmoil after months of protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

"The current escalation of the Kurdish issue in Turkey is coinciding with the internal uprising in Syria and 10 percent of the Syrian population is of Kurdish origin," Hakura said. "So there is a real risk that if there is any mass uprising or any heightened conflict between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish population in Turkey, it could cross over into Syria [and] potentially Iraq and Iran, of course."

'Dead End'

Kurdish activists warned before the election that they were planning a new campaign of civil disobedience if demands for more rights for Turkey's estimated 14 million Kurds were not met. That threat came after Erdogan's much-heralded "Kurdish opening" of 2009 -- which promised a raft of linguistic, cultural, and educational rights -- ran adrift.

Causing particular anger among the BDP has been the arrest of nearly 2,000 party members, including 12 elected mayors, because of alleged links to the PKK, which is outlawed as a terrorist organization.

During the election campaign, Erdogan adopted a notably hard line, declaring that Turkey no longer had a "Kurdish question" while accusing the BDP of being in league with the PKK and endorsing "separatism." He also said he would have hanged the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, if he had been in power when the guerrilla fighter was captured in 1999.

Cengiz Aktar, professor of European Union studies at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, said such confrontational tactics toward the Kurds are at odds with the prime minister's ambition of forging a new civilian-led constitution because the issues are closely intertwined.

"It is very unfortunate, what is happening," Aktar said. "The stakes are wide open. Without a liberal constitution the Kurdish conflict cannot be solved and without the Kurdish conflict entering the next phase of the conflict resolution, Turkey cannot draft a new charter, a new social contract. So it's very much related."

To Aktar, the Kurdish Arab Spring started years ago. The key now, he said, is to respond politically to demands that have been long articulated and that cannot simply be swept under the rubric of "terrorism."

"Start a conflict-resolution era [where] parties talk to each other without any preconditions and all parties are included in the dialogue," he said. "Right now, there is no discussion about truth and reconciliation, amnesty, and the return of former refugees from Europe and elsewhere. Education in the mother tongue, regional development, decommissioning of arms -- nothing of the kind is touched upon.

"The unique way for the government for the time being to deal with this issue is to call it a terrorist action and therefore ask the PKK to [lay] the arms down. But this is a dead end," Aktar said.

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