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Turkey: Ankara wrestles with civil solution for Kurdish issue

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 9 December 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Turkey: Ankara wrestles with civil solution for Kurdish issue, 9 December 2009, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
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Yigal Schleifer: 12/09/09

Official rhetoric in recent months has fostered hope that Turkey can implement a civilian – rather than a military – solution to its decades-long Kurdish problem. Those hopes, however, remain fragile – a fact underscored by the opening of a court case that could result in the banning of the country's major pro-Kurdish political party.

Over the summer, Turkish Interior Minister, Besir Atalay, speaking during a nationally televised news conference, said that the government is actively working on a comprehensive plan, one based on democratization and expanded rights. "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps," he said. "This can be seen as a new stage."

On November 13, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government unveiled in a historic debate in parliament parts of this "democratization initiative," which include the easing of restrictions on private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well allowing towns and villages to use their original Kurdish names once again.

"Today is the beginning of a new timeline and a fresh start," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament. "We took a courageous step to resolve chronic issues that constitute an obstacle along Turkey's development, progression and empowerment, and we are very sincere."

But now there are growing concerns that the government's efforts could be undermined by renewed tensions in Turkey's predominately Kurdish southeast.

Protests were held in several cities in the region this past weekend, including one where a 23-year-old university student was killed by a bullet to the back. The trigger for the protests were reports that conditions have worsened for jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan since he was moved into a new facility on the island prison that has been his home since 1999.

Meanwhile, Turkey's highest court on December 8 started hearing a case which could lead to the closure of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the only pro-Kurdish party in parliament. Prosecutors contend that the party has violated Turkey's constitution and has acted as a front for the outlawed PKK. An indictment seeks not only the party's closure, but also the banning of some 220 of its members from participating in political activity.

The DTP is the latest incarnation of a string of pro-Kurdish parties that have been previously closed by court order, and observers worry that its closing could further stoke tensions among Turkey's Kurds.

But there is also concern that the party itself is standing in the way of the government's Kurdish reform program. Although party leaders initially supported the government's initiative, members are now distancing themselves from it, with DTP chairman Ahmet Turk recently calling it "insufficient."

"For us, the 'democratic initiative' is over," Emine Ayna, a top DTP official recently told the Radikal newspaper.

"Instead of keeping the masses and youth out of the streets, instead of supporting the moves to make life better for its voters, the DTP has lately been in the lead in the escalation of violence," columnist Yavuz Baydar recently wrote in Today's Zaman, an English-language daily.

"It now appears as a party with one single mission: Amnesty for, and the release of Ocalan. It seems, too, that the diverse rhetoric from the top echelons of the DTP has disappeared, silencing even moderate and venerable figures such as the leader Ahmet Turk."

Despite the new tensions and the possibility of the DTP being shut down, the government has insisted that it will continue with its Kurdish reform program. But the recent violence in the southeast could make it tougher for the government to push some of these reforms through parliament.

For example, following the recent protests in the southeast, the government put off a scheduled parliamentary debate over an amendment that would make it harder for prosecutors to jail children who participate in violent demonstrations.

Despite the recent hardening of the DTP's rhetoric, observers say that shutting the party down would be a mistake. "I totally disapprove of their behavior but I oppose the party's closure," said Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"It was such a mistake to close down these Kurdish parties in the past," Alpay continued. "Had they not been closed down, they would have become much stronger than the armed wing of the Kurdish movement. But what we have here now is the opposite."

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

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