By Dorian Jones
Turkey’s newly re-elected Justice and Development Party had hoped that parliament’s recent vote of confidence in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s cabinet would be a powerful reminder of its landslide victory in last month’s general election. Instead, it has become a symbol of a deepening political crisis that could hinder constitutional reform.
As deputies voted on July 13, the garish pink parliamentary chamber seats of 36 elected pro-Kurdish deputies remained empty. They are boycotting parliament until six of their elected colleagues are released from jail.
In a last minute bid to defuse the crisis, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek organized a meeting ahead of the vote between representatives of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and leaders of the Kurdish Peace and Development Party (BDP). But little progress was achieved.
The pro-Kurdish deputies are calling on the government to reform the country’s anti-terror law, under which five of the elected deputies are being held in prison. The sixth deputy, Hatip Dicle, is being denied a seat because of a conviction for a speech considered seditious. “All the cases are 100 percent political, and 100 percent unacceptable,” declared political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. Until now, courts usually released elected deputies under parliamentary immunity if they were awaiting trial.
The resulting impasse could now threaten the key government objective of constitutional reform, argued Aktar. “The AK Party won’t be able to go ahead with a new constitution, which needs maximum consensus; in particular, with the Kurds.”
Erdoğan has committed his government to replacing Turkey’s current 1982 constitution, a document blamed for many of the country’s ills, including the treatment of the Kurdish minority that comprises around 20 percent of the population.
Saying that input from Kurdish deputies is needed for writing a new constitution, Prime Minister Erdoğan has called on the group to end its boycott. The new constitution is seen as the vehicle for meeting key Kurdish demands, including greater political autonomy, education and cultural identity rights. Speaking to reporters on July 13, the prime minister expressed “hope” for a compromise that would allow the deputies to be sworn in as MPs “as soon as possible.” He cited the recent decision by Turkey’s main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), to call a halt to its own parliamentary boycott as a model for the BDP.
The CHP had boycotted parliament in protest at the imprisonment of two of its elected deputies, charged with seeking to overthrow the government. The protest ended after CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said the prime minister had agreed to work together on democratic reforms.
But that message didn’t stop Erdoğan from giving Kılıçdaroğlu a good political kicking in his weekly speech to parliament on July 12. “They said they wouldn’t enter parliament if their two friends failed to take the oaths. … Yesterday they took the oath,” he said about the CHP. “They are like this. Don’t my citizens see this? What do they say? They say the CHP doesn’t tell the truth and is spineless.”
Such discourse is leading many to despair over the chances for constitutional reform. “I don’t see how these people can sit around and draft a new constitution,” commented Asli Aydintasbas, political columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet. “With the boycott, the language of politics in Turkey is so polarized, we can’t even have a parliamentary session without deputies swearing at each other.”
BDP party leaders are also being urged by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, to drop their boycott. Öcalan and the government are again planning talks about ending their 27-year-long conflict. “They [BDP leaders] are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said columnist Aydintasbas. “They don’t want to go in; clearly they go in without any clear concessions about their imprisoned friends from the government. On the other hand, they have this order from Öcalan.”
Öcalan’s words continue to carry a lot of weight within the Kurdish rights movement, but, so far, there has been little public reaction from the BDP. Party leaders may be buoyed by a recent opinion poll by Iksara for the Asam newspaper that reported that 87 percent of BDP voters support its boycott.
Nonetheless, growing pressure exists within the Kurdish movement for the BDP to withdraw altogether from parliament and take the campaign for greater Kurdish rights directly to the people. Öcalan’s PKK stepped up its operations this month with the killing of two Turkish soldiers and the kidnapping of another; another three suspected kidnappings occurred this past weekend.
“The Kurdish movement has the power to destabilize Turkey,” warned Istanbul University political scientist Nuray Mert. “There is no other movement in the region, other than Hamas and Hizbollah, that is so powerful and well organized and deeply rooted in society.”
With that in mind, how the Kurdish parliamentary boycott is resolved could well determine the future course of Turkey’s new parliament.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.