By Justin Vela
Escalating unrest in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast threatens to tarnish what some believe will be the country’s most important election in recent history. As campaigning kicks off, attention has once again focused on Turkey’s Kurdish population which is demanding further representation and rights.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is aiming to win enough seats in parliament to prove it has a mandate to rewrite the country’s constitution, which was established following the 1980 military coup. The details of a new constitution, and how it redefines citizenship and identity, will be crucial to meeting one of the Kurds’ primary demands: official recognition of their identity and language.
In a move that has angered Kurds, however, Turkey’s High Election Board (YSK) handed down a ruling on April 18th that barred several pro-Kurdish politicians from running in the election.
“The decision was definitely a political decision, it was totally political. This brought all the Kurdish people out in the streets,” Sebahat Tuncel, one of the banned parliamentarians from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told SETimes.
Following mass demonstrations and international outcry, the decision was quickly reversed. But the crackdown on Kurdish politicians has continued with the additional arrests of 35 members of the BDP on April 25th.
They are accused of links to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organisation of Kurdish groups affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bent on establishing a shadow government in Kurdish populated areas.
In response to this and other arrests, tens of thousands of Kurds are currently protesting across the country.
Henri J. Barkey, an expert on Turkey and the Kurds at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote via e-mail that the government is very threatened by the KCK and, in particular, efforts to begin a civil disobedience campaign. “A civil disobedience campaign is likely to garner a great deal of international attention and the Turkish state (government, courts, etc.) is trying to head it off.”
“In this particular case, the government is working in tandem; the ban on politicians was a terrible embarrassment and potentially very explosive. It had to be diffused; this they think they can manage.”
Following the initial ban on the pro-Kurdish politicians, the AKP was criticised for not speaking out more strongly. But the party’s silence appears to be a calculated move.
The AKP has traditionally done fairly well in the Kurdish populated southeast, with the BDP as the only real challenger in the region. However, the AKP also needs to cast a wide net that includes nationalist-minded Turks, in an election strategy designed to attract votes from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).
“In fact, AKP is going after the MHP voters in order to keep that party below the 10% threshold [to enter parliament],” said Barkey. “The logic is that if the MHP does not clear 10%, then almost all of the seats in parliament it would have won will go to AKP.”
Turkey has the highest election threshold of any European country, designed to reduce political fractionalisation and — according to some — make it more difficult for Kurdish parties to represent themselves.
At least partly because the Kurds are again asserting themselves, just how much of the Turkish nationalist vote the AKP will capture remains unclear.
“BDP has the southeast locked up; the YSK [Election Board] controversy in three days did what a month and a half of campaigning was supposed to do: drive home BDP’s message,” said Barkey.
Tuncel thinks recent events had advanced the decades-long struggle for Kurdish rights. “There is this Kurdish saying,” Tuncel said, “Either freedom, or freedom.”