BACKGROUND: The attempt of Turkey’s governing Justice and development party (AKP) to amend the constitution suffered an unexpected setback when parliament rejected the amendment that would have rendered the closure of political parties more difficult. The proposed amendment would have given parliament decisive power in such cases, ensuring that the party that holds the parliamentary majority – but not necessarily other, smaller parties – are protected from the interventions of the Constitutional court and the high judiciary, which alongside the military has served as the custodians of the power of the state over society.
The amendment was defeated by a slim margin of three votes, with ten to twelve AKP deputies defecting and voting against and with the deputies of the Kurdish Peace and democracy party (BDP) abstaining. When the motion was first put to vote, the participation of five BDP deputies had ensured its acceptance.
None of the AKP deputies who voted against the motion has come forth; however it is generally assumed that the defectors represent the statist-nationalist current within the governing party. Although it may seem odd that AKP deputies could rise to the defense of a procedure that threatens the existence of their own party, there is nevertheless a logic to the defection: those within the AKP who stick close to Turkish nationalism are averse to depriving the state of an instrument that has been regularly deployed against the Kurdish movement, most recently when the Democratic society party (DTP) was ordered closed by the Constitutional court last December. Making the closure of parties dependent on the approval of parliament would have deprived what has always been political decisions the cover of “legalism” offered by the rulings of the Constitutional court.
Selahattin Demirtas and Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The abstention of the Kurdish BDP would similarly appear to defy logic. Initially, strong voices within the BDP and the Kurdish movement had in fact advocated support to the constitutional reform package. Ahmet Türk, the former leader of the closed DTP – who remains an important Kurdish voice although he has been deprived of his parliamentary seat and banned from politics for five years – exhorted the BDP to support the constitutional bid of the AKP. Türk claimed that it would be difficult for the BDP to explain its position to its own base if it was seen to be siding with CHP and MHP, the two Turkish nationalist opposition parties against the AKP. Several others within BDP shared the estimation of Türk, and in a concession to that line the BDP offered what party leader Selahattin Demirtaş deemed a “symbolic” support of five votes in the first round of voting.
Ultimately, however, it was the will of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan workers party, (PKK) that prevailed. From his prison island of İmralı in the Sea of Marmara, Öcalan instructed the BDP to stick to a “principled position”. The party adhered by abstaining from the second round of voting. Overruling the conciliatory approach recommended by the likes of Ahmet Türk, Öcalan had effectively demonstrated his continued hold over the Kurdish movement.
IMPLICATIONS: Several commentators speculated that the leader of the PKK cares more about retaining his own power and in advancing his own personal interests – chief among them, obviously, securing his release – than he does about the political fortunes of the Kurdish movement. Indeed, one prominent Kurdish intellectual, Selahattin Kaya, suggests that Öcalan prefers that the threat of closure hangs over BDP since the Kurdish party otherwise would escape his control and develop into an independent force in its own right. It is obvious that the PKK leader calculates that rising tensions will benefit him; the death toll among Turkish soldiers killed in PKK attacks during the last two weeks numbers fifteen, and Öcalan, who by now would have concluded that he can expect no leniency from the AKP government, has recently threatened to further escalate the armed struggle.
Yet the emancipation of the Kurdish movement from the hold of Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK is not impossible to envision, although Öcalan’s fate does remain of the highest concern for a significant portion of the Kurdish population. There are however signs that the Kurds are increasingly disinclined to support violence and there seems to be a growing susceptibility for the kind of leadership offered by the moderate Ahmet Türk. Indeed, the interests of Öcalan and of the militant Turkish nationalists within the state converge; while the former saw to it that Türk’s position was undercut, the decision of the latter to ban Türk from politics did nothing to serve the cause of moderation.
The Turkish nationalism that the AKP – contrary to some appearances – espouses circumscribes the prospective Kurdish moderation. The deputies of the BDP cannot be blamed if they reasoned that transferring the decision to close parties to parliament would not secure the fortunes of their party – or its successor – in an assembly where the majority could be expected to be pliant to Turkish nationalism.
The Kurdish party was manifestly not offered anything in return for its tacit support. The AKP’s constitutional reform package does not address any of the demands and grievances of the Kurdish minority; the ten percent threshold to parliament – explicitly designed to bar the Kurdish party from parliamentary representation – is kept in place, as is every other aspect of the constitution that upholds Turkish supremacy. Neither has the AKP been able or willing to accommodate Kurdish demands that Kurdish children who participate in riots are not sentenced as “terrorists”, nor has it displayed any signs of leniency in the cases of the incarcerated Kurdish mayors and other politicians in the Southeast.
Indeed, it is the lack of any “opening” to the Kurds in the constitutional reform package that more than anything else makes it legitimate to question the “liberalism” of the AKP. Turkish liberals admit that the proposed changes of the constitution are indeed insufficient, but argue that they nevertheless supply a starting point for the pending, final settling of accounts with the authoritarian heritage of the republic. In this perspective, the AKP becomes a liberal force by default that deserves unconditional support; it is viewed as a party that may not be liberal, but still fulfills a liberal mission as it is the only force around that dares to challenge statist-militarist authoritarianism. Viewed from the Kurdish horizon, the “liberalism” of the AKP seems more elusive: BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş asserts that the ruling party on the contrary is bent on instituting its own version of authoritarianism, or rather that it is conveniently fitting into the attire of the authoritarian state; he sees the handling of the Kurdish issue as evidence that the AKP is not about to depart from old, republican ways.
Confronted with the charge of the Turkish liberals that they echo the rhetoric of the nationalist opposition that similarly – and arguably somewhat hypocritically – accuses the AKP of authoritarian inclinations, the representatives of the Kurdish movement offer the counter-charge that the AKP itself is in fact in collusion with the ideology of statism and nationalism.
Yet although the Kurdish representatives can indeed plausibly make such an argument, they can scarcely deny that the violence of the PKK serves the interests of those residual, old-fashioned Turkish nationalists within the state establishment who would welcome the opportunity offered by rising Turkish-Kurdish tensions to put any hopes of liberalization on permanent hold.
CONCLUSIONS: A decade ago, President Abdullah Gül, then the foreign policy spokesperson of the Islamist Virtue party, stated that “there is a convergence between the aspirations of the Kurds and us.” The recent parting of ways over the constitutional reform package suggests that that may no longer be the case. The interests of the Islamic conservatives and the Kurds converged when both challenged the authority of the state. Today, however, the state and the Islamic conservative movement have to a large extent merged; as it aspires to shoulder the role as the party of the state, the AKP has little incentive to act differently toward the Kurds than its republican predecessors. Indeed, there is a wide chasm between what the Kurds aspire to and what the Turks are prepared to even consider conceding to them in the name of an “opening”.
It should not be assumed that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is devastated by the setback that his party suffered in the parliamentary vote. The defeat does not jeopardize the constitutional overhaul; on the contrary, it may very well boost the AKP’s fortunes in the upcoming plebiscite over the constitutional amendment.
The AKP does not stand to lose from being perceived as a party that takes issue with the Kurdish movement. Conversely, it would not have benefited it if the constitutional reform had appeared to be the product of an understanding between the AKP and the BDP. Thus, the statist-nationalist defectors from the AKP’s party line may have rendered their party a service. Although party closure will remain the prerogative of the Constitutional court – at least for the time being – that may ultimately matter less for the AKP as the amendments that have been adopted by parliament will ensure its control over the high judiciary anyway.
Neither is it probable that the BDP will be punished for having withheld its support to the constitutional overhaul. The Kurdish voters are less likely to be upset over the fact that the party has ended up alongside the Turkish nationalist parties in its opposition against the AKP’s bid to tailor the constitution after its own needs than they are over the lack of consideration given to Kurdish sensibilities.
Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".