BACKGROUND: On December 11, Turkey’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to close down the DTP on the grounds that it had become “a center of activities incompatible with the indivisible integrity of the state” and, in a reference to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had “links with a terrorist organization.”
The Constitutional Court also voted to forbid 37 DTP members from participating in any organized political activity, such as representing or working for a political party, for a period of five years. Those banned included two parliamentary deputies, Ahmet Türk, the party leader, and Aysel Tuğluk, in addition to four DTP provincial mayors. The announcement of the DTP’s closure came at a time when the AKP’s “Democratic Opening”, launched in July 2009, already appeared to be foundering.
The initiative appears to have been motivated by a combination of factors, including a sincere desire to end the bloodshed resulting from the PKK’s 25 year-old insurgency. The “Democratic Opening” was deliberately vague from the outset, as the AKP sought to test the waters before making any specific commitments. By early fall it had become clear that the AKP had seriously misread both the public mood and the attitudes of the opposition parties. In recent years, a number of concessions have already been made to Kurdish cultural rights. Yet these have not only fallen short of Kurds’ demands for full equality but also engendered widespread resentment amongst ethnic Turks, with a disturbing rise in an often aggressive anti-Kurdish racism. Nor was it ever likely that the nationalist opposition parties would sign up to a process which offered them no political advantage. Both the CHP and the MHP were aware that participation could lose them Turkish nationalist votes; while any electoral credit for the “Democratic Opening” would most likely accrue to the initiator of the process, namely the AKP. As a result, the only other party which publicly expressed its support for the “Democratic Opening” was the DTP.
In October 2009, the DTP successfully hijacked the one concrete product of the “Democratic Opening”, namely the arrival of eight PKK militants at Turkey’s Habur border crossing with Iraq. AKP officials had claimed that the militants would surrender as the first step in a process that would culminate in the dissolution of the entire organization. But it failed either to create a legal framework for the dismemberment of the PKK or to secure an unequivocal public declaration by the organization that it was abandoning violence. When the militants arrived at Habur on October 19, no attempt was made to arrest them. On the contrary, they declared that they were emissaries from the PKK in the first stage in a process of negotiation between the organization and Turkish state; the initiation of which had long been one of the primary goals of the PKK’s campaign of violence. As Turkish nationalists took to the streets in protest, the DTP paraded the eight militants through southeast Turkey as conquering heroes. More damagingly for the AKP, the DTP began to claim that it was the party, not the AKP, which was responsible for bringing the PKK militants down from the mountains and would also deserve the credit for any subsequent concessions to Kurdish rights as the result of the “Democratic Opening”.
Haşim Kılıç, the president of the Constitutional Court, is responsible for setting the court’s agenda and thus the timing of its decisions. Kılıç is widely regarded as being sympathetic to the AKP. The case against the DTP was filed on November 16, 2007. A similar case to close down the AKP was filed on March 14, 2008 and a verdict announced on July 30, 2008. As a result, the timing of the verdict in the DTP closure case has fuelled suspicions amongst the party’s supporters that Kılıç was acting at the AKP’s behest in an attempt to stifle the DTP at a time when it was increasing its popularity at the expense of the government.
The distrust between the AKP and DTP intensified in the days after the verdict. Initially, the 19 remaining DTP parliamentary deputies announced that they would resign their seats in an attempt to force by-elections. AKP officials immediately made it known that the government would block the resignations. Few doubt that they were motivated by a desire to prevent the government suffering a humiliating defeat in the by-elections.
IMPLICATIONS: The DTP is the fifth pro-Kurdish party to be banned in Turkey in the last 16 years. Every banned party has been accused of being linked to the PKK; a charge that each has denied. On December 18, Ahmet Türk announced that – rather than resigning – the 19 deputies would remain in parliament and transfer to a new party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which had been established to replace the DTP. In explaining their change of heart, Türk declared that imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan had held a meeting with his lawyers on December 16 and asked them to instruct the 19 DTP deputies to remain in parliament. It was the first time that a leading member of a pro-Kurdish political party had been so candid in acknowledging the influence of Öcalan and the PKK on the DTP.
Türk’s admission was greeted with outrage by many Turkish nationalists; and the explicit identification of the DTP with the PKK appears likely to increase tensions on the streets of Turkey. In recent weeks, there have already been several attacks by Turkish nationalists against both the DTP and ethnic Kurds. But Türk’s statement also highlighted one of the greatest weaknesses of the Turkish state’s past policies on the Kurdish issue. The tendency of the Turkish authorities to identify any expression of Kurdish nationalism with the PKK has not only prevented the emergence of an alternative to the organization but indirectly bolstered the PKK’s claim be to the sole legitimate representative of Kurdish nationalist aspirations. As a result, despite the often brutal violence of its insurgency, the PKK continues to enjoy considerable support among Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
Publicly at least, the Turkish authorities have always insisted that they do not negotiate with “terrorists”. In reality, there have long been intermittent indirect contacts with the PKK, which accelerated and intensified in the run-up to the arrival of the PKK militants at Habur in October 2009. The DTP’s refusal either to condemn the PKK or to admit its close links with the organization infuriated many Turkish nationalists. But it did provide the AKP with a publicly less unpalatable interlocutor than the PKK itself.
It is still too early to make any precise predictions about the policies and attitudes likely to be adopted by the BDP, not least because the future leadership of the party currently remains unclear. But the early indications are that the BDP is likely to be more, not less, hard-line and that – if Türk’s statement is a sign of things to come – less reticent about admitting its links to the PKK. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that – as many in the AKP appear to have hoped – that the closure of the DTP will enable the government to reassert its ownership of the “Democratic Opening” and that the BDP will be cowed into distancing itself from the PKK.
There is a general acknowledgment both in the government and the security forces that military measures alone cannot eradicate the PKK. Yet if, as the AKP has always maintained, the “Democratic Opening” is a process of dialogue, then the government needs interlocutors. More critically, it needs an interlocutor which can either “deliver” the PKK or capture its support base. Ahmet Türk’s statement of December 18 suggests that, far from driving a wedge between the DTP/BDP and the PKK, the events of recent months have served only to tighten the relationship between them.
In the absence of a political actor able to represent Kurdish aspirations yet operate independently of the PKK, the AKP would appear to have no choice but to engage with the DTP/BDP. But doing so would risk the DTP/BDP claiming the credit for any progress towards a solution; while also laying the AKP open to accusations that it was negotiating with the PKK.
The other option for the AKP – and one which it currently appears likely to take – would be for the government to try to go it alone and push through a number of concessions to Kurdish rights without consulting with any other political actors. But trying to introduce such concessions without the support of the BDP would be extremely risky. Perhaps more critically, the rising ethnic tensions and recent street violence suggest that the only concessions extensive enough to attract Kurdish votes from the BDP to the AKP would not only lose the government even more Turkish nationalist votes but could lead to severe domestic instability.
CONCLUSIONS: The decision by the remaining DTP parliamentary deputies not to resign their seats will have come as a relief to the AKP. But it is likely to be only a temporary respite. The AKP’s recent rhetoric suggests that the dialogue promised when the “Democratic Opening” was launched will now be replaced with a “monologue”, in which the government attempts to make some concessions to Kurdish rights despite – rather than together with – the other political parties. Given the current tensions in Turkish politics and Turkish society, such a strategy appears to have little chance of success; and, with a general election due in a little over 18 months, the AKP cannot afford a repeat of the errors and miscalculations that have characterized the last six months.
Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program’s Turkey Initiative.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. 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".