Kurd Issue to the Fore Ahead of Elections

DIYARBAKIR, Iraq – Sultan Quyun, 58, longs for the day when the decades-long conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces will come to an end. For her, the end of violence does not just hold the promise of a possible resolution of the Kurdish issue in the country, but would bring about, she hopes, a much-awaited reunion with her son.

A student at a university in Istanbul, Quyun’s son was arrested by security forces in the early 1990s for involvement in Kurdish politics. Following release after two-and-a-half years in prison, he headed to the mountains in 1994 to join the PKK militants. 

The bloody fight between the PKK and Turkish security forces is estimated to have claimed around 40,000 lives on both sides thus far. 

While many in Turkey share Quyun’s wish, the reality on the ground does not appear conducive for a solution in a near future. 

In the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for next June, Kurdish political organizations have presented bold proposals for their rights. Several Kurdish proposals for autonomy and bilingualism in Turkey have sent shock waves through the political establishment. 

Walking a fine line in the lead-up to the polls, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which has won praise for taking unprecedented steps in addressing longstanding Kurdish grievances – exercises great caution over Kurdish demands so as not to alienate its large base among ethnic Turkish voters. 

As part of its measure so far, the AKP government has lifted the state of emergency that had been in place in the Kurdish areas for nearly 15 years. It has set up a Kurdish television channel, allowed private Kurdish language courses and has established Kurdology departments in some universities. 

But to many Kurds these are not satisfactory steps. 

In late December, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), an umbrella organization that includes several Kurdish groups, called for the establishment of a ‘Democratic Autonomous Kurdistan’ in the southeastern part of the country. The organization wants administrative autonomy within Turkey’s borders, not independence or secession. 

But the proposal, which enjoys the support of the PKK, envisions the foundation of a local administration and parliament, and a defense force. The proposal also includes making Kurdish an official language alongside Turkish. 

Its sponsors call this a project for "unity", but it is seen by many as nothing short of a major reshuffling of the state structure in Turkey. The proposal has drawn furious reactions. 

"I am reiterating that recent artificial debates are part of an ugly plan and trap on part of the (PKK) terrorist organization and its extensions," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told AKP’s officials late last year, referring to Kurdish demands for autonomy. 

He added that by stirring up Kurdish nationalist sentiments, the autonomy proposal was meant to "influence the election process and shape domestic politics." 

Cengiz Candar, a prominent Turkish columnist and former presidential advisor, believes such proposals in the run-up to the parliamentary elections will "polarize" the situation by stirring up nationalist sentiments on both sides. 

"Turkish public opinion is unprepared to say the very word autonomy. Autonomy is very hard to sell to the Turkish public opinion," Candar told IPS in Istanbul. 

As the struggle over a plausible solution to the Kurdish question continues in Turkey, AKP officials claim credit for creating an environment where discussion of Kurdish rights can take place. 

"The Kurdish areas used to be a murdering paradise not long ago," said Baki Aksoy, the head of AKP’s branch in Diyarbakir. "But with the AKP, the Kurdish issue and the wrongdoings have become part of the public debate and agenda in Turkey." 

It is this easing of security restrictions, broadening of the democratic space and a strong sense of self-entitlement that has emboldened many Kurds to demand further cultural and political rights. 

As the fate of Kurds continues to be the top issue of the day in Turkey, an atmosphere of strong distrust, partly driven by the urge to gain more votes, dominates the relations between AKP and pro-Kurdish groups, further complicating the prospects of consensus on a solution. 

"The AKP is not serious about resolving the Kurdish issue," Najad Yuruk, the Diyarbakir chief of the largest legal Kurdish political party known as the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told IPS. "Whatever the Kurds have gained has been through their struggle and power." 

Yuruk contends that the easing of restrictions on the use of Kurdish in the media and private courses should not be attributed to Erdogan’s policies. 

"The language issue has become a de facto reality (in Turkey’s Kurdish areas) and Erdogan has not even passed legislation to legalize this right. Kurds have just taken the matter into their hands and are practicing their own rights," added Yuruk, whose party is often considered to be close to the PKK. 

The PKK, for its part, has declared a cease fire since last August to give the efforts for resolving the country’s chronic Kurdish issue a chance. It has said it will abide by its cease fire until after June elections.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.