Turkey’s Kurds cheered by prospect of legislative bloc

Times Staff Writer

Mehmet Adiyaman’s eyes filled with tears of joy as he watched newly elected Kurdish lawmakers clasp hands with villagers who had come from miles around to offer their congratulations.

For more than a decade, Kurds, who make up roughly one-fifth of Turkey’s population, have had no bloc of representatives in the nation’s legislature. But when the new parliament convenes today, 23 members of the Kurdish-rights Democratic Society Party are scheduled to take their seats.

That prospect has caused rejoicing here, along with hopes for reduced tensions, both within Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast and across the border with Iraq, where Kurds control a quasi-independent region.


“I feel that my happiness has given me wings,” said Adiyaman, a grizzled old man who lost several family members to Turkey’s bloody 23-year conflict with Kurdish rebels. Virtually every family in his village, he said, had suffered the loss of land or loved ones or both.

Thousands have died on both sides. This year alone, more than 225 troops have died in battles with Kurdish guerrillas based in the mountains of southern Turkey and northern Iraq.

In recent months, senior Turkish army generals have been pushing hard for a major incursion into northern Iraq to chase them down.

Kurdish hopes were buoyed not just by the success of their elected representatives, but by the overall results of the July 22 balloting, which was widely viewed as a rebuke to the military establishment.

Many Kurds believe Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now in a better position to keep the powerful army in check. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, was the big winner in the vote. The party, an offshoot of the nation’s Islamist movements, has tense relations with the military leadership, which is secular.

Kurds tend to believe Erdogan views their cause with considerable sympathy. Two years ago this month, the prime minister traveled to Diyarbakir and delivered a groundbreaking speech, saying Turkey needed to “face up to its past” regarding the Kurds.

“More democracy, not more repression, is the answer to the Kurds’ long-running grievances,” he said in the first such declaration by a Turkish leader.

Firat Anli, mayor of a district of Diyarbakir, the principal city in the southeast, said he thought the election results would strengthen Erdogan’s hand.

“A big cross-border action seems less likely now -- the military was putting so much pressure on the government, but then the government got the people’s vote of confidence,” he said.

The United States, too, has been pressing Turkey to refrain from a major incursion. But Turkish public sentiment is inflamed by each new casualty report -- three more soldiers died this week -- and funerals occasionally turn into impromptu anti-U.S. rallies.

For the moment, the military tensions appear to have eased slightly. Driving southeast out of Diyarbakir, in the direction of the Iraqi border, motorists encounter few checkpoints over the course of several hours -- a barometer of the threat level perceived by the army.

Local officials also disputed reports of a major buildup in recent weeks. Turkey keeps about 50,000 troops in the border region, but officials here say the comings and goings at area military bases, including tank convoys and air traffic, have appeared routine.

External pressure sought

For Kurds, the military situation is not the only concern. Many are hoping that the election results will heighten external pressure on Turkey to ease repressive measures against them, including tight restrictions against use of the Kurdish language in public forums and in broadcasting.

Erdogan’s party has been the prime mover behind Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, and the Europeans have made clear that the bid cannot move forward without the Kurds being granted greater cultural and political rights.

Turkey’s checkered human rights record, another red flag for the Europeans, is deeply entwined with the Kurdish conflict.

But the newly altered political landscape holds peril as well as promise for the Kurds. Also to be represented in the parliament after a one-term absence is the far-right Nationalist Action Party, which won almost 15% of the vote.

The Kurdish cause is anathema to the nationalists, who believe the Kurds’ insistence on a separate cultural identity threatens the very foundations of the Turkish republic.

Moreover, analysts say, any large-scale violence by the guerrillas of the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, could leave Erdogan with little choice but to order Turkish troops to attack the group’s bases in northern Iraq.

The rebels have been blamed for a string of attacks inside Turkey in recent months, including a suicide bombing in the capital, Ankara, in May that killed six people.

“If there’s an escalation in PKK violence and Erdogan is reluctant to intervene, there’s going to be a serious confrontation between him and the military,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Some fear that parliament’s inaugural session could be a replay of the disastrous swearing-in of 1991. As that session opened, a Kurdish lawmaker, Leyla Zana, caused an uproar by speaking Kurdish in the chambers -- forbidden under Turkish law -- and by wearing a hair ornament with the Kurdish colors of red, green and yellow.

In short order, she and several other Kurdish lawmakers were accused of aiding the PKK, lost their parliamentary immunity and served long jail terms. By 1994, their party had been outlawed and the Kurdish parliamentary foothold had been lost.

This time, the incoming Kurdish legislators have signaled that they will take a more conciliatory stance, and some have even said they welcome the presence of nationalists alongside them.

“We believe it is possible for different political views to coexist,” said Gultan Kisanak, a former journalist who is to take her seat with the Kurdish contingent. “It’s part of democracy.”

But nationalists are likely to be inflamed by the mere presence of Kurdish lawmakers such as Aysel Tugluk. She was a member of the defense team of Abdullah Ocalan, who is considered the architect of the Kurdish armed struggle and blamed by Turkey for tens of thousands of deaths. Captured in 1999, Ocalan was sentenced to death, but that penalty was commuted to a life term.

Another incoming Kurdish lawmaker, Sebahat Tuncel, has charges of aiding the PKK pending against her, but was freed from prison to take her seat.

Among the Kurds, many leading figures believe that unless Turkey makes a fundamental decision to accept pluralism in its society, the conflict will rage on.

Abdullah Demirbas, a district mayor in Diyarbakir, was recently fired from his position by Turkish authorities for printing Kurdish-language brochures and organizing Kurdish-language public forums on such topics as domestic abuse. His entire local council was dismissed as well when its members protested his firing.

“There is a notion that any kind of different culture is a threat to the state,” Demirbas said. “They are ruling by fear, and it can’t work -- in the long run people will insist on their own identity.”

Need to ease poverty

Economic observers say the solution lies in alleviating the crushing poverty that has long been the hallmark of the Kurdish heartland. If good jobs and education remain out of reach, young men will be drawn to joining the PKK -- “going into the mountains,” as the local euphemism has it.

Violence in turn feeds the cycle of poverty, said Atalay Gunes, who heads a district business association. “Without security, there can’t be sustained economic growth,” he said. “And without economic opportunity, there won’t be security.”

In the heat-struck Kurdish village of Kapili, a forlorn cluster of huts near the main crossing into Iraq, Rahim Uslu, a mother of 13, said she hoped only for an end to conflict.

“War only makes us more miserable,” she said.

“And we have enough misery already.”

King was recently on assignment in Diyarbakir.