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Local Elections in Diyarbakir, Kurdish Conference in Erbil: Is There Any Space for Hope?

 

Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 1, May 2009 -

Report by Siyar Ozsoy

 

Members of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), as well as independent analysts in Turkey, described the local elections as something far more than simply a vote. For Kurds, they described the 29 March 2009 election as a “referendum on the Kurdish issue”. The election was a culmination of several salient factors including the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) uncompromising politics towards the DTP, popularly known as the “Kurdish party”; Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s refusing to engage in dialogue with the DTP; his changing attitude after the general election of July 2007 in favor of a cross-border operation into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territories to attack the bases of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); and, especially, his too ambitious desire to “conquer” Diyarbakir, Batman and Tunceli municipalities that have been ruled by the DTP since 1999.

 

DTP Rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey - Photo Courtesy Luqman Barwari

 

A few weeks before the local elections, the possibility of a Kurdish conference in Erbil that aimed at finding a solution for the PKK issue found wide sympathetic expression among Turkish national media. Turkish expectations became even higher when Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was reported saying that the PKK must either leave Iraqi territories or lay down arms during his visit to Turkey.

 

The Turkish government’s actions seem to be pointing at the direction of finishing off the representatives of the “Kurdish party,” be they mayors or parliamentarians, rather than to negotiate with them as partners towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. After the general elections of 2007, while totally ostracizing the DTP, Erdogan repeatedly ordered his ministers and party executives, “I want Diyarbakir” in the nationwide local elections of 2009. Criticizing the governmental, financial and legal pressures on Diyarbakir municipality and pointing at Diyarbakir’s symbolic and political centrality for the Kurds, the mayor of Diyarbakir and member of the DTP, Osman Baydemir, harshly responded to Erdogan’s desire “to conquer Diyarbakir”: “Diyarbakir is a castle for us, and it will be defended.”

 

The battle for Diyarbakir was one where the AKP had good reasons to think it was winnable, as evidenced by the unexpected amount of Kurdish votes it received in the 2007 elections. After his electoral victory, the Turkish prime minister had a clear change in his pre-election policy that had included signs that the AKP might even recognize the DTP as a partner for dialogue after the elections. After the victory, however, he reasoned: the DTP’s defeat in the local elections would mean that Kurds do not support the DTP, and, hence, there is no Kurdish question at all and no need to dialogue with the DTP. This linear logic could not capture the fact that even if the DTP is eliminated, “the Kurdish problem” will remain in its place and intact until it is pursued politically. Unfortunately the Turkish government has unwisely reduced the almost two-century-old Kurdish conflict to dynamics of local elections. In such a context, the government’s policy was to defeat the DTP in the elections, “to conquer” Diyarbakir, to show to the national and international observers that the Kurdish struggle does not enjoy the support and legitimacy in had previously enjoyed, and then to fight a final war against the PKK through a collaboration with the U.S., E.U., and Iraqi Kurds. It was within this context that a Kurdish conference under the sponsorship of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to disarm the PKK found support in the Turkish public and political circles.

 

Things did not go as planned for the AKP. The Kurds took the local elections as a referendum. The AKP’s using state and governmental resources to “buy votes” in exchange of delivering coal, small educational stipends, refrigerators or dishwashers; the opening of the official TRT 6 Kurdish TV channel, and the debates over Kurdology institutes at Turkish universities; and the promises to “pour money into the region for development” did not bring the votes the AKP had expected (Radikal, 31 March 2009). On the contrary, the DTP could not only defend its “castle” Diyarbakir and the municipalities of Tunceli, Batman, Hakkari and Sirnak, and remarkably increased its votes, but also won the elections in Igdir, Van and Siirt; the latter two being very crucial for the AKP. The prime minister himself was elected from the Siirt province in 2002, which is also the hometown of his wife who is of Arab ethnicity. The DTP increased the number of its municipalities from 56 to 98, compared with 2004, hence scoring a clear victory.

 

Optimistic Kurds thought that this victory would put enough pressure on the government to begin a dialogue with the DTP for a peaceful resolution for the Kurdish issues, which would mean the end of the government’s policy “not to shake hands with the DTP” since the general elections of 2007. The PKK welcomed DTP’s election success and declared not to use arms until 1 June 2009, and extend the cease-fire if the state does not increase tension, as a political move to empower the DTP in the political process. However, the series of events that started immediately after the elections gave clear hints that a dialogue between the Kurds and the Turkish state was still not within sight. Turkish police attacked harshly Kurdish who objected to what they believed was an election fraud by the AKP in the Agri province. Many were injured and many more were arrested or detained.

 

In this murky political atmosphere, on 14 April 2009 the police conducted simultaneous operations in 15 different cities, mostly located in the Kurdish region, and took more than seventy DTP executives and members under custody with the accusation that they had ties with the PKK. While strongly denying these accusations, the DTP announced that the number of its imprisoned executives and members had reached 222 as of 7 May 2009, including 3 vice-chairs of the party. In addition, the mayors of Diyarbakir and Batman received ten-month sentences for using the word “guerilla” to name the PKK members, instead of the word “terrorist,” and if the Court of Appeals approves the sentence, they will also lose their posts.

 

DTP’s chair Mr. Ahmet Turk and other party executives evaluated these events as the government’s retaliation and revenge for its failure in the local elections. According to the DTP, the operation has no legal basis; it is an undemocratic intervention designed to exclude the Kurds from the sphere of democratic politics. On 23 April 2009, the DTP parliamentarians did not participate in the official National Sovereignty and Children Holiday, and organized a sit-in at the Turkish parliament until the next morning. On the same day, a fourteen-year-old Kurdish boy in Hakkari who protested the operation against the DTP was terribly beaten by a Turkish Special Forces member. The scenes of this event found wide expression in some Turkish television stations. Another young boy was killed in the same protest. A few days later, in Cizre, yet another Kurdish boy suffered a severe head injury after being hit by a gas bomb.

 

While the military operations of the Turkish army expanded to rural Kurdish areas and pressures on the Kurds in the city centers increased, clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK on 29 April 2009 resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish soldiers in the Lice district of Diyarbakir. On 3 May 2009, the DTP responded to the mass arrests against their party with a two-day hunger strike in Diyarbakir with the participation of its chair, executives, mayors, and parliamentarians and ten to fifteen thousand local people. The chair of the DTP, Mr. Ahmet Turk, claimed that the police operations against his party were destroying the possibility of a democratic and peaceful solution, alienating the Kurds from legal/democratic politics, and encouraging them to fight in the mountains. Certainly, recent events have resulted in increased tensions throughout the region and have already begun heightening the conflict.

 

The DTP’s victory in the local elections and the escalation of state repression, political tensions have changed the context and nature of the debate over the prospective Kurdish conference that is to be held in Erbil. The original support of the government for such a conference was based on the expectation that the DTP would fail in the local elections. In the midst of all this political turmoil, however, some Kurds, including DTP leaders are entertaining the idea of a Kurdish conference of another kind; one that is not aimed solely for the disarmament of any single Kurdish group, but that would instead include all major Kurdish groups and be focused on creating a concerted political vision to formulate peaceful and democratic solutions for the multiple problems that the Kurds experience in the various states of the Middle East. Clearly, the Kurdish issue has transcended national boundaries and a larger regional and global perspective is needed.

 

Kurdish political dynamism has structurally been a source of conflict and instability in the region, while the countries wherein the Kurds reside have feared inter-Kurdish solidarities as threats to their national unity and territorial integrity. While regional power balances and especially pressures from Turkey are big obstacles in front of a Kurdish conference to facilitate inter-Kurdish solidarities, the aspirations and hopes of many Kurds still lie in there. Additionally, increasing social and political exchanges among Kurdish communities across the borders may produce a political vision full of potential for peace that has not been imagined yet.

 

Siyar Ozsoy is a PhD candidate at the Social and Cultural Anthropology Department of the Univesity of Texas at Austin. His work is concerned with questions of violence, state formation, nationalism, neoliberalism, multiculturalism, civil society, which he has extensively researched within the context of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. Siyar Ozsoy also completed research in Diyarbakir on the transformation of Kurdish politics as well as its current situation within the larger context of Turkey's ongoing accession to the European Union and the changing status of Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.

 

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