Turkey’s new political landscape – can the Kurds still be ignored?
Kurdish Herald Feature - Vol. 1 Issue 2, June 2009
The land that comprises present-day Turkey has reinvented itself many times over the centuries, undergoing a number of extreme changes which yield today’s Republic and all of its inherent contradictions. In past incarnations, the ancient city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), has been the capital of a number of officially Christian empires (beginning with the Roman Empire under Theodosius I) and the capital of a Muslim empire that also functioned as a caliphate (the Ottoman Empire). Today it is the business and cultural center of Turkey, a state founded on staunchly secular principles which officially places limitations on public expressions of religious belief.
More than ever, Turkey today is a land in flux. It’s imperfect democratic system, complete with various measures that help insure that the military has some measure of control over the policies of the country, has yielded a number of interesting and noteworthy changes over the past few decades. On a number of occasions, Turkish citizens have cast their votes and overturned the existing political system, and, on a number of other occasions, the Turkish military has stepped in to enforce its will upon the democratically-elected government.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed the rise of a new powerhouse in Turkish politics, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party which by definition as an Islamist party contradicts the founding ideology of the secular, Western Turkish Republic. Indeed, the AKP rose to power democratically by receiving votes not only from religious voters but also from those looking for a protest vote and finding it in a party that preached moral values. Even many Kurds, motivated by either religious fervor or anger at the establishment reflected by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), cast their votes for the AKP.
Since it’s founding in 2001, the AKP has solidified its role as Turkey’s dominant political party. The AKP is no longer a curious newcomer to the world of politics, it is a major part of the Turkish political framework. And while dominant, it is but one player in the complicated, high stakes game that is Turkish politics. The results of the recent municipal elections in Turkey explain the current state of Turkey’s political system, and, in many ways, are the culmination of a number of interesting developments in the Turkish political scene over the last few years.
Whole swaths of Turkey are now firmly in the camp of one political party or another. While the AKP received far more votes than any of its opponents, it failed in its stated goal of breaking into the old strongholds of other political parties, such as Izmir for the CHP (where the CHP won 55% of votes for greater municipal mayor) or Diyarbakir for the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) (where they won 66% of votes for greater municipal mayor). The CHP came out in control of much of the western coast of Turkey, spanning all the way from Içel to Edirne. This reflects a strong backing from Turkey’s Kemalist elite, who have traditionally been staunch adherents of the Republic’s founding ideology and, in keeping with this ideology, are generally Western-leaning and secular. Many in this group are fairly wealthy, relatively speaking, and are genuinely alarmed and even dismayed by the rise of the AKP, a group that they fear is steering Turkey dangerously far from its founding principles. The more right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) won a number of provinces in the west and, together with the CHP and CHP offshoot DSP (Democratic Left Party), controls much of Turkey’s northern border.
Meanwhile, much of the rest of Turkey, throughout Anatolia, cast their votes for the AKP, demonstrating a clear division between the secular elite of certain regions who have been members of the Kemalist establishment for decades and a newly resurgent class of more traditional Turkish citizens who, over the past decade, have become more educated and more mobilized. While the CHP and MHP represent certain regions on Turkey’s borders, the Anatolian heartland is dominated by the AKP.
The one exception to this general rule is the predominantly Kurdish southeast, a land which many Kurds identify as northern Kurdistan. Despite the best efforts of the AKP, the poorly-funded but well organized DTP emerged as the voice of the southeast, scoring victories by large margins in certain strongholds such as Diyarbakir and capturing others previously held by other parties, such as Igdir near Turkey’s border with Armenia. A cursory glance at Turkey’s new political map makes it difficult to deny that the DTP is the voice of the Kurds of Turkey.
The various factions that comprise the Turkish establishment, including the government (AKP), the Kemalist political establishment (CHP), and the military, have, in the past, taken great pains to ostracize members of the DTP, accusing them of being complicit in “terrorism”, a reference to the activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Many MPs, including the Prime Minister, refused to shake hands with DTP parliamentarians and military generals refused to appear at events attended by DTP members. Now that the DTP has truly established itself as the voice of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens and the dominant power in a whole section of the country, it is a lot more difficult to ignore. Slowly but surely, it seems that some of the larger factions in the Turkish establishment are realizing this as recently CHP Deputy Secretary General Mesut Deger met with DTP chairman Ahmet Türk to discuss the Kurdish issue. Almost concurrently, a report which stated that Prime Minister Erdogan himself was preparing to meet representatives of the DTP. At nearly the same time, the Turkish newspaper Milliyet published an interview with PKK military leader Murat Karayilan following journalist Hasan Cemal’s visit to the Qendil mountains with the headline, “Karayilan: we have hope for peace.” In another interesting development, following the publication of this interview, Cemal was reportedly contacted by the offices of several of Turkey’s most influential policymakers to discussions – President Gül, Prime Minister Erdogan, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu, though his meetings with all three were apparently postponed.
The results of this year’s municipal elections were no surprise and were not revolutionary. Rather, they were an accurate snapshot of the new political map of Turkey, a summary of the complex and ever-evolving reality of one of the world’s more curious democratic systems. As the heirs of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the powerbrokers of Turkey’s political world react to these developments, it seems that they may indeed be forced to address Turkey’s Kurdish question in a more direct manner than ever before. Indeed, this may already be happening.