Before Turkey’s parliamentary elections in June, many Kurdish politicians saw the government’s constitutional reform initiative as a chance to advance their community’s decades-long struggle for broader cultural and political rights. Now, with six elected Kurdish candidates barred from taking their seats in parliament, Kurds are reconsidering the need for changes in Turkey’s constitution.
On June 21, the Supreme Elections Board (YSK), blocked Hatip Dicle, a Kurdish parliamentary candidate from Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast, from taking his seat after an appeals court upheld a terrorism-related conviction against him. Dicle is also under investigation for alleged membership in the urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been categorized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.
Days later, a Diyarbakir court ruled that five other elected Kurdish MPs, who were awaiting trial on terrorism charges, would not be released from prison to take their seats in parliament. The decisions prompted a parliamentary boycott by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which had seen a record 35 candidates it supported win seats in parliament.
Turkish election law does not prevent candidates from running for office from prison; elected candidates to parliament receive automatic immunity from prosecution. Kurdish parliamentarian Sebahat Tuncel, jailed for allegedly being a PKK member, was released within a day when she was elected to parliament in 2007.
With parliament now in session, but Kurdish MPs staying away, popular expectations that elected Kurds would be given a fair chance to take part in the constitutional reform process promised by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) are withering away, some Diyarbakir politicians say.
“There was hope raised during the election [campaign],” said Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Diyarbakir’s Sur Municipality. “Unfortunately, this hope was ruined. It is unfair for those appointed to office to again decide on the fate of those elected to office,” he said in reference to the YSK.
At a July 3 BDP rally in Diyarbakir, attended by tens of thousands, BDP parliamentarian Ahmet Türk described the standoff as “a war for freedom,” Today’s Zaman reported.
One rally participant commented to EurasiaNet.org that the ban on Dicle suggested that the Turkish state does not want Kurds to exist, and that Kurdish votes can be nullified. “Maybe for the government, Dicle is a criminal. For us, he is a hero,” said the man, who gave his name as Cengiz.
Dicle’s replacement was the runner-up candidate from the AKP. Seeing this, many Kurds believe that the AKP played a role in manipulating the YSK’s authority to authorize Dicle’s ban.
One BDP parliamentarian from Diyarbakir disagreed with such speculation. “We cannot say that the AKP was responsible,” said Nursel Aydogan, who is also a member of BDP’s central administration. “They knew it could happen and ignored it,” she said in reference to the YSK decision.
Rather, Aydogan blames the YSK’s alleged ties to Turkey’s military stablishment, whose power would wane if the Kurdish conflict ended. “They are trying to push this region into chaos,” she claimed.
The YSK has asserted that it reached its decision after due deliberation and debate. A Turkish court is expected to rule on July 7 on an appeal filed by Dicle.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, claims that the BDP was warned about the consequences of Dicle’s election to parliament, “but they did not listen.”
"Couldn't [the BDP] find anyone else to run as a candidate?" Erdoğan asked in remarks reported by The Hürriyet Daily News.
Erdoğan has warned that the BKP, along with the opposition People’s Republican Party, a fellow boycotter which saw seats denied to two of its elected candidates on trial for supposed involvement in a coup plot, could lose its seats altogether after missing five sessions of parliament. The National Movement Party also lost one of its seats over a candidate facing similar coup charges, but decided to enter parliament.
Some Kurdish political activists interviewed in Diyarbakir believe that the YSK decision can be reversed, a development that would allow Kurdish MPs to enter parliament. Serkan Akbas, a lawyer on the legal advisory board of the BDP’s Diyarbakir branch, noted that the AKP has the majority in parliament needed to change the law that would allow Dicle to take his seat. The governing party holds 327 of the legislature’s 550 seats.
A new law might take up to 40 days to go into effect, but boycotters only ask that the government take “practical steps” toward redressing their complaints before they take their seats, Akbas noted.
Claiming that Turkey has reached a critical moment, BDP MP Aydogan also argued that the AKP “can easily” reverse the YSK decision, if governing party leaders so desire.
“Our movement will be focused on the constitution, which is to be changed in democratic ways,” he said of the Kurdish campaign for greater rights. “That will enable us to make our policies freely and for the PKK to come down from the mountains and rejoin society.”
Skepticism, however, still runs strong that a new constitution – or taking part in Turkey’s political process – will lead to an improvement in living standards and civil rights for Kurds. “We don’t believe it,” said demonstrator Cengiz. “All the time they deceive us. I think that they will deceive us again.”
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.