Democracy and the Kurds

by Ömer Karasapan
published in MER153

The Kurdish issue has become a daily staple of the Turkish press. At first focused on PKK atrocities, coverage now allows many people to get a clearer view of the conditions facing the country’s Kurdish citizens. Articles and interviews with tribal leaders, pro-government militia, local party leaders and state officials provide an understanding often at odds with official myths. For liberal and left-leaning journalists, this new opening has come as a welcome release from years of indirect reporting on the subject. Mehmet Ali Birand forcefully stated in July 1987 that the time for cryptic references was over. Columnist Mümtaz Soysal, also the country’s foremost constitutional scholar, discussed the futility of continuing the ban on the Kurdish language. Ilhan Selçuk, writing for the left-liberal daily Cumhuriyet, condemned chauvinism and the refusal to come to grips with reality.

The history of relations between the Turkish Republic and its Kurdish citizens is coming under closer scrutiny. The weekly Nokta ran an issue last summer which focused on the Kurdish uprising in Dersim in the 1930s. Sociologist Ismail Beşikçi has been released from jail and has given a number of frank interviews (see "State Ideology and the Kurds" in this issue). But the topic remains sensitive and limits remain. Authorities have banned the leftist weekly 2000e Doğru on a number of occasions, and in late January 1988 confiscated Professor Server Tanilli’s book What Sort of a Democracy Do We Want? for “encouraging divisiveness.”

The Kurdish opening is also reflected in the political arena. In mid-1987, the opposition Social Democratic Populist Party entertained an internal proposal which called for linguistic freedom. A number of MPs have called for the recognition of Kurdish aspirations for cultural and linguistic rights. While the party leadership has been reticent and disciplined a parliamentarian on this subject last year, things appear to be changing. In late January 1988, Istanbul SDPP parliamentarian Mehmet Ali Eren made a landmark speech demanding that parliament “overcome this taboo.” “The Kurdish problem,” he said, “should be dealt with in all its facets, realistic solutions proposed, and debated in detail. Otherwise democracy in Turkey will be unable to shake off its tutelary nature.”

At one point during the speech, parliamentarians from the ruling Motherland Party called for the party’ disciplinary committee to issue a formal warning, but leader Inönü was unable to muster the necessary majority to carry this through. Finally parliament resorted to an obscure piece of legislation and forbade Eren to repeat portions of his speech outside of parliament. This debate within the SDPP and the establishment of an in-party “Commission for the East” is indicative of the subtle changes taking place within the political establishment on the Kurdish issue. In February 1988, three Motherland Party MPs from the eastern provinces asked the government to initiate a special economic development plan for the region. Courts have handed down decisions upholding the use of Kurdish names, and in February a parliamentary human rights lobby including many Kurdish parliamentarians was formed. In April Mehmet Ali Eren proposed that parliament repeal the law which bans the Kurdish language.

Ilhan Selçuk compares the present discussion over the Kurds with the debates in the early 1960s over Turkey’s pro-American foreign policy. Foreign policy and security issues are no longer taboo. Blind and uncritical attachment to US policies, once a staple of Turkish politics, now constitutes a liability for even the most conservative of politicians.

Perhaps the most important implication of these developments is that the Kurds and their attendant grievances and aspirations are now part and parcel of the process of democratization in Turkey. To go back to the days when the very existence of Kurds was denied would require reversing virtually all of the democratic advances made since the mid-1980s. Now that Turkey has applied for full membership in the European Economic Community such a reversal appears unlikely.

 

Sources: Cumhuriyet, January 20, 27, 28, 1988; Nokta, May 3 and June 28, 1987, February 7, 14, and April 17, 1988; Yeni Gündem, October 3, 1987; and Milliyet, July 10, 1987.

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