Emotions have been running high in the wake of the recent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) attacks, which killed several civilians, and the kidnapping of school teachers. It is in periods of high tension that politicians need to resist the temptation to fuel tension with martial rhetoric, but it is easier said than done when popular anger is bubbling to the surface.
The return of Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies to Parliament briefly held out the hope that dialogue could lower the tension. But the ongoing wave of arrests that followed, which has so far seen dozens of people detained for alleged connections with the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), known as the urban wing of the PKK ─ among them many members of the BDP ─ have poured cold water on these expectations.
The detentions, coming just after BDP deputies were sworn into Parliament, are undermining the ground for dialogue at a time when the country needs it most. People guilty of direct involvement in acts of violence must be punished, but the provisions of the Counterterrorism Law cast the net far too wide. They also cast a shadow on attempts to put an end to the violence and the quest for a lasting solution.
It is not easy to understand where the prime minister really stands on the thorny Kurdish issue. Over the years, he has made very liberal speeches, which acknowledged some of the erroneous policies of the past and showed a genuine understanding of the Kurds’ frustrations and their desire to have their Kurdish identity recognized alongside their Turkish citizenship. But he has also retreated regularly to more nationalist rhetoric, at least publicly, while at the same time approving discreet negotiations between state agencies and the PKK.
But his public position is the one that has the most direct impact on public opinion, both among Turks and Kurds. He has kept the door open, refusing to rule out further talks, while lambasting the BDP. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “shooting-from-the-hip” rhetorical style and his passionate and eloquent speeches account for much of his appeal in the eyes of his supporters. But his recent swipe against an unnamed German foundation, which is accused of indirectly funding the PKK, was not helpful. German and other foundations have invested in municipal projects throughout Turkey, with the approval of the Turkish authorities, and the Southeast, which remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in this country, is a natural target for development projects.
It seems paradoxical that Mr. Erdoğan can see the wisdom of conducting talks with the people who wield the weapons in order to reach peace, yet Kurdish officials who have chosen to express themselves in the political arena, rather than through violent means, are rounded up in large numbers and jailed for lengthy periods of pre-trial detention. The latest arrests are essentially undermining the BDP deputies’ effectiveness and narrowing the political space at a time when the Turkish government needs a political partner to defuse the growing cycle of violence.
Nothing justifies the PKK’s latest wave of violence, widely condemned throughout Turkey. No one wants a return to the bloody days of the 1990s. The government may not have much sympathy with BDP politicians, but they represent a sizeable constituency that needs to be won over if this country is ever to live peacefully.
In spite of the considerable obstacles presented by the high electoral threshold, Kurdish politicians won the support of nearly 2.5 million voters, who represented close 5.7 percent of the national electorate. To dismiss the party, and therefore its supporters, merely as associates of the PKK does not serve Turkey's interests. By attempting to bypass the party and arresting its associates, the authorities are only pushing a disgruntled youth, largely unemployed and facing poor prospects, into the arms of the militants.
The arrests are also undermining the efforts of moderate Kurds who seek an alternative to the dominance of the PKK. Instead of undermining Kurdish politicians, the government should help boost their standing among their electorate by showing that dialogue brings results. BDP politicians, of course, need to cooperate and avoid fueling the flames.
The fight against violence must go on, but it is time to reopen the debate on identity, on education in Kurdish and other rights that people in southeastern Turkey demand ─ a debate which, incidentally, also goes to the heart of the new democratic constitution that the new Parliament is attempting to write.
(The writer is a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, where this article was first published on Oct. 6, 2011.)