As the struggle for democracy in the Arab world turns bloodier, and the outcome more precarious, Turkey’s free and fair parliamentary elections on June 12th provided a burst of optimism for the region. With the elections resulting in a more inclusive and balanced parliament just as this body was set to write a new constitution for the country, Turkey appeared one step closer to becoming a genuine model for the rest of the Middle East. But just two weeks after the election, a new crisis emerged in the form of a standoff between the country's judiciary and a leading Kurdish political figure that underscores how Turkey's path forward is still blocked by one of its oldest problems: the government's reluctance to accommodate the legitimate demands of its Kurdish minority. Already the clash has sparked significant upheaval and threatens to undermine efforts at consolidating democracy in the country. At the same time, it highlights many of the hurdles Turkey’s leaders must overcome in the process of reforming the constitution.
On June 21, the Supreme Election Board (YSK) of Turkey voted unanimously to bar a renowned Kurdish activist and lawyer, Hatip Dicle, from assuming his parliamentary seat. Dicle had run as an independent backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which won an unprecedented 36 seats in the parliament. Just days before the election, Dicle lost an appeal to overturn a conviction for spreading “terrorist propaganda” over remarks he made in 2007 supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) right to defend itself against operations by the Turkish military. Under Turkish law, no one convicted of a terrorism-related charge can enter parliament. However, given the timing of the court decision, the latest YSK decision was marred in controversy.
The Kurdish population immediately responded with outrage and the BDP ultimately decided to boycott the parliament, which opened last Monday. In an ominous indicator of the chaos that could ensue if political channels for addressing the grievances of Kurds are closed, the past two weeks have witnessed mass protests throughout the country and four PKK attacks, which killed four and injured six.
The implications of the Dicle case go beyond the Kurdish issue. In fact, it gets to the heart of the challenges Turkey faces on its path to democratization.
Many Turkish liberals believe the YSK violated universal principles by denying the people of Diyarbakir the candidate that they elected to represent them-- particularly since this is the same institution that earlier ruled Dicle was eligible to run in the elections. Kurds and many human-rights lawyers also argue that Turkish terrorism laws are unduly broad and deny people their right to free speech. Why was Dicle persecuted for terrorism-related charges for his rhetoric in the first place? While supporting the PKK is anathema to the Turkish state, the harsh reality is that after years of being denied their identity and challenges to their political participation, many Kurds view the PKK as the only viable defender of their rights. Until Kurdish groups are able to speak freely and candidly about these issues, a resolution to one of Turkey’s most intractable problems will prove elusive.
Yet, there is also the challenge of expanding democracy into areas with armed actors. The political aspects of the Kurdish issue are inextricably linked to the terrorist issue. Most Turks view the PKK as a terrorist organization, responsible for the deaths of thousands, and the BDP, as its political arm. With Kurdish leaders warning of “chaos” and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan of “civil war” in response to Dicle’s case, some politicians and analysts say the BDP's radical politics are to blame for Mr. Dicle's fate. As long as PKK violence continues, much of the Turkish population will be resistant to making too many concessions. And many will also continue to be sympathetic to decisions like the one handed down by the YSK.
Perhaps most importantly, the controversy over the decision highlights the lack of credibility in the judicial system. State institutions have often been inconsistent in their application and interpretation of the law, serving an ideological agenda and placing the rights of the state over those of the individual. Past YSK rulings are a case in point. In the lead-up to the elections, the body barred 12 independent candidates—7 of whom were supported by the BDP- from running in the elections, a decision that was largely seen to be a political not a legal one. The body then quickly reversed its ruling in response to major protestations about the case, proving the flimsiness of the law and the political nature of the YSK’s decision-making. The YSK also created controversy by barring Turkish citizens living abroad from voting in the elections, a move viewed as intentionally hurting the AKP since the majority of expatriates were expected to vote for them.
Given the enormous challenges Turkey’s political actors must tackle, it is crucial that the BDP and the ruling AKP find a resolution to the current impasse. While the BDP is justified in its outrage, the only way for Kurds to ensure that injustices like that suffered by Dicle are prevented in the future is to participate peacefully in parliament and revise the laws. After all, Kurds voted en masse for the BDP because they want a political solution to the Kurdish crisis.
At the same time, it is incumbent on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to create a cooperative rather than confrontational political environment so that Kurds are encouraged to participate. The party won a majority in the recent elections, but fell short of the super majority needed to pass legislation single-handedly, leading many to assume that the party would be forced to seek consensus with other political and civil society groups in its initiatives. Yet so far, the AKP has further inflamed the crisis by defending the YSK decision that awarded Dicle’s seat to AKP candidate Oya Eronat. In his first remarks on the issue, Prime Minister Erdogan accused the BDP of irresponsibility in nominating controversial candidates. For a politician who was also precluded from joining parliament in 2002 because of an unjust conviction, such statements are not only inflammatory but hypocritical. In Erdogan’s case the constitution was amended to allow him to join parliament after a by-election, and a similar legal change should be made in Dicle’s case to allow him to enter.
The current crisis presents the first post-election test for political actors in the country—will they seek to move beyond zero-sum politics to tackle the country’s fundamental institutional and legal challenges? Or, will they become victims of the undemocratic system and harden their positions because of past injustices, ultimately undermining Turkey’s prospects for genuine progress? At this critical juncture, with the Turkish populous ready for a new, liberal constitution, the choices these political parties make to resolve the current impasse will affect the future of democracy in Turkey.