A Kurdish supporter of the Labor, Freedom and Democracy Platform flashes a peace sign during an election rally in Istanbul on June 5, 2011.
Credit: Bulent Kilic

ISTANBUL, Turkey — While Turkey’s prime minister has echoed the calls for change sweeping across the region, his critics say his tolerance for dissent applies only to those beyond Turkey’s borders — and not to his own Kurdish population.

“There is no longer a Kurdish question in this country,” he recently told a rally in the eastern city of Mus.

A few days later, rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party attacked a campaign bus belonging to the prime minister’s political party, killing one policeman and injuring another — raising a number of questions about the country's Kurds — who have long been marginalized by the government and who have recently stepped up their demands for equal rights.

With general elections on June 12 fast approach, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has begun, against the backdrop of the Arab revolutions, a sustained campaign of civil disobedience.

“Peace tents” have been erected and sit-in protests organized. Kurdish Muslims have rejected mosques staffed by state-appointed imams in favor of Kurdish-language prayers in parks and public areas. And Sebahat Tuncel, a leading lawmaker who is supported by the BDP, made headlines after slapping a policeman at a protest in the southeastern province of Sirnak.

She described the movement as a way to test Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, and “the sincerity of their promises to find a solution to the Kurdish problem.”

“Unfortunately,” she concluded after a long pause, “the sincerity is in serious doubt.”

Adding a sense of urgency to the Kurdish agenda is a plan by Erdogan and his party — which is expected to easily win a third term.  The AKP's primary concern is to rewrite the country’s constitution, which was drafted in 1982 in the wake of a military coup.

How the new constitution is drafted, and in particular how it redefines citizenship, is important to Turkey’s 14 million Kurds, who have long fought for their language and identity to be recognized.

“Turkey needs a constitution that protects the citizens from the state, not like now where it defends the state against the individual,” Tuncel said.

This is where it becomes a numbers game. Of the 550 seats at stake in Turkey’s national assembly, the ruling party must retain 330 of its 334 seats if constitutional amendments are to remain subject to a popular vote. If it wins 367 seats, the constitution can be changed unilaterally, without a referendum.

In 2009, Erdogan launched much-heralded reforms for the Kurdish community, establishing a 24-hour Kurdish TV station and Kurdish language departments at universities. But greater changes were stymied by nationalist anger and lingering bitterness over those killed during the many years of conflict.

While Erdogan and his ruling party, the AKP, have done more than many of its predecessors, the BDP — the minority Peace and Democracy Party — has built a strong campaign drawing on the frustration of the Kurdish community, gaining votes in an area where the AKP had once been strong.

Though small in numbers compared to what the AKP expects, the BDP could win as many as 30 — potentially critical — seats on June 12.

Analysts argue that part of why the AKP has tried to shift attention away from the Kurdish issue is to attract votes from the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

“They’re trying to cast a wide enough net that they can bring in the votes they need for the constitution,” said Henri Barkey, a Lehigh University professor and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar. “The idea being that if the MHP fails, those seats will go to the AKP.”

Walking that tightrope, however, won’t be easy. A speech by Erdogan at a campaign rally in the mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on June 1 emphasized the shared suffering both he and the Kurds have faced under Turkey’s former secularist leaders.

"Your brother [Erdogan] was jailed for only reciting a poem,” Erdogan said, referring to the time in the early 1990s when, as mayor of Istanbul, he was imprisoned by the secular government for reading a poem that had Islamic undertones. “I know what the status quo made my Kurdish brothers live through. I come from within this struggle. I know policies of dismissal, I know denial."

But such sympathetic words are unlikely to appease the Kurdish population, which is seeking the release of BDP prisoners, amnesty for PKK fighters and the right to educate their children in Kurdish.

The Kurdish rebels have threatened to respond with force if those demands are not met. Already, after a six-month lull, violence is again rising. About 42 soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed since the rebels announced an end to a unilateral cease-fire on Feb. 28.

Last month, the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, issued an ultimatum that unless talks begin over greater Kurdish rights within three days of the general election, the fighting will become even fiercer.

“A calamity is just around the corner. I am not pessimistic, I only possess the sensibility that emanates from intuition and foresight,” said Aysel Tugluk, another BDP-supported parliamentary candidate. “Once again we are at a crossroads. Everyone who is concerned about the Kurdish issue should know that we are moving towards ground zero, and fast.”

Related Stories