Closing largest Kurdish party DTP, Turkey could stall reform efforts

Turkey's closing of the largest Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), has sparked deadly riots and could stall these reform efforts. Turkey had recently introduced a reform package friendly to its restive Kurdish minority.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Kurdish protesters clash with Turkish riot police in Diyarbakir, Monday. The European Commission warned that a ban by Turkey's Constitutional Court on the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) could deprive a substantial portion of Turkish voters from representation.

The government's introduction in recent months of a political reform package has increased hope that Turkey is on its way to finally implementing a civilian – rather than military – solution to its decades-long Kurdish problem, one that has cost an estimated 40,000 lives since 1984 and has stood as a roadblock along Turkey's road to democratization.

But now there are growing concerns that the new reform effort could be undermined by the closing of the country’s largest pro-Kurdish political party and increasing tension in its predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. On Tuesday, two more people were killed in riots that first erupted on Friday when Turkey’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to shut down the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the only pro-Kurdish group in parliament, accusing it of engaging in separatist activity and supporting the PKK. The government today hastily convened a meeting to plan a roadmap to resolve the unrest.

Observers worry that an upsurge in violence could harden nationalist sentiments among both Turks and Kurds, leaving the government stuck between Turkish nationalists on one side and Kurdish nationalists on the other.

There is also concern that a growing stand-off between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists and an increase in ethnic tensions in Turkey’s restive southeast could strengthen the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara, the US, and the European Union consider a terrorist organization.

Analysts warn, meanwhile, that the party’s closure will only work to undermine the development of a moderate Kurdish political movement in Turkey.

“It was such a mistake to close down these Kurdish parties in the past. Had they not been closed down, they would have become much stronger than the armed wing of the Kurdish movement. But what we have here now is the opposite,” says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

Closing DTP tests commitment to Kurdish-friendly reforms

The court’s decision comes only a few weeks after the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) formally announced in parliament its “democratization initiative” – a raft of reforms designed to give Turkey’s Kurds increased political and cultural rights. Among the planned changes are the easing of restrictions on private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well as allowing towns and villages to once again use their original Kurdish names.

But observers warn the closing of the DTP will put the government’s plan to the test.

“No matter how much the governing party repeats the opposite, from now on the initiative will only remain a theory. It will for sure start all over again sometime in the future but for now the process has stopped,” political analyst Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in a recent column in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. “Whether we like it or not ... whether we think it’s sufficient or insufficient, the initiative movement that [the government] started got stuck in the political swamp of Turkey.”

Despite the new tensions and the DTP’s closing, the government has insisted that it will continue with its Kurdish reform program. But the recent violence in the southeast could make it tougher for the government to push some of these reforms through parliament.

For example, following the recent protests in the southeast, the government put off a scheduled parliamentary debate over an amendment that would make it harder for prosecutors to jail children who participate in violent demonstrations.

DTP itself backed off reforms

The DTP – the first pro-Kurdish party in parliament since 1991 – was the latest of a string of similar parties to have been shut down by court order, though members are already regrouping in a new Peace and Democracy Party. The closure was criticized by the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s Prime Minister.

“We are against the closure of parties. We think individuals should be punished, not a (party) identity,” Mr. Erdogan told parliament Monday.

There have been suggestions that the DTP itself, particularly hard-line members of the party, has also contributed to the problems facing the government’s Kurdish initiative.

For example, although party leaders initially gave the government’s reform initiative their support, they later distanced themselves from the move.

“For us, the ‘democratic initiative’ is over,” Emine Ayna, a top DTP official recently told the Radikal newspaper in an interview conducted before the party was shut down.

But despite the hardening of the DTP’s rhetoric, analysts say that shutting the party down is a serious setback for Turkey’s efforts deal with its Kurdish issue.

“The closure’s implications for the Kurdish political movement and the Kurds in general are ... immediate and disconcerting. From the Kurdish point of view, this is yet another sign that the state doesn’t accept them, that it doesn’t represent them, that they are not equal citizens,” says Dilek Kurban, an expert on democratization issues at Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV).

“I think this judgment has made it increasingly difficult for Kurds to see a space for themselves in legitimate political life in Turkey.”

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