Friday, April 15, 2011

Rockin' the Kurdish Vote

A new Economist article points out why for Kurdish politicians in Turkey this summer's parliamentary elections might different than previous ones. As the article points out, this time around campaigning in Kurdish will be allowed, while the existence of a new Kurdish-language state-run television station and the arrival of several private Kurdish television and radio stations could also change the political landscape.

Credit for these changes should be given to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has done more than many of its predecessors to liberalize and reform the Kurdish issue (despite the fact that its much-heralded "Kurdish opening," announced in 2009, failed to get too far). So why is the AKP expected to take a big hit at the polls in the southeast, while the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party looks set to make big gains? The Economist explains:
There are several reasons for AK’s ailing fortunes among the country’s 14m Kurds. They are no longer swayed by free coal and talk of Islamic fraternity. AK’s “opening”, which was meant to lead to an amnesty for PKK rebels untainted by violence, has been shelved. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, blames the Kurds. He says the PKK provoked Turks in 2009 when fighters returning from Iraq started delivering “victory” speeches.

The government’s response was to lock up thousands of Kurdish politicians, including BDP mayors. Selahattin Demirtas, a BDP leader, reels off the figures. At least 2,300 Kurdish activists have been jailed since 2009. Sentences sought by prosecutors in an array of cases against the BDP’s 22 parliamentarians, including Mr Demirtas, add up to a staggering 2,350 years.

Egged on by Mr Ocalan, the BDP has raised the bar with a civil-disobedience campaign that has seen a Kurdish female parliamentarian slap a policeman. Kurds are spurning mosques staffed by state-appointed imams in favour of Kurdish-language prayers in fields. Their campaign will not end, they say, until BDP prisoners are released, an amnesty is given to PKK fighters, education in Kurdish is permitted and the 10% threshold is lowered.

The strategy is paying off. Analysts reckon the BDP could win some 30 seats in June’s election. AK’s case has not been helped by the lacklustre candidates it is fielding in the south-east. This may be a good thing. The more Kurds there are in Ankara, the more comprehensive will be the new constitution Mr Erdogan promises to deliver after the election.
A senior AKP official I recently spoke with told me that the government's two main post-election priorities are passing a new constitution and restarting the stalled Kurdish reform initiative. The big questions remain how well can the AKP and a stronger BDP work together in parliament (based on what we saw in the current parliament, not so well) and how much confidence will the AKP have to take the political risk of making significant reforms on the Kurdish front (again, based on what we have seen before, questionable). Another failed "Kurdish opening" could prove to be very dangerous.

(Today's Zaman takes a look at the BDP's clever list of candidates here. On a related note, for more on the rise of the southeast's pro-Kurdish imams, take a look at this Christian Science Monitor article of mine from a few years back, and at this more recent Today's Zaman story.)

(photo -- BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas campaigning near Diyarbakir, Turkey, in 2009. By Yigal Schleifer)

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