Commentary: Turkey’s Parliamentary Elections and Emerging Minority Rights


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Turkey has become a world power and consequently, its policies and actions have a broader global impact than those of its immediate neighbors. That is why the international news media, pundits and statesmen were concentrating recently on the parliamentary elections on June 12, in which Erdogan’s party won a third term.

Those elections brought some anticipated and unanticipated results. The anticipated result was the landslide victory of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party, which was based on certain fundamental factors. Those factors were economic growth (almost 9 percent), assertive diplomacy and finally a promise to revamp the constitution, which was adopted in 1982 by Gen. Kenan Evran’s military dictatorship following the coup of 1980. Erdogan promised to bring “basic rights and freedoms” through the new constitution and eliminate the tutelage of the military enshrined in the constitution by Evran’s putschist government.

Turkey’s population is estimated to be 74 million, of which 20 percent, according to very conservative estimates, are Kurds. There are 50 million voters of which 84.5 percent have been at the polls — an impressive participation by any measure. AKP won 50 percent of the votes, garnering 326 seats in the 550-seat parliament. This outcome will not help the party to unilaterally change the constitution, but it paves the way for some horsetrading with opposition parties in order to push the change through.

The constitutional change issue has also split longtime allies, Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, the latter apparently opposing the change.

The AKP has taken Turkey in new directions in terms of domestic and foreign policy; domestically, the party has opened the way for Islamic culture, a trend opposed by Ataturk’s Republican Party (currently in opposition), upending the founding fathers’ secularism. Internationally, Erdogan has demonstrated an independent streak, veering his course and putting distance between Turkey and the West, and instead cozying up to Iran, challenging Israel and making Russia the country’s major trading partner.

In a recent article, political scientist George Friedman foresaw some ominous trends in the region, writing: “Now the United States is withdrawing from the region, leaving behind instability and an increasingly powerful and self-confident Turkey. In the end, the economic and military strength of Turkey had to transform it into a major regional force.”

This scenario does not augur well for the countries in the region, and especially for Armenia, when Turkey can dictate the political agenda for the entire region.

Through shortsighted political expediency, the West helped bankrupt Turkey to attain economic boom and above all build the strongest army in Europe. Now, the West has to deal with the outcome of its shortsighted Cold War policy.

An unintended or unanticipated result of these elections is the emergence of the minorities, and especially the vocal Kurdish minority, which may eventually break up Turkey’s territorial integrity. However, not yet.

When the US invaded Iraq, Turkey vehemently opposed the disintegration of that country and in fact, conditioned its cooperation with Washington on a promise not to allow the formation of an independent Kurdistan, which could inspire and incite its indigenous Kurdish population towards autonomy or independence.

Although the US held on to its promise, Israel infiltrated Iraq and built up a Kurdish army and organized its administrative set-up. Today, Iraq enjoys only a nominal unity, while an independent Kurdistan has been formed, for all practical purposes.

In fact, the Turkish-Israeli row owed more to the Kurdish issue than to the plight of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. Erdogan is a political pragmatist; while he could not contain the formation of Iraqi Kurdistan, he was able to prevent the spillover of that independence movement into Turkish territory by engaging the Kurds politically. Although this policy is a race against time, it may bear fruit for a while. Eventually the Kurds may rise up for independence, as long as another junta does not emerge to crush their movement as in the past.

During the election campaign, when asked by a TV reporter what Erdogan has done on the Kurdish problem, he answered:

“First we changed the denialist policy in the country [i.e, suggesting that Kurds don’t exist]. We faced the Kurdish issue as a problem and we reversed the policy of assimilation. And today, we are dealing with their social and economic problems.”

The Kurds have been brutally persecuted in Turkey. After becoming willing partners with Turks in perpetrating the Armenian Genocide, they received a raw deal from successive Turkish governments, beginning with the founding father, Kemal Ataturk, who continued the Turkification policies of the previous Ittihad ve Terrake Party. Ataturk suppressed the Dersim uprising of the Kurds through aerial bombardment.

The Kurds have never enjoyed independence in their history; they have never had a sovereign government. Instead, they have been used as political pawns by different governments. The Shah of Iran used them against Iraq and the latter used them — in turn — against Iran. The Soviet Union used the Kurds in all the countries over which their people have been spread; they even set up a government in Iran and they armed and financed them in Turkey. One of the Kurdish rebel leaders, Mustafa Ali Kilani, even cozied up to Hitler to liberate the Kurds from the British rule.

The only place the Kurds have felt at home has been Armenia, where they have been able to use their language and practice their culture and literature openly, without fear of reprisal.

The Kurds have always believed that they don’t have any friends except the mountains and they fortified their forces in the mountain areas to no avail, because of the advancement of modern weaponry.

Evren’s government and succeeding “democratic” administrations dislodged the Kurds from their mountainous habitats into modern Gulan communities in the plains, where they would be more easily muffled if they were to stage a rebellion. In the June 12 election, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party won 36 seats. The Kurds are in euphoria and they no longer conceal their ultimate goal, independence.

Following the victory, 50,000 Kurds rallied in front of the city hall of Hakkiarai, a Kurdish city, where one of party leaders, Salaheddine Demitas, addressed the crowd, saying: “We are ready to negotiate about the constitution. The Kurdish people have endorsed our right to negotiate. Now we have to open the road to peace together. But in order to stop the raging war in the country, it is important to continue the negotiations with the honorable Ocalan and establish contacts with the PKK as an opposing force in the war. The government should not avoid doing that in order to bring peace should accept PKK as a negotiating party.”

Their demands seem very hard ones for the Turkish government to accept, since it has declared PKK a terrorist organization and Ocalan as a common criminal incarcerated in a prison at Imrali Island, with a life sentence.

While Ocalan has extended his declared ceasefire from his prison cell, another leader at the Hakkiari rally, Feliz Kocali, announced that the Kurds will continue the struggle until they have independence, while the crowd chanted “Kurdistan is our homeland and Diarbekir its capital.”

It is a moot question if Erdogan ever imagined that his policy of opening up the Kurdish question would lead to such an outburst of extreme nationalism. The Kurds have even begun to bring up the issue of the Armenian Genocide in the Turkish Parliament. We don’t believe they have a genuine interest in the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but they will use it as a political chip against their adversaries, until they achieve their own agenda.

Similarly, recognition of the Armenian Genocide has surfaced in the Israeli Parliament to threaten Erdogan to tone down his anti-Israeli rhetoric.

But that is the nature of political deals, unless another party sees value in a life-and-death issue to another nation, it will not cooperate on that issue.

But a more serious venue has reminded Turkey of its international obligations, including Armenia.

Indeed, the International Crisis Group has already submitted 10 demands to Erdogan’s new government, even before it is formed; they deal mostly with the European Union, progress on Cyprus issue, Aegean islands with Greece, Turkish Israeli relations and the seventh demand relates to Armenia; that the new government has to take seriously relations with Armenia, opening its borders and establishing diplomatic relations with the latter.

We notice that Armenia and the Armenian issues have emerged from three different fronts, mostly with self-serving policies, but anyway reminding Turkey of its outstanding obligations to the Armenians. Whether those are genuine interests or not, we have to capitalize on them.

We don’t know how far the new Turkish government will accommodate the Kurdish demands and minority rights, but the EU is on Turkey’s back to loosen its grip on its minorities, whose fallout will certainly benefit Armenia, and the Armenian community in Turkey.