My view of the recent crackdown on the DTP in Turkey

April 21, 2009

Jenny White has a good piece in her blog regarding recent developments in Turkey pertaining to the Democratic Society Party (DTP in Turkish), a party associated with the Kurdish rights movement.  Earlier this month, over 50 members of the DTP--including 9 provincial and 5 district party chairmen--have been arrested by Turkish security officials on the grounds that they support the Kurdish Worker's Party, or PKK.
The DTP is simultaneously fighting efforts, initiated by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya (who also filed a closure case against the ruling AK Party last year), to close the party. Currently, there are 21 DTP members of parliament in Turkey, and the party controls seven municipalities.
Here are a couple of points which I think should be kept in mind when considering the recent arrests:

1) In the municipal elections of March 29, the DTP received just 5.42 percent of the vote nationally, but won big in the southeast of Turkey--which is largely Kurdish. Of the seven municipalities that the party controls, four were won for the first time in the elections of last month--and all four were taken from the AK Party. The AK Party fought hard to win Kurdish votes in the southeast, and the AK Party and DTP are by far the two most important parties in the region. At the beginning of 2009, the government launched a state-run television station, TRT 6, which includes evening broadcasts in Kurdish,  while the AK Party governor of the province of Tunceli attempted to distribute more than 5 million Turkish Lira's worth of applicances and electronic goods in the run up to the March elections until the undertaking was shut down by the electoral commission. Ten days before the elections, Prime Minister Erdogan promised that he'd set up a Kurdish-language radio station and even spoke Kurdish himself at TRT 6's opening ceremony. During the election campaign, the AK Party put up advertisements in Kurdish in order to remind voters in the east of the country which party had given them state-run Kurdish television.

A Kurdish-language banner prior to the recent elections. On the far left side of the banner is the AK Party logo, a yellow light bulb, to the right of which is the logo for TRT 6

2) While the ruling party in parliament and the institutions of the state are technically separate in Turkey, the AK Party has been in power long enough (since 2003) to place many of their own people in positions of influence in the national police force (which are responsible to the ministry of internal affairs), as well as in other positions that are supposedly politically neutral. [The AK Party is hardly the first party in Turkey to fill state positions with its own people, but the AK Party has now had control of all government ministries for six years--the longest streak of single-party leadership in Turkey since the Motherland Party era from 1983-1991.] In what may or may not be a coincidence the Ergenekon investigation has been arresting military and civilian opponents of the AK Party since January of 2008, while the Turkish ministry of finance has recently fined the Dogan Group--which controls a number of newspapers critical of the AK Party government--a record $490 million. 
On the one hand, the recent arrests of DTP officials can certainly be seen as only the latest chapter in a long-running story of (relative) liberalization vis-a-vis Kurdish political parties, followed by closure. This has been the fate, after all, with DTP's predecessors, including HEP (closed in 1993), DEP (closed in 1994), and HADEP (closed in 2003). 
At the same time, however, I think the actions taken against the DTP, coming right after an election in which large numbers of Kurds supported the DTP over the AK Party despite Erdogan's intense efforts to win them over, are also in some ways especially reflective of events taking place in Turkey today. Whether it's the suit against the Dogan Group, university professors who opposed Erdogan's efforts to change the headscarf law,  journalists from opposition newspapers, or cartoonists and others who mock Erdogan personally, it's not at all uncommon in today's Turkey for groups and individuals who publicly repudiate Erdogan to eventually find themselves in one form of legal hot water or another. While pro-Kurdish political groups have often been targeted by state authorities in Turkey (when they've been allowed to exist at all), this particular crackdown can, I think, also be seen as part of a context that is sadly newer.  

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