Turkey ready for Kurdish tug-of-war
As the new Turkish parliament gets ready to convene on Saturday, rising tensions about Kurdish activities in northern Iraq will be high on the agenda as 22 members of the pro-Kurdish DTP sit around the table.
By Yigal Schleifer for EurasiaNet (03/08/07)
Amidst rising tensions about Kurdish activities in northern Iraq, the new Turkish parliament, which will convene for the first time on 4 August, will offer a sharp - if not potentially combustible - study in contrasts.
In one section will be the 22 members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), among them a lawyer who once represented jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, one of the most reviled figures in Turkey.
Meanwhile, not far from the DTP parliamentarians will be sitting the 70 members of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a hardline group that openly declared during the recent election campaign that, upon election, it would bring back capital punishment and hang Ocalan, who headed the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Although its 14 percent of the vote was less than some polls had predicted, the nationalist MHP is now the third largest party in Turkey's parliament, behind the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which will control the body with 341 seats and the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), which has 71.
During the politically turbulent 1970s, the party was known for its fascist leanings and street gangs, known as the Grey Wolves, who engaged leftist groups in running battles. Some 5,000 people died in the political violence, which ultimately led the military to seize power in 1980 in order to assert control.
Under its current leader, though, a former economics lecturer named Devlet Bahceli, the party has tried to clean up its image, kicking out many of its radicals and reining in its youth wing, which was responsible for the street gangs.
Observers say the party has pulled itself from the fringes of Turkey's political spectrum and closer towards the right side of the Turkish center, which many see as itself shifting to the right, increasingly defined by more open expressions of religious belief and nationalism.
"The MHP is trying to claim the center. As long as they don't represent a kind of extremism, which is what the MHP did in the 70’s with its armed street gangs, they will be in the center," said Umut Ozkirimli, a an expert on nationalism at Istanbul's Bilgi University.
In the days following Turkey's 22 July parliamentary vote, Bahceli and other party members have already tried to portray the MHP as a responsible player, announcing it would not oppose the AKP's choice for a new president, and also promising they will not provoke the DTP parliamentarians.
"As long as they don't challenge us, there won't be any fight," Bahceli said in a recent speech at the MHP's Ankara headquarters.
But the potential for conflict still remains. This time, between members of the DTP and the MHP, over the government's Kurdish policy.
The MHP's priorities in parliament all circle around questions related to the Kurdish issue. Gunduz Aktan, a respected former diplomat who is one of the new MHP parliamentarians, lists the party's main concerns as preventing the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, eliminating the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq and making sure that the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk does not fall under the control of the Kurdish administration there.
"These are the most significant issues for Turkey right now," Aktan said, adding that he would not feel "very comfortable sitting together with people who do not condemn the PKK and did not do so in the past."
At the same time, they also seem to be increasingly critical concerns for Turkey's military and government. Government officials have expressed concern that insufficient attention is being paid to PKK activities in northern Iraq. Reports have also circulated of a troop buildup on the border with Iraq.
That common ground could put the ruling AKP in a tricky situation. "The basic challenge is that the MHP and CHP will always provoke the AKP, so that they would have to ally themselves with the Kurds in parliament, which would make the government look bad in terms of where it stands on Turkish nationalism," commented Volkan Aytar, a researcher at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank.
Running a campaign that tapped into fears over the surging number of attacks by Kurdish rebels in Turkey's southeast and a growing public perception that Turkey is not being dealt with fairly by the EU, which it hopes to join, the MHP was able to reenter parliament after being shut out in the previous election.
Analyst Aytar, however, contends that the party does not have the votes to block reforms that the Justice & Development Party needs to pursue for Turkey's chance at EU membership.
MHP parliamentarian Aktan says his party does not oppose Turkey's drive to join the EU, only the way some European countries - such as Germany and France - and leaders have treated Ankara's membership bid.
"They are still expecting a privileged partnership for Turkey, rather than full membership, and Turkey can never accept that. They are constantly dragging their feet on everything. They are doing this so that we don't have a hope for full membership," he said.
"Under these conditions, I can’t imagine why we should insist on membership."
As with the Kurdish question, for now, outside observers can only watch and see.
Editor’s Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Istanbul.
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