Turkish Kurds have threatened a campaign of civil disobedience after Sunday’s national elections if the new government does not address their demands for more language rights and autonomy.
Altan Tan, a key Kurdish politician, said relations between the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and Turkey‘s large Kurdish minority were at a nadir. He blames the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for failing to keep a promise to find a political solution to the bloody Kurdish-Turkish conflict during his eight years in office.
«If Erdogan does not design a constitution which recognises our rights, we are going to start a civil disobedience campaign,» said Tan, a candidate in the south-eastern Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir.
He said the Kurds could bring the country to its knees: «There are 17 or 18 million Kurds in Turkey who are overrepresented in a number of key industries, like construction, tourism and agriculture. We will stop working on the roads and will sit down on them and pray instead.»
Others go further. In Istanbul and Diyarbakir, the Guardian met Kurds of all walks of life threatening an eruption of violence – even civil war – if the new constitution did not meet their demands.
At a rally in Diyarbakir in 2005, Erdogan declared «the Kurdish problem is my problem». In a historic speech, he admitted the government had mishandled its relations with the Kurds, saying their long-running grievances must be addressed through greater democracy, not repression.
Playing on increased cultural autonomy, improved infrastructure and a sentiment of Muslim fraternity, the AKP has enjoyed solid, if far from universal, popularity in the poor south-east and has more than 60 Kurdish MPs in the outgoing parliament. Yet many Kurds complain the AKP has not delivered on its promises.
«Erdogan thought he could just throw us a few candies and say that we are all brothers and that would be enough,» said Tan. «Yes, so we now have Kurdish language TV [in 2009, the AKP sanctioned the broadcast of the first Kurdish channel, TRT-6] but we could already watch Kurdish TV from abroad using our satellite dishes. Nothing important has changed.»
Tan was an MP in an Islamic party alongside Erdogan 20 years ago but is now standing as an independent, backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP).
The BDP has decided not to officially field candidates because of a Turkish law which requires political parties to win 10% of the national vote in order to send even one MP to Ankara. Polls suggest BDP-endorsed candidates will win 25-30 seats, up from the 19 a defunct pro-Kurdish party won in 2007.
Tensions have mounted prior to the polls amid a renewed military onslaught on the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) and deadly PKK attacks on police despite a truce declared by rebels last year. Emotions are highest in the south-east, where a PKK-led insurgency has claimed about 45,000 lives since 1984 in a war the Turkish government estimates has cost billions of pounds.
Many observers believe Sunday’s election will be crucial in determining Turkey’s future. If the AKP, which emerged from banned Islamist parties, wins a two-thirds majority, it would allow Erdogan to unilaterally push through a new constitution. There is talk of the «Kremlinisation» of Turkish politics amid strong signs that Erdogan wants to copy Vladimir Putin by introducing a presidential system with himself as president.
The opposition accuses the AKP of wanting to monopolise power and says that, while Turkey’s constitution needs reform, a new charter without input from other parties would be simply an AKP version of democracy and would concentrate too much control in Erdogan’s hands.
Kurds want official recognition. The constitution declares that everyone who lives in Turkey is a Turk who speaks Turkish. The Kurds, who until recently were widely referred to not as a distinct ethnic group but as «mountain Turks», want the right to use their own language in public and official settings and to be educated in their mother tongue. They also want more regional autonomy to be able to run their own affairs.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan sent a letter from his cell in April warning «all hell will break loose» in Turkey unless the sporadic contacts with officials he had in prison were upgraded to full-fledged negotiations for a solution.
Ocalan gave a deadline of 15 June, just three days after the elections, but Erdogan is not worried, according to his chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin.
«Ocalan has said such things before,» said Kalin. «The government is committed to tackling the Turkish problem, but we will not back down on our demand for the PKK to disarm. We are not talking about a ceasefire, but a full disarmament. We want them to come down from the mountains, down to the plains to fight for their demands with politics, but they only want to do that with their guns in their hands.»
In Diyarbakir, civil disobedience already abounds. Every Friday since March, Muslim worshippers have boycotted prayers at state-controlled mosques to hear sermons in their native Kurdish, conducted in front of the city wall.