It has been a week since the 12 June elections in Turkey. The dust is settling and a clearer picture is emerging of what’s in store for the new parliament once the next legislative session begins around 01 October. High on the agenda is the drafting of a new, civilian constitution. The current constitution, put into effect in 1982 on the heels of the 1980 military coup, is based on a Kemalist notion of Turkish national identity, which is homogeneous and leaves no room for ethnic and religious difference. It is a ‘straightjacket’ on Turkish democracy, limiting the rights of individuals and privileging the state at the expense of the citizen.
The swearing in ceremony for MPs in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Turkish Parliament, or simply Meclis in Turkish) will be 24 June. The day before the swearing-in, a newly formed commission from the pro-Kurdish Labour, Democracy and Freedom Block (in Kurdish, Bloka Ked, Azadî û Demokrasî, or KAD), which won 36 seats, will issue a declaration. The statement will clarify the KAD-Block’s standing in the parliament, the way, methods and strategies to be followed for a solution to problems. The KAD-Block was created and supported by the BDP, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.
On Sunday evening last, as results were still coming in, Turkish PM Erdoğan said that the nation had not only given his party a mandate to govern, but to draft a new constitution: ‘The people gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation.’ He said that the AKP would discuss the new constitution with opposition parties and parties outside of parliament, in ‘all-encompassing’ negotiations.
With their 36 seats, the KAD-Block will play an important role in any future constitutional debate, and the Kurdish question looks set to move to the top of the political agenda. Said Sebahat Tuncel, Kurdish MP from Istanbul in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Erdoğan ‘now faces a major domestic challenge,’ referring to the writing up a new, inclusive constitution. She also said that the 36-MP strong block ‘will be the most effective check on the AKP’s destructive policy’ of repressing the Kurds.
However, some are expressing caution regarding the KAD-Block’s calls for specific demands. Taha Akyol, for example, a political analyst with CNNTürk and Milliyet newspaper, said that while the BDP has become ‘a force that cannot be ignored’ it ‘must know the limits of its demands.’ While Akyol is a Turkish nationalist, this will certainly be an issue in the constitutional negotiations, as the AKP is not going to want to be seen as caving in to Kurdish demands. After all, Erdoğan ran a very nationalist campaign to garner MHP (far-right, nationalist party) votes. But, after the election, Erdoğan apologised to his rivals for his actions and language during the campaigns. Erdoğan’s words were probably meant more to take votes from the MHP party to keep them from reaching the 10% election threshold. But still, it will be hard now to backpedal.
Ahmet Türk, newly elected KAD MP from Mêrdîn said that the ‘new constitution must be based on democratic autonomy, which must be a topic in the open for discussion and we will work towards this. If these demands are ignored by the state, the people will create their own method to establish the system they are aiming for.’
Leyla Zana, elected from Diyarbakır, speaking in Kurdish to an audience of tens of thousands at a rally last Monday said, ‘The Kurds will be a partner of this state.’ While the logical assumption is that MPs elected from the pro-Kurdish KAD Block will be partners (the AKP needs partners), it is not clear to what extent Kurds will be included in the process of re-writing the country’s constitution.
Murat Yetkin, writing for Hürriyet Daily News, says the ‘CHP (centre-left, People’s Republican Party) is always a safer partner for the AKP for major political projects like amending or rewriting the constitution, in order to secure a consensus acceptable for a wider base in society. The BDP, which is focused more on Kurdish rights, might be an easier partner for Erdoğan at first sight, but such a partnership, which might exclude both the CHP and the MHP, might cause new fault lines in Turkey’s political arena. It may cast a shadow, says Yetkin, over the new constitution, creating doubts whether the government sort of bargained for the presidential system in return for group – not individual – rights for Kurds.’
Some of the conditions the Kurds will expect in any new constitution, says KAD MP-elect Hasip Kaplan from southeastern province of Şırnak, are the implementation of democratic autonomy, the use of mother tongues and the granting of constitutional citizenship.’ He also said that it should contain ‘expansion of freedom of thought in its largest sense.’
These are ‘demands’ that may be outside of the ‘limits’ referred to by Akyol. But what then is left? How can the Kurds accept anything less than full equality as Kurdish citizens of the Turkish Republic? In a meeting of Turkish intellectuals, journalists and lawyers earlier last week, Osman Can, one of the lawyers present, called on political parties to abandon what they earlier termed ‘red lines’ and said parties must decide to talk without preconditions. One of the ‘reddest’ of lines is that of mother-tongue education in Kurdish. It is a flashpoint in the debate on Kurdish rights and a key theme of the Kurd’s political agenda. Abandoning red lines may be easier said than done.
Nabi Avcı, a newly elected AKP deputy from Eskişehir and former senior media advisor to Erdoğan, said at a meeting with members of the foreign press that the ‘Kurdish issue’ is also on the government’s agenda ‘not as a problem but as a broader issue.’ He also said that ‘it is not right to highlight any priorities at the moment.’
Some of these comments may not bode well for Kurdish expectations. Ahmet Türk says that ‘the election results mean that the Kurdish people are united and our demands are going to be on the national agenda. If not, there will be more pain and more problems in the future’ and that if their ‘demands are ignored by the state, the people will create their own method to establish the system they are aiming for.’
The threat of ‘more pain and more problems in the future’ that Türk mentioned is real, according to the deputy head of the ruling AKP in Diyarbakır, Mohammed Akar. He says that if there is disappointment, the whole idea of integration will end. Separation and conflict will come to the fore. Akar added that ‘the danger that is lying ahead is a nightmare.’
The AKP may have received the largest percentage of popular votes at 49.95%, but the fact is that in 2002 they had 363 seats in the Meclis, in 2007 they had 341 seats, and now, in 2011, the AKP will seat only 326 parliamentarians. From 2007 to 2011, the overall percentage of votes increased by 3.3%, but their percentage of seats in the Meclis will decline by 4.5%.
Erdoğan’s AKP had been vying for a 2/3’s super majority (367 seats), which would have allowed it to rewrite the constitution single-handedly with no input from any other parties. A 3/5’s majority (330 seats) would have offered the AKP the option of drafting a new constitution on its own and then submitting it to a public referendum. They are only four seats from a 3/5’s majority and could try and look for defectors to make up the gap.
However, the Kurds are the ones who are really gaining ground. In 2007 they captured 20 seats in parliament. This time round the pro-Kurdish KAD-Block managed to get 6.85% of the national vote, which resulted in 36 of its candidates getting elected. Not all of them are Kurdish, which was a strategy the BDP had to broaden its support base. And 11 of the 36 are women. A list of the 36 and election percentages can be found here.
In an attempt to draw support from religious voters, an alliance was formed with two other pro-Kurdish parties—the Participatory Democracy Party (KADEP) and the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR). Former KADEP leader Şerafettin Elçi was picked as a candidate in Diyarbakır.
Political Science at Istanbul University, Dr Nuray Mert, noted that this was ‘a very successful outcome for the Block but it goes unnoticed that the Block didn’t participate in the elections as a political party. Therefore, the elections already began unfair[ly].’
In Diyarbakır, seven KAD-Block candidates got 429,000 votes and won six seats, whereas the AKP received five seats with only 231,000 votes. Without the 10 percent threshold, says Henri Barkey, KAD-Block candidates would have probably gotten as many as 50 seats. In other words, BDP is stronger than the number of seats it will control in the new parliament.
The Kurdish political group may be stronger than the number of seats, but for now they have to work with their strength in parliament. A change in the 10% election threshold will also be a necessary component in any new constitution to ensure more inclusivity in the future.
For now there is a major battle ahead as political camps scramble to put together their bargaining points and prepare for October. It will be interesting to see too what happens between now and the opening of that new, legislative session.
Since the election, the Turkish government has shut down Kurdish media outlets and has continued its arrest waves of Kurdish politicians. More than 100 have been detained in the past week alone. In spite of this, a PKK ceasefire has been extended to see what will happen with reforms and constitutional change. If the repressive methods continue and Erdoğan fails to take an historic step in partnering with the Kurds in the drafting of the new constitution, all hell will break loose.
Speaking of the failure of the AKP to garner its wished-for super-majority and rewrite the constitution by itself, former US Ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, said that ‘[g]iven concerns about Erdoğan’s megalomania and authoritarian tendencies that have gained traction in Turkey in recent months, the outcome is good for Turkish democracy.’ Let’s hope it is good too for Kurdish aspirations.