Dangerous challenges in Turkish politics
It started a week ago when Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu challenged Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to go and say in the eastern province of Tunceli the same words he said in Parliament about the 1937-38 suppression of an uprising there.
The government forces in 1937-38 had used disproportionate force to suppress Alevi and Kurdish tribes in the Dersim region (around the town of Tunceli now) led by Sheikh Seyit Rıza. More than 12,000 people were killed and an equal number were forcibly displaced. Rıza himself was hanged.
Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been repeatedly using the phrase “Dersim Massacre” - which took place under the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) single-party rule - against today’s CHP, now led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is of Alevi origin and from Tunceli.
Davutoğlu recently said he did not understand why or how Alevis could still vote for the CHP. For their part, Alevis have been demanding that Davutoğlu’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) leave aside Sunni-base politics, acknowledge Alevism as a distinct faith, and recognize Alevi worship houses (Cemevi) as legitimate.
* * *
But the MHP takes a different line. Bahçeli said the Dersim rebels were the terrorists of their time and that Rıza was a separatist terror leader. That infuriated locals in Tunceli, who are proud to have had a statue of Rıza in their city center since 2010.
Davutoğlu challenged Bahçeli to go and say those words in Tunceli.
Tunceli, with a strong Alevi, Kurdish and leftist culture, has never been the most welcoming for Turkish nationalist Bahçeli, but he nevertheless accepted the PM’s challenge last week.
Bahçeli repeated the words he said at Parliament under tight security measures in Tunceli on Nov. 28, but he was unable to complete his schedule due to strong protests against his visit.
The next day, Kamuran Yüksek, the co-chairman of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), which shares similar grassroots with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), claimed that Davutoğlu’s aim could have been to provoke Bahçeli’s murder in Tunceli and later put the blame on Alevis and Kurds.
The same day, now speaking in the predominantly Kurdish-populated province of Hakkari, bordering Iran and Iraq, Davutoğlu challenged Bahçeli once again to go there and wave the Turkish flag as he himself did.
Bahçeli has accepted that too; and his security will be the responsibility of the government anyway.
* * *
On Nov. 30, MHP Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Meral Akşener issued a counter challenge to Davutoğlu. “Our chairman will go to Hakkari” she said, "But will Davutoğlu go to Diyarbakır and call Abdullah Öcalan [the imprisoned leader of the PKK] a terrorist?” in reference to Davutoğlu’s speeches in Parliament and the western parts of the country, despite the ongoing peace talks with the PKK.
The AK Parti would like push the MHP down below the 10 percent election threshold. It is also difficult for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish problem-focused party in Parliament, to exceed that threshold.
If both the MHP and HDP stay out of Parliament, the AK Parti would benefit immensely and perhaps have a big enough parliamentary majority to change the Constitution without the need for a referendum.
So, keeping the 10 percent hurdle in place has strategic importance for the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu team to stay in power.
Despite recent signals from Constitutional Court President Haşim Kılıç denouncing the 10 percent threshold as too high and as a violation of democratic rights, Davutoğlu is not likely to bring the issue to Parliament ahead of the 2015 elections.
However, challenging rivals with dangerous fault lines, which have cost many lives in the past, could lead to dangerous outcomes that every player in the game ends up regretting.