Back to 1994?

Back to 1994?

The 1990s was a very bad decade for Turkey, and one of its worse omens was the arrest of six members of Parliament by the Turkish police force. All of them were members of the DEP, a small party with clear links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group. All of them had expressed pro-PKK views that enraged both the state and society.

In fact, allowing the PKK line to be represented in Parliament was arguably exactly what Turkey needed to end the military conflict and open the way for a political solution. The state, however, was looking for a military solution to “crush the PKK by any means.” That is why the legal immunity of the DEP parliamentarians (a legal shield that every parliamentarian has) was lifted in haste. They were then arrested right in Parliament in front of TV cameras, with cops pushing their heads into police cars. All were tried, sentenced and jailed for more than a decade. One of them, Leyla Zana, a female politician, was awarded the 1995 Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, which she could only collect in 2004 when she was released.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) then came to power in 2002 and vowed to have a clean break with the “old Turkey.” To their credit, successive AKP governments realized groundbreaking reforms that indeed ended many nasty habits of the state, from police torture to enforced assimilation of the Kurds. For a peaceful settlement with the PKK, Prime Minister Erdoğan even initiated an “opening” process in 2009.

However, the PKK is very hard to win over, and the Kurdish question is too deep to solve overnight. Hence, the AKP’s efforts have not been fully fruitful. That is why Erdoğan entered a no-more-mister-nice-guy phase after 2011, with more crackdowns on the PKK and its affiliates.

The most recent step in this escalation is Erdoğan’s new effort to lift the legal immunities of 10 members of the BDP, which - just like the DEP of the 1990s - is the de facto political arm of the PKK. These deputies created political turmoil last August by hugging PKK militants and expressing their support for them in front of cameras. For Turkish society, this was equivalent to Americans seeing their congressmen having a love fest with al-Qaeda fighters.

Erdoğan argues that these deputies should be tried for this crime and hence their immunities should be lifted (he probably sees a good political opportunity here to increase his popularity). But there are others in the AKP, such as Diyarbakır deputy Galip Ensarioğlu, who openly oppose this move and warn that it will only escalate the tension. Meanwhile, President Abdullah Gül, who comes from the same political roots as Erdoğan but who repeatedly proves to be much more liberal, also says he is against any move that would bar elected politicians from Parliament.

I, of course, think like Gül and Ensarioğlu on this issue. Although the BDP deputies well deserve to be tried for their open support of the PKK, doing that will only escalate militancy in their base. It will also take Turkey back to the bad memories of the 1990s. I hope the government, which is in fact opening a new political channel to the PKK these days by talking to Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the group, will prove wiser than that.