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Sunday's referendum and the
future of the Turkish Kurds -
more progress, less war?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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Sepember 6, 2010

On Sunday Turkey will go to the polls to vote in a referendum. If passed it will give more legal rights to individuals, it will clip the power of the military and, most important, make possible an overhaul of the constitutional court and senior judiciary which have frequently blocked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s liberal initiatives.

To win this closely fought referendum Erdogan must gather the support of the Kurds in the south east of the country. The Kurds are first in line to want to see reform of the military and a court system that often hit them below the belt during the “dirty war” of the 1990s. Last week Erdogan payed a visit to Diyarbakir, the largest city in the Kurdish neighbourhood. He promised to tear down the city prison once notorious for its torture. But over the last five years the government has appeared to break its promises to the Kurds and returned to the heavy handed methods of its predecessors. Can the demolition of one prison change that? Will the Kurds, with all their doubts about the Erdogan government, come out in large enough numbers to vote, even though it is in their own interest?

Almost a decade ago the ruthless leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalen, from his jail cell ordered the insurgents to implement a cease-fire. But as the years passed he too became convinced that the government was not serious about implementing the reforms it talked about. It wasn’t and under the leadership of Ocalen’s brother the fighting began again.

Some 20 million Kurds live in the rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. There are another million overseas, some of who fund the PKK. In Turkey many Kurds are in prominent positions in many walks of life and a Kurd was prime minister not that many years ago.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a casualty of the First World War, most of its subject peoples knew what they wanted. The Kurds, distinct but indistinct, lacked the resolve that comes from possessing a single ethnic origin, religion, language or leadership, and thus were relegated to the sidelines of the nationalist drama.

Ataturk, the founder of a secular, post-war Turkey, thought that it would be easy to make a Faustian bargain with the Kurds, offering them citizenship in exchange for them giving up their language and identity. But as the years passed many Kurds didn’t sit easy with this arrangement. They resented the banning of the use of the Kurdish language in schools and courtrooms.

In Turkey’s 1995 general election the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, despite the sympathies of some of its members for the PKK, was allowed for the first time to contest the election without harassment. But out of 6 million potential Kurdish voters only one million Kurds voted for it. The Kurds voted principally for mainstream parties, and there was a significant rejection of Kurdish nationalism, even of the democratic variety, much less that of the PKK, then at the height of its powers.

The message for the PKK was that the cause it pursued and the means it used were not widely shared. But for the authorities there was also a message, one they have never fully absorbed – that they exaggerated the potency and popularity of the PKK. Through one administration after another – and Erdogan’s is no exception – they and the all powerful army, which often called the shots, misled the public on why they had to be so unsparing and tough on those Kurds who did rebel, whether they were violent or non-violent.

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Under Erdogan many promises have been made – allowing Kurdish in the schools, a Kurdish TV station and the economic development of this very poor region. But many if not most of the promises have not been satisfactorily implemented. Although the PKK guerrillas and their methods don’t speak for the mass of the Kurds they do represent their anger. That is why the insurgency has re-started.

Erdogan blames the PKK for its provocations. Yet it is the army that often has done the provoking, even on occasion using agents provocateurs, and dragged the government into the fray. Erdogan has often had to bow before the army to keep the generals’ urge to run Turkey in check.

Now, with Sunday’s referendum, the Kurds can see – if they put their resentment of the government on one side – that the army and the judicial system are going to be re-jigged in their favour if it is won by Erdogan. If that happens there could be a renewed opening for serious negotiations with the PKK about ending violence and a placating of Kurdish grievances. A lot hangs on this referendum for the country at large and, not least, the Kurds.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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