ISTANBUL // Embarking on an ambitious but controversial and politically risky project, the Turkish government yesterday opened a parliamentary debate on a reform programme designed to end the bloody conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and has devastated the Kurdish region of the country.
"It is a project of national unity and brotherhood," Besir Atalay, the interior minister, told parliament in an often stormy session in Ankara. In a speech frequently interrupted by opposition deputies, the minister defended the Kurdish reform programme, known as the Democratic Opening, against criticism by Turkish nationalists. "The Democratic Opening will not touch the unitary structure" of Turkey, he said.
Nationalists oppose the government plans, which they see as a sell-out to separatism. "You are breaking up the country," Kemal Anadol, a deputy in the Republican People's Party (CHP) exclaimed, addressing the government rows in the chamber. "Shame on you." Another opposition deputy, Kamil Erdal Sipahi of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, said the US government and the European Union were the real architects of the government's Kurdish plans. His party would continue to resist the "treasonous project".
Mr Atalay stressed that military means alone had not been enough to end the rebellion by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a guerrilla group that took up arms to fight for Kurdish autonomy in 1984. Several tens of thousands of people have died since then. "It has been accepted by everyone that terror cannot be ended with security measures alone," Mr Atalay said. The government initiative would strengthen democracy and benefit all citizens, he said.
But the minister did not give details of the government's plan, saying he would do so only on the second day of debate, scheduled for tomorrow. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is expected to address parliament tomorrow; Turkish media reports have said he will present a programme of 14 to 15 points, including several "surprises". In steps it has made already or announced publicly, the government has shown it wants to take small, but concrete measures designed to counter the feeling of many of Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds that they are being treated like second-class citizens who have fewer rights than Turks and are discriminated against in the name of the fight against the PKK.
Universities in the Kurdish region of Turkey are to receive permission to teach Kurdish language and literature. Mr Erdogan has indicated that Kurdish villages and towns would be allowed to reinstate their Kurdish names, which were abolished and replaced by Turkish names, especially under military rule in the years following a coup in 1980. As Mr Atalay spoke, the government asked parliament to change a law that has led hundreds of Kurdish children and teenagers to being sentenced to long prison terms for throwing stones during pro-PKK demonstrations. The proposed change to the law would make it possible to try underage stone-throwers before juvenile courts, instead of courts dealing with terrorism charges, and to hand down sentences like community work instead of prison sentences.
Another focus of the government plans is to encourage PKK rebels to lay down their arms and return to Turkish society. Last month, 34 PKK supporters, including eight rebel fighters, returned to Turkey voluntarily and were released by the judiciary under laws granting an amnesty to PKK members who have not been involved in violence directly. In a sign of the difficulties the government will have to overcome, the "return home" programme was put on hold after the first returnees were welcomed like heroes by huge crowds in the Kurdish region and Turkish public opinion threatened to turn against the government plans. According to media reports, the return programme is to be continued this month.
The CHP, which is the main opposition party, asked parliament to postpone the debate about the plan because it coincided with the anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who as father of the country put it on the path to military-protected secularism, but the government insisted on sticking to the timetable. Two opposition motions to have the debate postponed to another day were rejected with the votes of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which controls 338 of the 550 seats in parliament.
Mr Erdogan has said several times that he wants a broad consensus for the plan, but that his government would push through the programme by itself with the help of the AKP's parliamentary majority. The prime minister has also said he is aware of the risk that the Kurdish plan could cost him votes at the next general election, which is due in two to three years. According to a recent poll, public outrage over the victory celebrations for the returning PKK rebels led to a decline of support for the AKP. Mr Atalay has said Mr Erdogan and other ministers will tour the country in the coming weeks to explain the government plan to the voters.