x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Violent clashes after Kurdish party banned

MPs banned by court ruling fear that Ankara aims to push ethnic minority out of the Turkish political process.

ISTANBUL // Turkey faces the spectre of a further radicalisation of its Kurdish minority and a possible new political crisis after the country's constitutional court banned the main Kurdish party, which responded yesterday by saying it would boycott parliament. "Our [parliamentary] group has effectively pulled out from parliament as of today. It will not participate in any work there," Ahmet Turk, co-chair of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), said after a party meeting.

Kurdish politicians say the ban means the state wants to push the country's biggest ethnic minority, numbering 10 to 12 million people, out of the political process. "The decision says: 'You will not be allowed to take part in politics'," Aysel Tugluk, one of the parliamentary deputies of the party who were stripped of their seats by the court, had told the NTV news channel after the decision was announced late on Friday. "It says: 'You cannot be free, you cannot raise your voice'. This is extremely dangerous."

Kurdish protesters in several Turkish cities clashed with police overnight and into yesterday. Security forces in Istanbul as well as the cities of Diyarbakir and Hakkari in Turkey's south-eastern Kurdish region used teargas to disperse demonstrators, media reports said. There were reports of attacks on offices of the DTP by suspected Turkish nationalists. Anatolia news agency said two protesters attempted to "lynch" a police chief and an officer in Hakkari, but the two were let go after local politicians intervened

Several observers called on Turks to remain calm despite the political uproar the decision has created. "If there are steps to raise tensions further, like a mass resignation [by DTP deputies] from parliament or calls for street protests, all will suffer severely," Taha Akyol, a columnist for the Milliyet daily newspaper, wrote yesterday. In a unanimous decision coming after a legal process that lasted two years, the constitutional court said the DTP would be banned because it had links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a separatist rebel group that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984, in a war that has left tens of thousands of people dead. The DTP says it wants a peaceful solution to the conflict, but has refused to distance itself from the PKK.

The DTP, formed in 2005, became the fourth Kurdish party to be banned by the constitutional court for supporting the PKK in 20 years. Three other Kurdish parties dissolved themselves. Last year, the constitutional court also came close to banning the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. In total, 25 parties have been banned in Turkey since the formation of the constitutional court in 1963, a high number that has prompted some politicians to call the country a "graveyard for political parties".

In an apparent reference to such accusations, Hasim Kilic, the court president, insisted the court had taken recent verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg into consideration. In July, the Strasbourg court confirmed the ban of the Herri Batasuna party in Spain for supporting the separatist Basque group Eta. Mr Kilic is seen as a liberal opponent of party bans, but still supported the decision to shut down the DTP.

As a result of the decision, 37 DTP officials were banned from joining political parties for five years, although they are still allowed to be active and even enter parliament as independent deputies. Party leader Ahmet Turk as well as Ms Tugluk lost their seats in parliament, however. Even before the decision was announced, the DTP said all of its 21 parliamentary deputies would resign if the party was banned. The resignations, which would have to be ratified by a majority of votes in parliament as a whole, could lead to by-elections in the constituencies concerned within three months. According to media reports, a little-known party called Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, was created last year as a political life-boat for DTP officials and voters. Similar tactics were used by supporters of banned Kurdish parties in the past.

"Democratic politics will continue. We believe in the supremacy of politics," Mr Turk said, seeming to hint that MPs may later regroup in a new party. But the significance of the ban against the DTP reaches further. A departure of the former DTP deputies from parliament would signal a break-down of the political dialogue between the Turkish state and Kurdish activists that is crucial for efforts to find a consensus for a peaceful end to the Kurdish problem, observers said. "With the ban, the DTP has been pushed out of parliament," Eyup Can, a columnist, told the Hurriyet newspaper. "There is a risk of losing the legal platform" for a political process.

At the same time, the court decision deals a severe blow to an initiative by the Erdogan government to find a democratic solution to the conflict. Mr Erdogan wants to widen the right of Kurds to learn and use their own language to counter the feeling of many Kurds that they are being treated as second-class citizens. Mr Erdogan has also called on non-violent PKK supporters in northern Iraq to return home.

The DTP welcomed Mr Erdogan's plan at first, but later turned against it. Critics said the party came under the influence of more radical forces close to the PKK and Abdullah Ocalan, its jailed leader. In recent weeks, DTP officials demanded the state should listen to Ocalan, something Ankara rejects. When Ocalan said he had been transferred into a smaller cell on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul, riots broke out in several Kurdish cities, and the DTP severely criticised the government for the way it treats the PKK chief. At the same time, the PKK stepped its actions against Turkish forces, killing seven Turkish soldiers in an ambush earlier this week.

The DTP ban could also create new problems for Turkey's already troubled bid to become a member in the European Union. Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, said "the dissolution of political parties is an exceptional measure that should be used with utmost restraint". @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse