Anti-Kurd jingoism

As the election campaign in Turkey draws to a close, Esen Uslu traces back the reasons for the ruling class obsession with 'national integrity'

Following the crisis that shook Turkish politics in April (see 'Army "defends secularism"' Weekly Worker May 3), public attention is now focussed on the early elections called for Sunday July 22.

Through a parliamentary manoeuvre backed up by the constitutional court, opposition parties were able to prevent the election of a new president by parliament. The government of the soft islamist Party of Justice and Development (AKP) had attempted to elect the president on the basis of its parliamentary majority, as laid down in the constitution, but the opposition boycotted the first session called for this purpose and the constitutional court ruled that the session was invalid, since it did not have the necessary two-thirds quorum.

The AKP then attempted to introduce a constitutional amendment to elect the president directly by popular vote, but this was vetoed by the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. In the end, the government was forced to yield to opposition calls for early parliamentary elections, but tried to pick up a couple of percentage points by displaying its own 'democratic' credentials, and portraying the establishment and opposition parties as statist-nationalist bullies who were set on victimising the islamists.

But it is the restrictive nature of Turkey's electoral democracy that has once more been exposed by the election campaign.

Kurdish party excluded

Kurdish nationalism has been represented by the Democratic Society Party (DTP) since 2005 - it is the latest in a long list of parties to be formed, harassed and eventually closed down. However, the limited democratisation provoked by Turkey's proposed accession to the European Union created an opening for Kurdish politics, albeit a restricted one.

A threshold of 10% of the national vote for parliamentary representation is built into electoral law - a threshold specifically designed to keep any Kurdish party out. In the November 2002 elections the Democratic People's Party (Dehap), since closed down, got 6.6% of the overall vote and in the 2004 local elections the Kurdish vote was estimated at 6.3%. Dehap appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the threshold restricts free elections, but its application was turned down in January 2007.

Last year, the AKP government initiated changes in Turkey's electoral law and the minimum age for a candidate was reduced from 30 to 25. (Here we should remember another quirk. Any change to the electoral law becomes valid one full year after its enactment. So next weekend's election will be held under the old rules.) However, during the parliamentary debate over that amendment, neither the government nor the opposition even raised the possibility of changing the threshold.

Because of those restrictions the DTP opted to stand 'independent' candidates in the coming elections (the 10% rule applies only to parties). The 2006 election showed that it is quite possible for a couple of dozen independents to be successful and if, for example, a joint campaign that brought together all the left and Kurdish organisations were arranged, up to 60 'independents' could be elected.

But 20 is the magic number, because there is nothing in the electoral law to stop 'independent' MPs subsequently joining a party, and any party with 20 members is entitled to form a parliamentary group. Which, in turn, brings guaranteed seats on parliamentary committees, as well as state subsidies.

In through the window

In the 2004 local elections, a different tactic was adopted by Dehap, when its members stood on the Social Democratic People's Party (SHP) list and its candidates won more than 50 municipalities, including five major cities/provincial councils in south-eastern Turkey. They later joined the DTP after its formation in 2005.

Before that, in the 1991 parliamentary elections, Kurds who stood on the SHP list caused a furore by taking the oath in Kurdish. Later their immunity was removed and they were thrown out of parliament and arrested at the gates. They spent 10 years in jail until June last year.

As this tactic cost those Kurdish candidates dear, this time around some of them attempted to stand as independents. However, the electoral commission used their previous conviction as a pretext to disbar them. One of them, a real ambassador for peace and democratic rights, Orhan Dogan, sadly died last month. He will be really missed as a towering figure among the present crop of politicians. However, he was denied the official ceremony accorded to every MP, and mourners at his funeral were on the receiving end of CS gas and batons.

We must also keep in mind that the DTP has been facing continuous harassment. Just to cite a few examples, one of the municipalities of Diyarbakir attempted to recognise the use of Kurdish as part of their multilingual approach. The courts annulled the decision and dismissed the mayor. The mayor of Greater Diyarbakir was also censured and the mayor of Cizre was arrested for speaking in support of a banned organisation. However, despite all this, last autumn the DTP managed to collect 3.5 million signatures for a petition headed, "Abdullah Öcalan represents our will", referring to the imprisoned PKK leader.

So the Kurdish party looks set to be represented in the next parliament - it may even be in a position to play the kingmaker. We will soon know.

With the onset of elections, military mobilisation along the south-eastern borders was stepped up and there has been an increase in armed clashes, suicide bombs and ambushes. Such incidents are back to the level before the PKK decided to suspend hostilities and withdrew its forces into Iraqi Kurdistan. The situation was reminiscent of the famous Irish slogan, 'The Armalite and the ballot box', but the public outcry forced the Kurdish nationalist movement to declare another unilateral ceasefire.

However, the Turkish armed forces are not in a mood to consider such gestures. They are preparing for action over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. So the Kurdish problem has once more become the dominant issue on the political agenda.

That has created a strange situation. Turkey has become the most anti-American ally of America. Today, from army generals down, everybody is criticising the US for its policy towards Iraq and especially Iraqi Kurdistan. Support for an aggressive policy is increasing, as the ever prevailing Turkish nationalism is feeding a strong anti-Kurdish sentiment, bordering on jingoistic hatred.

The present situation can only be understood as a continuation of the precarious national unity inherited by Turkey from the Ottoman empire.

Ethnic cleansing

The port cities of Ottoman Anatolia saw the development of a Levantine bourgeoisie from the christian and Jewish minorities. There was a sizeable population of minority ethnicities and the central plateau and eastern highlands of Anatolia contained Greek Orthodox and Armenian populations.

The last rulers of Ottoman empire witnessed the Balkan wars of 1912-13, where the muslim populations of the Balkan countries were driven out by christian armies and forced to move into Anatolia. Before the impending catastrophe of World War I they opted to rally around islamist-Turkish nationalism. They regarded muslim Kurds and Arabs as docile allies in the impending struggle against the christian powers.

In 1915 the infamous forced displacement of the Armenian population was undertaken. The migration of Caucasian tribes to the Ottoman lands, including Anatolia and present-day Syria/Lebanon, provided an effective force that enabled the declining Ottoman military-civil state to carry out such a massive undertaking.

Writing in 1918, RH Karay, a journalist opposing the Unity and Progress group of army officers who took over the Ottoman empire before the war, described their policy in this way: "If he is an Armenian, behead him; if he is a Greek Orthodox, confiscate his wealth; if he is a Turk, send him to war."

At the end of the war, Greece invaded the eastern parts of Anatolia and the Liberation War was fought against them, and ended in a great exodus of the Greek population.

The formal recognition of the Turkish republic in the Lausanne Treaty also meant an arrangement for the exchange of populations. This ethnic cleansing - where the islamic population of Greece, excluding western Thrace, was exchanged with the Greek Orthodox population from Anatolia, excluding those who live in Istanbul - was carried out under the benign eye of the imperialist powers.

With these major ethnic-cleansing acts following the horrors of the war, the modern Turkish nation was created through the merging of these immigrants with the rump of the Ottoman empire. The remnants of the christian population were finally forced out by a pogrom in Istanbul in September 1955.

Of course this process was also one of Turkification of capital through the expropriation of the former Levantine bourgeoisie and christian merchants of Anatolia. The rising Turkish bourgeoisie and Turkish finance capital were established on this basis.

Fragile 'unity'

During the inter-war years Turkey continued its attempt to consolidate the nation, and it was the Kurds who became the next target - they proved to be not so docile when they took up arms against the regime. Adding to the dozens of revolts during Ottoman rule, the Kurds staged three major uprisings in the 1920s and 30s. Suppressing them proved quite costly.

Therefore, from the beginning, the Turkish nationalist army and bureaucracy, while devising and forming institutions based on a statist-nationalist-secular ideology, have also been keenly aware of the fragile nature of the national unity. No matter how often they declare the "indivisibility of the Turkish nation and its inseparable territorial integrity", they are continually haunted by the prospect of a breakaway.

Therefore, after World War II, the Turkish establishment did not direct its whole attention to repelling a Soviet invasion. It was obsessed with winning a civil war at any cost. The origins of Turkey's 'deep state' - the Special Warfare Department and all its paraphernalia - can be traced back to this.

The elite have been also aware of the fragile nature of their grip over territory bequeathed by the former Ottoman empire. Cyprus and the sporadically flaring conflict with Greece over the Aegean Islands and Western Thrace were a constant worry. However, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union created fresh havoc in the Balkans and Caucasus.

The break-up of Yugoslavia, which sent shock waves across the whole region, also provoked a shudder of recognition that the old balance of power had gone. Tomorrow, in a new redivision of the world, yesterday's ally might not be standing by the Turkish establishment. Indeed the Iraq war has confirmed that the US might be prepared to accept the division of Iraq and formation of an independent Kurdistan.

Today the Turkish army is poised at the border with Iraqi Kurdistan awaiting the green light from the US in order to unleash an attack, even while the election is underway.