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Hunger Strike Is Over, but Kurdish Unrest Is Not

ANKARA, Nov 18 2012 (IPS) - There was a sigh of relief in Ankara as Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), on Sunday put an end to the 68-day hunger strike of 682 Kurdish prisoners and nine members of the Turkish Parliament.

The strike began on Sep. 12 among Kurds detained on terrorism charges, and quickly spread to 67 prisons around the country. In November, it was joined by MPs of the Peace and Development Party (BDP), whose constituency is in the ethnically Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Ocalan’s decision has removed a thorn from the side of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government showed signs of division over the handling of the strike, at a time when Turkey is being criticised by the European Union for lack of progress in improving human rights in general, and those of minorities in particular.

The strikers were demanding the freedom to use their mother tongue in education and in judicial courts. They also wanted to end Ocalan’s solitary confinement.

Ocalan, 64, was sentenced in 1999 to life imprisonment for terrorism and is being held in isolation on Imrali Island, near Istanbul. He remains, however, the undisputed leader of the PKK, an autonomist movement he created in 1978, which has periodically resorted to armed rebellion since 1984. Clashes with the security forces have caused 40,000 deaths on both sides among civilians and combatants.

Although the PKK’s main objective is cultural autonomy for the Kurdish people, the state has always considered the movement as separatist, based on the interpretation of Turkey’s constitution, which forbids any threat to territorial integrity and imposes one language only, the Turkish. Ethnic Turks in their majority support this viewpoint, regardless of political affiliation, and are opposed to a Kurdish identity.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) promised certain cultural freedoms to the Kurds when it came to power in 2002. Under pressure by the nationalists and the military, and considering public opinion, it limited, however, the changes to light gestures, like the establishment of a state-run broadcasting station in Kurdish and a proposal to let universities offer courses of Kurdish as a foreign language.

Divergence of opinion among the public intensified during the strike, but politicians and journalists stayed generally out of the debate. Erdogan’s total opposition to it and his occasional scornful comments about the strikers, and the likelihood of deaths resulting from the strike, caused editorialists and opinion leaders to keep a low profile.

“The Turkish public is increasingly polarised on the Kurdish issue, but worse is around the corner,” Nazan Ustundag, a sociology associate professor at Bosphorus University, Istanbul, told IPS last week. “The polarisation between the Kurds and pro-Kurdish democrats on one hand, and the state on the other hand will grow bigger, and the violence will increase if we witness the death of these people,” she added.

PKK’s decision to end the strike may have averted this bleak prospect, but not entirely. In his message on Sunday, Ocalan said that it was not for inmates to go on strike, but for those followers who were free. This may signal the beginning of another hunger strike, which will be more difficult for the authorities to control, as strikers could be anywhere.

This is unlikely to happen soon, though. The 68-day strike seems to have brought partial victory to the 682 inmates and their MPs. A parliamentary committee has submitted a proposal to legalise the use of the Kurdish language in trials. If it soon becomes a binding legal instrument, a ceasefire between the PKK and security forces may be reached, and hopes for a political solution of the Kurdish issue revived.

With 15 to 17 million people, the Kurds represent 20 percent of the country’s population. As their presence is concentrated in the southeast, they are also a significant electoral asset to any party that can win their loyalty.

Erdogan’s thoughtfulness for the Kurds’ grievances in the early days of his premiership was founded on realpolitik. His promises and gestures seem to have paid off, until recently. Political experts and think tanks have estimated that between five and six percentage points in AKP’s electoral victories of 2007 and 2011 were due to Kurdish votes.

There are still many votes to be had in the southeast, AKP strategists believe. The rival in the region, BDP, which is believed to be the political arm of PKK, has 36 MPs elected locally and controls 97 municipalities. This is a sizeable target. But the even larger electoral Kurdish platform is moderate and not permanently attached to a party. Both AKP and PKK would like to win such hearts and minds.

 
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