If one thing is clear among the lessons that could be drawn from the public referendum held last Sunday over major constitutional changes, the grip of the violent terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its uncompromising political wing, the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), over the free and democratic Kurdish electorate was really loosened.
Despite demanding for years that the Turkish state provide broader democratic rights, ensure the rule of law in line with universal values and guarantee the implementation of fundamental human rights, the PKK and its political proxies backed out from that promise the minute the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) took the courageous and significant step in realizing these ideals.
When asked, BDP officials point to other unfulfilled demands such as lowering the 10 percent threshold in parliamentary elections and getting a piece of the financial pie from the Treasury given to political parties, but these are just excuses for reneging on the promise of providing rights to the Kurdish electorate. The real reason behind their backing away from endorsing the critical constitutional changes was the fear of losing party dominance over Kurds in the region.
The PKK is feeding on escalating violence in the region and uses threats and killings to terrorize residents. The ultimate aim is to keep the criminal enterprise up and running no matter what rights and freedoms were extended to Kurds in the region. In fact, the organization sees the expansion of freedoms as a basic threat to the livelihood of the terrorist machine.
They are used to extracting profits from local businesses who want to protect their investment from vandalism by PKK members and levy taxes on illicit and illegal networks engaging in human and drug trafficking and the arms trade. In due time, some ultra-violent factions of the PKK turned into contract killers and saboteurs; they blew up pipelines carrying oil from Iraq and targeted civilians to create havoc in the region.
Seeing that the expansion of rights and freedoms in the region may erode public support, the organization launched a vicious campaign to deter Kurds from going to polling stations. We have seen numerous reports during campaigning for the referendum that PKK members had stopped traveling residents in the outskirts of cities and threatened them with their lives if they showed up at the polls to cast their ballots because they knew very well Kurds would vote “yes” on constitutional changes when given the chance. They torched heavy machinery belonging to a businessman who openly said he would cast a “yes” vote.
The wrath of the PKK did not even spare imams in the region, where people are generally very conservative and respectful of religion. PKK assassins gunned down Imam Aziz Tan late last month in Hakkari and Imam Emin Ezher from Şırnak this month because both were preaching nonviolence in the region, asking youngsters not to get involved in terrorism. Though the PKK never claimed responsibility out of a fear that it would create a backlash from the Kurds, an overwhelming body of evidence and prior threats by the PKK on the lives of these imams indicate the outlawed organization ordered the assassinations. The organization has killed more than 42 imams in Bitlis, Mardin, Diyarbakır, Bingöl, Şırnak, Batman and Siirt since it took up arms in 1984.
The referendum results showed the BDP has considerably lost its grip on the Kurdish electorate and that underdog Kurdish parties, such as the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR), that supported the government-endorsed constitutional changes are gaining on the BDP. The call for a boycott was not completely heeded and significant numbers of Kurds who voted for the BDP in past elections voted for the changes in open defiance of the BDP and the PKK. I think we caught a unique opportunity here to make headway into more democratic and more diverse Kurdish politics which better represent the pluralism and variety of the Kurdish people.
The numbers from the referendum indicate that the BDP has lost 16 percentage points overall when compared to last year’s local elections. A total of 3.95 million votes were cast in 2009 in the 13 provinces in the Southeast where the BDP usually sees very strong backing. The ruling AK Party collected 1.44 million of these votes while the BDP garnered 1.349 million. The remaining 702,000 votes went to other parties.
Looking at the referendum, 1.825 million people voted for the constitutional changes in these 13 provinces. Naysayers cast only 139,000 votes. Therefore, the number of people who voted in the 2009 local elections but boycotted the referendum on Sunday was 1.131 million. These numbers mean that while AK Party policies were endorsed in the region, 218,000 voters simply ignored the BDP’s boycott call. The BDP simply vanished in Şanlıurfa, the hometown of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, Bingöl, Bitlis and Tunceli. It bled in Diyarbakır, Van, Muş, Batman, Ağrı and Siirt.
The boycott call was successful in the small and rugged border provinces of Mardin, Şırnak and Hakkari, where the threat of PKK terrorism is more prevalent. Therefore, both the PKK and its political extensions are facing a crisis of legitimacy and allegiance that we had never seen in the past 30 years of conflict. The PKK’s raison d’être, based on violence, terrorism and tension, is no longer paying off as people in the region have started to distinguish between political dialogue and a vicious cycle of violence.
The implementation of widely accepted constitutional amendments will further erode the PKK’s violence-based politics and bring real change to the daily lives of Kurds. It will also provide closure for past inhumane crimes committed by security forces in the name of protecting the state. The notorious Sept. 12, 1980 coup era tops the list and the removal of constitutional protection bestowed upon coup generals will help settle past accounts. All in all, we are heading towards a promising future not only for the Kurds of this country but for all colors and ethnicities of this great nation under one banner.