On 3 March 2011, the Turkish Parliament unanimously agreed to hold General Elections on 12 June. The year before, a law had been passed amending electoral procedures in order to align them with European standards. The minimum age for being able to stand as a candidate has been reduced from 30 to 25 years; the ballot boxes, previously made of wood, have been replaced by unbreakable, transparent plastic; the layout of the ballot papers has been altered and the envelopes are of different colours depending on the kind of election. In addition, whereas in previous elections all military activity should stop till nightfall, an extension to 2 hours after sunset was decreed.
One of the most notable reforms is that the use of languages other than Turkish during election campaigns is no longer penalised, which is clearly a gesture towards the Kurdish electorate. The law also provides for a 3 to 5 years imprisonment for any acts aimed a t preventing a citizen from voting. However, it remains to be seen how effective the application would of this law in practice, especially in remote areas subjected to the powers of local authorities.
The number of M.P.s has also changed to take into account data provided by the latest census. Thus the Istanbul megalopolis has 15 more MPs, Ankara by 3, Izmir by 2 and one each for the provinces of Antalya, Diyarbekir, Van and Sirnak.
As expected, the Prime Minister and his Party (the AKP) won their third General Election victory. This makes Recep Tayyip Erdogan the first Prime Minister ever win three successive Parliamentary elections, increasing his score each time. Moreover, the AKP rules limit its members to 3 terms in office as members of Parliament so, for 73 of them, this will be their last election victory.
As a result, four parties will be represented in the Turkish National Grand Assembly: the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in office, that will be able to form a government since it won over 50% of the votes; the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
However, with 327 M.P.s, the AKP does not have the two thirds of seats required to alter the 1982 constitution without a referendum. It is also 3 seats short of the number needed to propose constitutional changes via a referendum. It will thus be obliged to envisage future parliamentary alliances to carry out further reforms.
The second largest party is the Republican Peoples Party (CHP) whose line fluctuates between a moderately Left Kemalist secularism and a demagogic nationalism close to the extreme Right movements, especially under the leadership of its former president, Denis Baykal. With the appointment to this position of Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who campaigned on the theme of “opening” towards the Kurds, this party increased its score to 25.9% and 135 seats while the extreme Right MHP won 13%, thus allowing it to cross the threshold of 10% for having being represented in Parliament with 53 seats.
This threshold has regularly prevented the pro-Kurdish parties from winning seats in parliament. However, this time the BDP candidates stood as “independents” to bye-pass this rule. Thus Leyla Zana returned as M.P. twenty years after being expelled from Parliament. Another notable event was the election, as member for Mardin, of Erol Dora, a Syriac Christian — the first time any member of this community has been elected since the foundation of the Turkish Republic.
The BDP’s good score (it increased its representation from 20 to 36 seats), that could have enabled the beginning of a political dialogue on the Kurdish question in Turkey by having some parliamentary weight, has net prevented one of its elected members, Hatip Dicle, from having his election disqualified by the Electoral High Council, on the grounds that he had earlier been sentenced to 20 months jail for “terrorist propaganda”.
Hatip Dicle is now being kept in preventive detention under other charges, and his election would have granted him parliamentary immunity. However the High Council justified its decision on the grounds that his sentence had been confirmed by the Court of Appeal just four days before the election and after the lists of candidates had been confirmed.
Hatip Dicle, 57 years of age, was one of the first candidates from a Kurdish party to be elected to parliament in 1991. He was arrested in 1994, after their party was banned for alleged “links with the PKK” and has spent 10 years in prison. He was again arrested in 2010 in the context of an investigation into “urban branches of the PKK”.
Owing to his status as an independent, his seat did not go to a BDP candidate but to Oya Eronat, of the AKP. Reacting swiftly, the BDP elected M.P.s decided to boycott the Parliament, especially as five other elected M.P.s of the BDP were still behind bars pending trial.
At the same time, two CHP elected M.P.s, the journalist Mustafa Balbay and Professor Mehmet Haberal were also in detention as suspects in the Ergonekon affair, despite their party’s appeals for their release.
One MHP M.P., retired General Engin Alan, similarly accused of having taken part in a subversive attempt, was elected although still imprisoned.
The public announcement of Hatip Dicle’s election disqualification immediately provoked a wave of protests in Kurdish towns and in the West of the country. Thus, nearly 2,000 people took part in a sit-in in Diyarbekir. In Istanbul, a thousand demonstrators clashed with the police.
The Congress for a Democratic Society (DTP), which is a platform for Kurdish associations and movements, called on the 35 M.P.s to boycott parliament.
“The M.P.s must take their stand openly, in keeping with their previous decision not to go to parliament if even a single one of them is missing”.
The DTP President, Ahmet Turk, spoke about a “decision aimed at leading Turkey to chaos (…) to push our people into an atmosphere of conflict. The State, the government and the law are trying to block all efforts to create a democratic political society so as to resolve the Kurdish conflict that has lasted in Turkey since 1984”. (Anatolia Press Agency)
On 23 June, the 35 BDP elected M.P.announced their decision not to take their seats until Hatip Dicle is restored as elected. “We will not go to Parliament so long as the government and Parliament have not taken concrete measures to remedy this injustice and provides opportunities for a resolution that opens the way to democratic policies”, declared the Member Safarettin Elçi at a press conference in Diyarbekir.
On 26 June, a Turkish court also rejected the release of two Kurdish elected M.P.s, Gulser Yildirim and Ibrahim Ayshan, accused of being members of the “urban branch” of the PKK. Of the thirty six Kurdish activists elected, three are still in jail, the Turkish courts refusing to grant them parliamentary immunity against charges of “terrorism”.
On 29 June, the new parliamentary session and the swearing in of elected M.P.s was boycotted by both the CHP and the BDP, the Kurdish elected members demanding the release of the imprisoned M.P.s and the re-integration of Hatip Dicle to his elected seat. Similarly, the CHP President, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu declared he refused to swear the oath to allegiance so long as two of his M.P.s were also unable to attend.
Election results by party:
Justice and Development Party (AKP): 21,442,528 votes (49.83%), 327 seats (14 lost).
Republican People’s Party ( CHP): 11,131,371 votes (25.98%), 135 seats (23 seats gained).
Nationalist Action Party (MHP): 5,580,415 votes (13.01 %), 53 seats (lost 18).
Independents (BDP): 2,819,917 votes (6.57%), 35 (36) seats (gained 15/16).
Results in Provinces inhabited by mainly by Kurds:
AKP won: Gaziantepe (61.85%), Andiyaman (67.38%), Urfa (64.80%), Malatya (68.45%),
Erzincan (57.39%), Elazig (67.35%), Bingol (67.5%), Agri (47.54%), Bitlis (50.62%), Siirt (48.09%).
Independents (BDP) won: Diyarbekir (62.08%), Mardin (61.11%), Sirnak (72.87%), Batman (51.84%), Van (49.90%), Hakkari (70.87%), Mus (44.34%.
Republican People’s Party (CHP) won: Tunceli (56.21%).
The continuing bloody repression in Syria provoked a flow of refugees to the Turkish borders at the beginning of the month. At the same time, the Syrian government released over 450 political prisoners, including some Kurds.
This did not, however, prevent the demonstrations from continuing. In the Kurdish regions, over 8,000 people marched on 3 June, 3,000 just in the town of Qamishlio, carrying Syrian flags, demanding the fall of President Bachar al-Assad and expressing their support for the town of Jisr al-Choughour, in the West of the country, which at that time was being subjected to repressive military operations, as well as the town of Deraa, in the South, which had been suffering extreme violence from the police.
In the town of Amude, over 4,000 people demonstrated, as well as 1,000 at Ras al-Ayn, shouting the same slogans of support for Jisr al-Choughour and waving banners calling on the Syrian President: “Bashar, get out of our lives”.
Moreover 50 public figures of the Syrian opposition sent a declaration to Reuters announcing the formation of a Government of Public Safety. Amongst the signatories is the Kurdish political opponent Mashal Temo.
However, in parallel to the veterans of the Syrian Kurdish political parties, some more or less organised youth movements have come into the open and give the impression of having their own timetable or even of pushing things further forward than their elders, who they don’t hesitate to criticise. Thus Ciwan Yusef, spokesman for the Sawa Youth Coalition declared that the “weakness” of the Kurdish political parties (some of which have tried to dissuade the young from taking part in demonstrations) was one of the factors favourable to the growth of multiple Kurdish youth movements.
In an interview given to the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw, Ciwan Yusef mentioned four groups of young Kurdish activists just in the town of Qamishlo: The Revolutionary Youth, the Cizre Civil Society, the Young Kurds Agreement and Sawa. “These groups were already active in the past, especially in the field of culture. However, when the revolution began in Syria, we did an about turn and even changed out name to the Sawa Youth Coalition.
It seems that Syria’s young Kurds have been long waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate openly but have limited themselves to cultural activity from fear of reprisals by the regime. Today, their impatience to move into political action is driving them to using their own associations and movements rather than joining the political parties, which they consider too hesitant and uncoordinated: “We all know that one day Syria can be changed. That is why we have already formed organised groups”.
So far, indeed, the Syrian Kurdish parties have not adopted any clear or unanimous political line regarding the Syrian revolts. Ciwan Yusef even accuses them of trying to put a brake on the actions of the youth movements: “As far as we, in Sawa, are concerned, it was clear from the start that we were part of this street-wise movement and political process, without belonging to any political movement. However, the political parties are opposed to one another and divide our movements. They support us in their official communiqués but their actions prove the opposite”. Only a few Kurdish parties are said to be in line with these youth movements: The Freedom Party, The Union of Kurdish parties and the Future movement. “These ones have taken part in our demonstrations alongside us, they are working with us and, from the start, have had a better attitude towards us than the other parties”.
Other Kurdish youth movements are active, not only in the other Kurdish towns, at Amude and Afrin, but also in Damascus and Aleppo. Barzan Bahram, a Syrian Kurdish writer, confirms the preponderant role of the young Kurds compared with their elders: “From the start of the Syrian revolution the youth have been working together very closely. They want to be united and able to speak for all the Kurds in Syria”. Barzan Bahram also recognises that the Syrian Kurdish parties tend to want to divide the ranks of the youth movements along the lines of their own political disagreements. However he minimises the real effect of these rivalries: “The principal reason (for this lack of cohesion) is the dictatorial character of the Syrian regime. Despite this, we are working together very well”.
Nevertheless, friction between the various factions is still apparent, especially when it comes to taking part in any concrete activity. Fawzi Shingar, another Kurdish leader and founder of the Wifaq party, confirms in these terms Ciwan Yusuf’s remark that efforts had been made to unify the twelve Kurdish parties in a common front but that: “After the Syrian security forces had aggravated the situation Kurdish parties, like the Freedom Party, the Union of Kurdish Parties in Syria and the Future Movement, joined the demonstrations and united their determination to overthrow the regime”.
He also says he distrusts the attempt for discussions with the regime and the invitation is extended to the Kurdish parties. In his view, such a meeting could not take place until certain conditions were fulfilled: “They must with draw the tanks from the streets the Syrian leaders must come on television to apologise to the people for all the deaths they have caused. They must also explain what is the situation regarding their proposals for reform and what they have done so far. The regime has been talking about reforms for the last 45 years but nothing has ever been done”.
According to Fawzi Shingar the Kurdish youth demonstrating in the streets now has more influence than the traditional parties: “The other parties and ourselves have taken part in the demonstrations but those who began then and are still continuing are the young ones. I also think that the political parties will son cease to be so politically divided. In the end they will be shouting the same slogans”.
Paradoxically, it may be that it is the long-standing politicisation of the Kurdish community in Syria and its habit of acting in the framework of organised movements that is paralysing its actions regarding the spontaneous and revolts, without real leaders, of the “Arab street”. “The parties are not capable of controlling the situation and the population can only act independently of the parties. Those that are active today are acting aimlessly, without having planned anything and so far, the Government’s policy is being noted with a certain neutrality in the Kurdish regions so as to avoid attacking them”.
The political parties’ hesitation about becoming too radical is also explained by the fact that they do not believe in the regime’s rapid collapse, as has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. “The Syrian State has supported the Baath for the last 45 years. However, we hope that the situation will no become as violent as in Libya. We hope that the regime will let a provisional council govern the country for 6 months, until elections take place to elect a new President and a new Parliament”.
Another reason for hesitating to engage in violent resistance is the inertia of the international community that, so far, has only verbally “condemned” Syria for its bloody repression of the demonstrations.
As for the influence or the activity of the Syrian Kurdish parties, unlike the PKK or the parties of Iraqi Kurdistan, they can only be limited and conditioned by their political alliances. Abdullah Ocalan, whose party enjoyed Syrian protection for a long time, had called on the Syrian Kurds to negotiate with the government. Similarly Massud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, dependant on complex and tense diplomatic relations with his neighbours can hardly go any further than to make appeals for peace and democracy.
However, the hesitations and “caution” of the older activists of the political parties can be explained by their years of disappointing or negative experiences when ever, in Kurdish history, they have been obliged to count on the solidarity of Arab movements for recognition of Kurdish particularism. The political parties fear that Kurdish demands would not be taken into account or conveniently forgotten by the Syrian opposition — hence an impression of confusion and hesitancy in the statements and decisions of the Kurdish opposition.
Thus the conference held at Antalya, in Turkey, by representatives of the Syrian opposition, politicians, intellectuals, journalists was officially boycotted by the Kurdish parties because of Turkish policies towards its own Kurds, while some representatives and eminent activists of these same parties made the point that they would go, but in their personal capacities. Indeed, some these parties complained at not having been invited and that their own specific demands had not been taken into account in the opposition platform. Other voices were heard criticising the fact that the Kurds had not been specifically mentioned as “the second ethnic group in Syria”.
However, according to Fawzi Shingar, the main problem is the absence of unity between the various Kurdish voices, which weakens their weight within the Syrian dissident groups: “The trouble with us Kurds is that we still don’t have any common agenda. We have written statement to present to either the Syrian opposition or the Government … It is essential that the Kurdish parties and intellectuals begin discussions and form a council. Otherwise we will have problems”.
Moreover certain observers, like Professor Radhwan Badini, himself a Kurd of Syrian origin, who lectures at Salaheddin University in Irbil, consider that, in spite of everything, the Antalya meeting is a “historic” step since, in its final declaration, the rights of Kurds as well as Assyrians are evoked as “equal” to those of the Arabs.
Abu Sabir, a leader of the Kurdish United Democratic Party, admitted, in an interview by Rudaw, that the fact that the Union of Syrian Kurdish parties had not been invited had raised suspicions about the intentions of the Syrian Arab movement but that the closing declaration had convinced him. At the conclusion of this conference, the different opposition groups formed a Consultative Committee and called on the President to resign at once and hand over his powers to his Vice-President until an assembly could be formed to guarantee a democratic transition. This Consultative Committee, that is intended to represent all Syria’s religious and ethnic components, is composed of 31 members and 4 seats are reserved for Kurds.
As for the Syrian government, it is still trying, by a policy of promises and little gestures, to prevent or dissuade the formation of a Kurdish coalition that would join the Arab movements. According to the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, Bachar al-Assad is said to have invited representatives of the twelve Kurdish parties, including the PKK, for discussions the would only cover the demands of the Syrian Kurds, with promises of reform and the amnestying of political prisoners. Milliyet further affirms that the Kurdish parties had accepted this meeting — which was formally denied, on 9 June, by those concerned — as announced in the newspaper al-Arabiya.
The Democratic Union of Kurdish parties thus confirmed the invitation but denied that t had been accepted. Following a meeting of the Kurdish parties at Qamishlo, the latter rejected the meeting, considering that circumstances were not “favourable” for such negotiations. Moreover, it demanded a bi-lateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Syrian towns and that autonomy to the Kurdish regions be granted with separate administrations.
The Kurdistan Parliament has just passed series of laws and amendments against a background of political and social protests and demands for reforms following the demonstrations in Suleimaniyah last spring. Amongst these new laws, one condemning the practice of excision was particularly welcomed by a number of Kurdish and international NGOs.
Since field surveys carried out by German and Kurdish teams in 2007 and 2008 had concluded that nearly 77% of women had suffered excision in certain regions of Iraqi Kurdistan (mainly round Suleimaniyah and Germiyan) several campaigns have been launched, supported by the Kurdistan Regional Government, to inform the population of the damaging effects of this practice. Religious leaders have also been urged to condemn it.
The law now provides for penalties of between 3 and 6 years jail and a fine of a million Iraqi dinars for any person encouraging excision and penalties of 5 years and fines of 5 million dinars for anyone practicing it, as well as 3 years interdiction of medical practice in the event of medical personnel being involved.
The same law now also bans the practices of dowry, forced marriages and arranged marriages in the event of a disproportional ages difference between the young girl and the man. It also bans force prostitution — the very legality of prostitution itself being still under discussion within voluntary bodies and political circles.
However, while the NGOs welcome this ban, its application and effectiveness in the field have yet to be proved. The Minister of Health, Taher Hawrani, stated that the authorities would launch a poster campaign of information regarding these new legislative measures. He added that religious circles should become more involved in eliminating excision: “People need a better understanding of religion to abandon this practice”.
Other questions linked to the situation of women and the evolution of customs, are still on hold. These include such as social protection for divorcees, who are often left without resources and totally dependent on their family, as explained by Payman Abdul Karim, a member of Parliament: “When a woman is divorced she has nowhere to go and is often ill-treated”.
Other reforms that have been proposed to Parliament are in response to the demonstrations last spring in Suleimaniyah that expressed an often fatal wave of social and political protests. Massoud Barzani had, at the time, promised a reform package that would iron out social inequalities and a form of nepotism of which the political caste is accused, often linked with too much involvement with business circles.
The reform plans, which are planned to come into effect on 15 July, cover measures aimed at improving public health, the supply of food, of electric power, of roadways and housing. They also cover greater transparency regarding public contracts, particularly the sale of land for investment purposes at too low a price. This land, bought at very low prices, were sometimes diverted from their intended purposes and resold at a substantial profit. Pending the passing of these reforms, President Barzani, who makes a point of supervising agrarian projects, has already cancelled 118 contracts and reclaimed over 10,000 acres of land.
Initially these reform plans had only been intended for the provinces of Irbil and Duhok, which is what had provoked criticism from the inhabitants of Suleimaniyah. It is possible that the carrying out of such reforms and the restitution of land or buildings may be more difficult to carry out by Massud Barzani in a province controlled by the PUK and in which, moreover, the opposition is hardly sympathetic towards the KDP. However, a representative of the anti-corruption commission stated that enquiries were continuing and that nearly 10,000 acres would be reclaimed in Suleimaniyah Province. The Enquiry Commission has also to examine a project to build a hotel, and another regarding a hospital in Suleimaniyah city itself. The managers of several government offices in the city confirmed to the newspaper Rudaw that they had already been subjected to controls by the Commission. The head of the Suleimaniyah Department of Tourism indicated that two projects had already been cancelled and that 70 others were currently being examined. Mohammad Hajji, manager of the Contracts Department of Suleimaniyah Town Council has revealed that 60 projects were “under examination”. Those projects that are not approved by the Commission will be cancelled.
Some projects to encourage tourism are also due to be announced. Regarding the issue of corruption, a Parliamentary Commission is due to present a Bill aimed at guaranteeing the greatest transparency in the drawing up of budgets, public contracts and legislation.
The setting up of a social solidarity fund, aiming to ensure that the unemployed, handicapped and low-income households had enough to live on has also appeared. As for the Public Health sector, it is due for a thorough reorganisation.
Public opinion is also very critical of the legal system, which is accused of being under the influence of the Parties in office. New legislation should give the judges more independence and means for trying cases of corruption.
Other measures are of less importance but all go towards making the members of the government and of parliament closer to the people. Thus on 14 June a Presidential decree banned people from driving in cars with tinted windows and instructing all members of the government or members of parliament to conform with this new regulation, “so that all the occupants of the car may be visible”. Leaders and members of political parties are also asked to conform to this rule, like all the ordinary citizens, police and traffic wardens
“Notes from Afghanistan”, a photo exhibition by Ghazal Sotoudeh will be on show at the Mourlot Gallery in New York until 14 July. It may then go on to London and Paris.
Ghazal Sotoudeh was born in Teheran in 1981. Her father, a Kurd, was imprisoned and executed by the clerical regime. She fled Iran, in her mothers arms and on horseback, in 1983, and has grown up in France ever since. Asked about her life history and origins, Ghazal Sotoudeh answered by being interviewed by Scott Bohlinger, on the Iran.com site. She thus tells how she came to photography when she met Reza while working in lawyers office, after having previously studied the piano, literature, philosophy and, finally, law … “I was working as a trainee in a lawyers office 8 years ago. One day I saw a file with my father’s name on it. This gave me a shock because my father was executed at the time my mother and I were fleeing the country, 2 years after the revolution. I was under 3 years of age and I have never seen my father. It was all very strange.
There I was, 20 years later, in the office of some French lawyers, with my father’s name dancing on a yellow file. I questioned the secretary about this file and she replied “Oh, its just an Iranian photographer”, and that was all!
I went home and phoned my mother to tell her what I thought was an incredible story: “hey, you know there is a photographer with my father’s name and he’s living in Paris!” To which she replied “I think he was also in prison with us!”. (My mother had been a political prisoner under the Shah’s regime from 1977 to 1979, while my father was detained from 1973 to 1979. She was 17 years old when she was arrested). I thought: “Life is strange, as always”. But there again, that was all.
Two months later, on a sunny day, I was wandering about with my younger cousin in the Luxembourg Gardens and I didn’t know that this photographer was just packing up his ambulant exhibition. I was very shy and intimidated, but I couldn’t help I didn’t know him. There he was, signing photographs; so I approached him and introduced myself. I finally asked him if he knew my father. His eyes began to shine and that is how I began working with him.”
Asked about her triple identity — Iranian, Kurdish and French and the feeling that this had inspired her in her work, Ghazal Sotoudeh explained:
“I only feel that I had good luck, in spite of all the difficulties there are, to reconcile all these threads and identities. It is very difficult to grow up as an Iranian in Paris, very difficult to be considered an Iranian in Iran … Moreover, my father-in-law is Kurdish and he has thus added to my identity, mingled with beautiful stories from his own cultural background. It took some effort to feel at ease with all this, but finally, I see how lucky I am to be able to discern what is good and bad in Western and non-Western culture.
In Iran, the Kurds have been an incredible strength against he dictatorships (the Shah’s and the present one) and they still are. The interesting thing is that it is the only “ethnic” minority in such a situation. Of course it is linked to their geographic situation, completely torn apart between five countries and yet able to form alliances with Kurds on the other side of the borders. They have a fantastic potential for destabilising the central government in Teheran. Even though, sometimes, this struggle against the regime has led political leaders to find the wrong kind of friends. I am very proud of my family’s past but I also feel saddened by the way politics permanently destroys its members — and I’m not just talking about the deaths.
My aunts were the first women to be executed in Iran, at the orders of Khalkhali. They were nurses, not at all politically committed, just ordinary nurses. I know that many Kurds in Iran have, in one way or another, the same stories locked away in their closets. That is why they remain an important opposition force: because they have had so many losses in the struggle that they have never forgotten and can never forget. One interesting point is that every Kurd feels, above all that he is Iranian. But that has never stopped them from fighting to preserve their cultural heritage and to have Kurdish taught in school.”