Soldiers’ funerals become bone of contention between AKP, opposition

Turkey's interior minister claims the main opposition party supports terrorism and bans its officials from the funerals of service members.

al-monitor People pray behind the flag-wrapped coffin of Koray Karaca, a Turkish soldier who was killed during the operation against Syria's Afrin region, during his funeral ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, Feb. 11, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

Jul 12, 2018

On July 10, the ministers of the new Cabinet took their oaths at the Turkish parliament. When Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu came to the podium, members of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) left the hall in protest. Only three days earlier, Soylu had been sworn in as a lawmaker at the parliament and CHP members had turned their backs to him to signal their disapproval.

The main reason for this protest was Soylu’s harsh comments and order that banned CHP officials from attending soldiers’ funerals. On June 28, Soylu told journalists that he had asked governors not to allow the CHP’s provincial chiefs to attend the funerals. The funerals are a frequent occurrence because of the enduring conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Soylu said the CHP supports PKK’s representatives in the parliament, pointing to alleged CHP support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) during the election. Throughout the election campaign, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly said that only the PKK and the CHP would like to see the HDP pass the national 10% vote threshold to have seats in the parliament.

Despite all the efforts to restrict its campaigning, the HDP passed the threshold and became third-largest party in the parliament. The HDP ran alone, not as a part of an election coalition with the CHP. The HDP’s success despite all odds led pro-government media to start an intense propaganda campaign labeling the CHP as an “HDP collaborator” and step up efforts to portray the HDP as terrorist. Soylu suggested that CHP members instead attend funerals of PKK militants. He said, “If they [the CHP and the PKK] were together at the ballot box, they can be together at the [PKK] funeral.”

The story behind Soylu’s ban, as he explained it, rests on a harsh phone conversation he had with Pervin Buldan, one of the co-chairs of the HDP. After the PKK killed a shopkeeper in Agri province who supported the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on June 26, Soylu told Buldan, “We will show your limits. You have no right to survive.” Buldan made an official complaint of being threatened with death; while Soylu accepted that he had made these statements, he said they were not a personal threat against Buldan. Then the government’s focus turned toward the other opposition party, the CHP.

Soylu’s words about banning CHP members from the funerals had an immediate impact. On the same day, during a soldier's funeral in Bursa, people got angry and attacked the flower wreath that the CHP had sent to the family. CHP spokesperson Bulent Tezcan said the ban is unacceptable and is polarizing the country and asked the minister to resign. But instead of resigning, Soylu announced July 3 that the CHP was responsible for supporting the HDP. He said there was no such political party as the HDP, but that it was in reality the PKK, and that the CHP was impeding the war on terrorism. Despite calls for Soylu to step down, he kept his post as interior minister in the new Cabinet. In Ankara, this signaled to that no change in the short term can be expected from the AKP with regard to trying to peacefully resolve the Kurdish problem and taking opposition party members’ criticism constructively.

By keeping his post as interior minister, Soylu had to leave parliament under the new rules of the game in Turkey, where Cabinet members cannot also be members of parliament, begging the question of why he ran for parliament.

The controversy over whether CHP members can attend soldiers' funerals generated further polarization in public opinion. For example, on July 10 a service member who was the son of a CHP member was killed. CHP members asked, “How can Soylu attend his funeral now?” There have been several similar examples as the Turkish army heavily relies on conscripts from every region and political background.

There was criticism against the minister that said that instead of working to end body bags and terror, he was preoccupied with irrelevant issues.

There also were arguments about the ban being not about the funeral itself but about the funeral's protocol. According to Islamic tradition, at the funeral there is a last prayer called for the dead that is to be open to all without rank and file. However, the official process reserves the closest spot to the flag-draped coffin to state employees, with a sign that even says “Protocol.” Tayfun Atay, a columnist for Cumhuriyet Daily, asked why there is even a protocol section at service members' funerals. There have been several arguments about where generals and governors and other officials are to stand in the procession. Over the years, due to hyped-up nationalism, these funerals have become opportunities for displays of patriotism for government officials. They have been competing with each other to be in the forefront, which sometimes would mean the family would be pushed to the rear.

Al-Monitor spoke between June 29 and July 9 with 43 immediate families of fallen soldiers over the phone and in person from six different cities. Their most common concern was the arrangements for the protocol section. A widow who attended one such funeral about three years ago said, “In my agony all I remember are these people telling us where to stand and finally pushing us all the way back. All through my mourning and still to this day I am upset with myself that I could not speak up and say, ‘Go away.’ Leave our pain out of cameras or politics.”

All the families shared sentiments along these lines; 38 of the families openly stated their opposition to the polarization of funerals for any party. A fallen soldier’s father said, “I am a Kurd, I vote for the HDP. My son was in the army and I am proud of him. Can I not mourn him in Kurdish, can I not hold the hands of his friends who are members of other parties? If we cannot join as a nation over a fallen soldier and mourn together, how can we respect each other and live together?”

Similar concerns were echoed by these families on the issue of conscription as well. Social media showed reactions in the same manner, ridiculing Soylu and saying that if CHP members were also banned from the draft, then all AKP young people would join the CHP to avoid the service.

The issue gets even more complicated as the current government members enjoy being present at the religious ceremonies. Yet according to the rules there should be two separate ceremonies: one religious and one official. For decades, Alevi soldiers’ funerals have also been a controversial issue. Most Alevis would prefer their own prayer house, the cemevi, rather than the mosque for the religious ceremonies. There have been multiple cases where government officials failed to attend cemevi ceremonies for Alevi martyrs. In one incident in 2012, an Alevi leader expressed his grief about lack of official presence in the cemevi by asking, “Will the government tell Alevis if you cannot be a martyr, you cannot be a soldier as well?”

To make matters worse, a former soldier has spoken out about military arrangements to the Sozcu daily, saying, “It is the garrison commander who determines who will be present at the official setting.” If this is true, Soylu has also legally stepped beyond his reach. Yet this legal concern was not discussed by government officials.

Soylu’s statement that CHP members should be barred from attending soldiers' funerals reopened some of Turkey's old wounds. Should there be an official protocol setting during religious ceremonies? If CHP members cannot attend soldiers' funerals, can CHP voters still legitimately be drafted? Did the interior minister exceed his powers and start meddling with the internal order of the army? Although the discussion has been ongoing for the last two weeks, answers or solutions to these raw issues have not yet been reached.

This is how Soylu completed his service under the parliamentary system. Now that Turkey is on the full-speed transition into the executive presidency, his ministry is also transformed. Yet his legacy of deepening polarization even during the time of mourning is most likely to continue in this new era.

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