Turkish Kurdish Leader: PKK’s Exit Alone Won’t Bring Peace

Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, speaks to Taraf about the ongoing Turkish-Kurdish peace process and Kurdish concerns.

al-monitor Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), greets reporters after a news conference in Istanbul, March 18, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

Topics covered

cease-fire, withdrawal, peace, kurdistan, justice and development front, justice, bdp, akp

Apr 28, 2013

Taraf’s Nese Duzel interviewed Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The interview was published in two installments April 22-23.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

TarafHas the first phase of the three-phase peace process started yet?

Demirtas:  No, it hasn’t. The PKK has only declared a cease-fire. For the first phase to begin, the withdrawal of the PKK has to start. At the moment, there are preparations underway for the first phase.

Taraf:  Is the PKK ready for withdrawal?

Demirtas:  When we visited Kandil [the PKK’s military command base in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region], we noted that they have many concerns. More than 500 PKK guerrillas were killed during [the] 1999 withdrawal, although there was a cease-fire declaration. Plus, there is distrust.

Taraf:  Why this distrust on the part of Kandil?

Demirtas:  In 1999, after our withdrawal, the Kurdish issue was erased from the agenda in Turkey. They simply declared that they had eradicated terror. But in that five-year hiatus there was an opportunity to solve the Kurdish issue through democracy. If the governments of those five years had taken steps toward democracy, the PKK would not have had to return to Turkey. The same can happen now. If the Justice and Development Party (AKP) says, “It is done. They have withdrawn. The Kurdish issue is solved,” that could lead to an even worse war and again the opportunity will be wasted, as in 1999.

Taraf:  What is “peace,” according to Kandil?

Demirtas:  Kandil says, “The PKK’s withdrawal is not peace. Peace is the resolution of the Kurdish issue, that is, democratization of Turkey. If the government’s concept of peace is only our withdrawal, this will lead to a serious crisis.” In short ...

Taraf:  Yes?

Demirtas:  In short, Kandil worries that the AKP will squander this opportunity and won’t open democratic political channels. They say if there is pressure on us we may have to return to Turkey with our guns. This will only make the situation worse.

Taraf:  Whether the PKK will withdraw with its guns or not has become an important issue. How will this be solved?

Demirtas:  This is not a problem. It all started with the prime minister saying something totally unexpected on a TV program. He said, “Bury your weapons, leave them in the caves and leave.” But this is not technically feasible. At the moment, the state does not know where the PKK people are, nor the location of their access tracks. If they had known, the state would have killed them all. How would the state, which does not even know where the people are and will not see them leaving, know whether or not these people have left their guns behind or not? The real question is this.

Taraf:  What is the real question about the guns?

Demirtas:  The PKK giving up arms will be in the last phase of the peace process described as “disarming and normalization.”  We are still preparing for the first phase. After the first phase, there will be the second phase defined as Turkey’s democratization. In this phase, there will be legal reforms and constitutional amendments. Only after that will the PKK will give up its guns and come down from the mountains.

Taraf:  There were many peace initiatives before but none was as effective as today’s. They were many mishaps before. This time, [PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan came out as much more effective. What made Ocalan so effective this time?

Demirtas:  Did you know that this is the ninth attempt at a peaceful solution? There were eight cease-fires before, all of which failed. Yet lessons from these previous attempts have helped start this process without making the same mistakes. Moreover, developments in the region helped to make a good start. You have to admit that the war in Syria is deeply worrying the Turkish public.

Taraf:  Did I misunderstand you? Is the civil war in Syria in a way bringing domestic peace to Turkey?

Demirtas:  The process in Syria is affecting the process in Turkey. People in Turkey fear the Syrianization of their country if the Kurdish issue is not solved, the clashes don’t stop and escalate. Turkey’s multiculturalism very much resembles Syria’s multiculturalism. Whatever ethnic and religious identities you have there, you have the same here. When there is a war raging as a distinct threat to Turkey, the Turkish public owned up to the peace process and Ocalan’s appeal. Mr. Ocalan’s timing was very accurate.

Taraf:  Why is this accurate timing?

Demirtas:  He made his peace appeal when the PKK was not in a weak position, when it was not in need of cease-fire, but in spring when the PKK was ready for action. He thus showed how sincere and serious he was about peace.

Taraf:  Two main actors of peace today are Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ocalan. Will Ocalan still be in prison when there is peace?

Demirtas:  The reason for Ocalan’s incarceration was the persistence of the Kurdish issue and the continuation of the war. When those circumstances disappear, prison becomes meaningless. Why should they keep him there? Didn’t he serve long enough? It has been 15 years.

Taraf:  Is Ocalan’s situation a part of the peace deal?

Demirtas:  If Turkey perceives peace as the departure of PKK militants from Turkey and the silencing of guns, that doesn’t depend on the freeing of Ocalan. The PKK’s withdrawal is not linked to the demand for the release of Ocalan. Let me repeat, withdrawal means cessation of clashes. We don’t see withdrawal as peace.

Taraf:  What is peace according to you?

Demirtas:  For us, peace is fully eliminating the potentials for clashes. That is only possible when the PKK is fully disarmed. For that to happen, the process has to move toward democratization. The government has to take steps toward democratization. It is now the turn of the government to take those steps. If they don’t back the process with democratization, it will be the government that is endangering peace. Democratization should have started a long time ago, but the government is not taking these important steps.

Taraf:  When will the withdrawal be completed?

Demirtas:  I guess by the beginning of fall. In March, you have the local elections. There will be little time left for democratization.

Taraf:  So what will happen?

Demirtas:  The Constitutional Commission that has been working for a year and a half will not yield a result. To make a brand-new constitution and to agree with the AKP on a new constitution doesn’t look easy. In fact, the AKP has no plans B and C. They have only one plan and that is to make a deal with us. They have no other option. The AKP can’t agree with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Taraf:  On what issues could you agree with the AKP regarding the constitution?

Demirtas:  A reconciliation of all of the AKP’s and our constitutional proposals is not likely. Perhaps we can agree on a “transitional constitution” that will open the way to democratization. For example, we can agree on articles pertaining to citizenship, mother-tongue education, and the recognition of diverse identities and cultures in a “provisional constitution.”

Taraf:  Under what conditions would you agree to write a constitution with the AKP?

Demirtas:  We don’t think it is proper for us to agree with the AKP on all articles and write a constitution that doesn’t acknowledge the expectations of other segments of Turkey. We can’t go along with a constitution based on the AKP’s pressure and the support of the BDP.

Taraf:  What could be that pressure?

Demirtas:  The presidential system, for example. The AKP has its own proposals for the presidency and the judiciary. We can’t call a system that allows one man to abolish the parliament and make high judiciary appointments as democratic governance. We will never accept an AKP-style presidency.

Taraf:  Why not?

Demirtas:  Because the AKP is not proposing a presidential system like that of the US or other democratic countries. They are proposing a president system. We won’t accept that.

Taraf:  What is the connection between peace and the presidency?

Demirtas:  None. The presidency is not the prerequisite of peace. They may give many things we want, but if in return they insist on an oppressive, authoritarian presidency, we will not accept that constitution. There can be no peace in a country governed by one man. Which country in the world has peace with a single ruler? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has all the powers. Can he secure peace in his country? Peace does not mean concentrating all powers in one man, but rather decentralizing these powers from the center to the local. There is no other way for peace.

Taraf:  So why did Ocalan say you will support the presidential system?

Demirtas:  He didn’t say we will support it. He said the presidential system can be debated as a democratic model. He says it could be an American model that contains checks and balances. Why should we oppose a presidential system that provides for independence of the judiciary and the executive branch, and provides for a separation of powers? We are not at all satisfied with the current system.

Taraf:  Nobody who wants democracy and legality can be happy with today’s parliamentary system, because the Turkish system has always been authoritarian and undemocratic.

Demirtas:  Very true. Let me give you a simple example. The prime minister calls from abroad and gives instructions for the parliament to work on Friday. A grand national assembly is thus forced to work on Friday with a single telephone call from the prime minister. He is running the parliament like a company. But the new system proposed by the AKP will be worse. Just think, the president will have the right to abolish the parliament.

Taraf:  Is the presidential system the only subject you won’t agree with the AKP on in a new constitution?

Demirtas:  No, we can’t agree on women’s rights. We defend total equality of women in all fields. The AKP resents our approach.

Taraf:  What articles will you never agree with in the new constitution?

Demirtas:  We won’t agree with an article that denies education except in Turkish. We won’t agree with an article that identifies everyone as a Turk.  We won’t agree with a mentality that allows the state to  dominate and monopolize ethnicity, beliefs and identity. For example …

Taraf:  Yes? …

Demirtas:  For example, we don’t accept the Directorate of Religious Affairs that only serves Sunni Muslims and today has a greater budget than eight ministries as a constitutional body.

Taraf:  Is excluding that directorate is a condition for you?

Demirtas:  This is a very sensitive issue for us. That directorate can only be in the constitution as a coordinating body that serves all religions and beliefs.

Taraf:  What if the AKP tells you they are giving up on peace if you oppose a single-man governance?

Demirtas:  That would be their choice. We will continue our struggle.

Taraf:  What kind of governance will you have in Kurdistan after peace? An empowered local administration, autonomy or a federation?

Demirtas:  To start with, there should not be rigid centralized governance that concentrates all power in Ankara, or any part of Turkey. The AKP has to augment the powers of local administrations. If the public can be persuaded in the future, models such as autonomy and federation could be considered. But this is not a part of the ongoing negotiations.

Taraf:  You said you can agree to a provisional constitution with the AKP. What will you propose for this constitution?

Demirtas:  We will propose regional administrations for all of Turkey. A kind of autonomy with a regional council elected by popular vote and sharing powers with the central government. Instead of governors we will elect a regional chairman. With the exception of national security, justice, defense and general budget planning, all services and powers for education, health, culture and tourism will be with this council. We are not proposing this model for a post-peace era but for peace.

Taraf:  I didn’t understand. 

Demirtas:  We are proposing this model so that we can achieve lasting peace in Turkey. Because peace does not mean the PKK’s withdrawal. The PKK will wait in the mountains. Peace does not mean the silencing of guns. Peace is eliminating the possibility of using guns again.

Taraf:  How will this be achieved?

Demirtas:  Only through democratization. With the entire PKK coming down from mountains and by filling the peace process with democracy. If freedoms are not guaranteed and democratization not achieved in Turkey, nobody can bring down the PKK from mountains. This has to be understood.

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