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Quiet Riot

Istanbul, Turkey

The office of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) here is buzzing with activity. "This is the busiest we have ever been," says Gülay Calap, a DTP field organizer in charge of 4,500 volunteers in the city. Party officials run frantically from room to room, chirping on their cell phones. Volunteers storm through the front door every few minutes, dripping with sweat, to refill their backpacks with flyers and other campaign paraphernalia. Party supporters gather in the building's lobby, excitedly chugging cups of tea as they discuss this Sunday's elections. It's a strange sight for a party that is not fielding any candidates.

As Turkey heads to the polls this weekend, much of the international attention has been focused on the raging battle between the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its secularist opponents, namely the Republican People's Party (CHP) and National Action Party (MHP). The major question on everybody's mind is whether the ultra-secular military--who has already overthrown four governments in the country's short history--will tolerate a parliament and presidency controlled by an Islamist party.

But another one of Turkey's existential issues--what to do about the more than 10 million Kurds in its midst--also threatens to explode this Sunday. Kurdish parties have historically been kept out of parliament by an obscenely high vote cut-off for parties (a minimum of 10 percent of the national vote to get any seats). But for the first time in over a decade--and for only the second time in Turkey's history--politicians from a Kurdish party are slated to enter parliament as independents (who are not subject to the vote cut-off). So an equally if not more important question this Sunday is whether the ultra-nationalist military--or any of the factions in Turkey's political system, for that matter--will tolerate politicians from an ethnicity whose very existence, unrecognized by the state until recently, threatens the foundations of the Turkish republic.

Perhaps the one thing that the Islamist AKP and the secularist CHP and MHP can agree on is their antagonism toward the Kurds. Since the founding of modern Turkey in 1923, the republic has struggled with how to reconcile the sizable Kurdish minority with a definition of citizenship that is strictly Turkish. Most of these efforts have revolved around attempts to erase Kurdish culture through such efforts as outlawing the Kurdish language and banning the celebration of Kurdish holidays. The confrontation escalated with the formation of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in 1984, which launched a violent campaign of terror against the Turkish state through the 1990s that left more than 37,000 dead. The Turkish military responded by declaring a state of emergency and destroying more than 3,000 Kurdish villages.

The government has not responded too kindly to Kurdish forays into politics either. Every explicitly Kurdish party since 1971 has been shut down by the government, citing Article 81 of the political-parties law, which forbids mention of racial or religious minorities. Since the '90s, eight Kurdish parties have been shut down and 57 Kurdish politicians and officials have been murdered, with scores more arbitrarily detained, abused, and tortured by the state police.

Though the PKK declared a ceasefire in 2006, attacks from the militant group and military reprisals have recently flared up, claiming the lives of more than 200 people since the beginning of this year. The ensuing anti-Kurd sentiment sweeping across the country has forced the major parties into a chest-thumping match, competing in their campaign rhetoric over who can seem more hard-line. The hundred-thousand troops that the government has stationed on the Iraqi border, allegedly to root out PKK militants hiding in Iraqi mountains, is widely understood in Turkey to be election-time bravado. "The AKP had originally resisted the hard line of the military," says Mustafa Akyol, author of Rethinking The Kurdish Question, "but when the MHP and CHP started accusing the AKP of being allied with the PKK, they had to play tough."

Given this environment, it's a less-than-ideal time for Kurds to make their grand return to national politics. Numerous DTP offices have been attacked and vandalized, while party officials and activists have been arrested by the police on trumped-up charges to keep them from campaigning. A new law requires independent candidates to be listed without any emblem on the ballot, a measure that many believe is meant to undermine the Kurdish candidates, who have largely illiterate constituencies. "Rather than campaigning for our candidates," says Calap, the DTP field organizer, "most of our activists are spending this week going door-to-door teaching our voters how to read the ballot."

Despite these impediments, the Kurds look set to win 20-30 seats in Sunday's election. But getting into the parliament is just the beginning: When Kurdish MPs (elected under other parties) tried to form a Kurdish bloc in 1993, their party was quickly banned by the Constitutional Court, the MPs were stripped of their office, and seven of the 13 deputies received up to15-year prison sentences for "crimes against the state" and "separatist propaganda."

The environment in Turkey has calmed significantly since then, to the point where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in 2005 delivered a taboo-shattering speech in which he acknowledged that Turkey has a "Kurdish problem" and that "mistakes have been made" in the state's attempts to deal with that problem. The ban on Kurdish names has finally been lifted, and the state has decided to allow 45 minutes of Kurdish TV broadcasts a day. And, particularly in light of Turkey's hopeful ascension to the EU, the government would be remiss to take any actions that would be seen as anti-democratic. (In 2002, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated "the very essence of the right to stand for election and to hold parliamentary office" when it imprisoned the Kurdish deputies in the '90s.)

But the recent PKK attacks have launched a renewed current of anti-Kurdish sentiment--exacerbated by fears in Turkey that Kurdish separatism in Iraq could spread to Turkey. The mayor and municipal council of one Kurdish town were recently fired for attempting to use Kurdish in official documents, while another mayor is currently being prosecuted for printing New Year's cards in Turkish, English, and Kurdish. He is also facing 10-15 years in prison for "aiding and abetting the terrorist organization PKK" by trying to calm rioters at a PKK funeral with the words: "We share your pain deep in heart."

The DTP is not taking any chances. Many party members attribute the 1993 parliamentary disaster to the aggressive behavior of the Kurdish MPs, some of whom insisted on taking their parliamentary oaths in Kurdish and wearing the "Kurdish colors" (red, yellow and green) to session. "The Kurds were very angry back then," says DTP official Mehmet Sakar, "but we have learned our lesson." The party plans to stay away from hot-button issues like Kurdish independence and amnesty for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, favoring instead "common sense over emotions." DTP politicians have specifically been avoiding funerals for PKK members in their constituencies "out of fear of anger and prejudices," Aysel Tugluk the former deputy leader of the DTP who is now running as an independent, told the Turkish Daily News. "Our aim is not to incite. We will focus on cooperation and integration."

As distasteful as the Kurdish presence may be to many of the other parties, the 20- 30 seats they are expected to win will qualify them to form a parliamentary bloc and, in turn, sit on important committees. But, perhaps more significantly, the calculus of the current political landscape looks to propel them into the role of kingmaker. The AKP appears likely to lose its current two-thirds majority in parliament with the entrance of the MHP as a second opposition party, and thus may be forced to ally with the Kurdish bloc to form a government. In such a scenario, Kurdish politicians will be given an unprecedented amount of influence in exchange for their support. On the campaign trail, Kurdish candidates have already made it clear that they would accept nothing less than four ministries to join any coalition; some are even whispering about the speaker or deputy speaker's chair. While both the MHP and CHP have strongly rejected reaching out to the Kurdish politicians, the AKP has not publicly denounced the option. And since the new parliament will be tasked with electing the next president, the prospect of an executive chosen by an AKP-Kurd alliance has opposition parties sharpening their scimitars.

Much of the current opposition to the Kurdish politicians is couched in terms of security, with many nationalist politicians accusing the DTP of being a front organization for the PKK. They refuse to accept the argument that incorporating the Kurds into politics could help create a moderate alternative to the PKK along the lines of the IRA-Sin Fein experience in Northern Ireland. "The PKK murdered many innocent civilians," Gunduz Aktan, a top candidate for the nationalist MHP party, told the BBC. "I don't want to sit under the roof of parliament with those who support terror."

But beneath their security concerns lies a deep-seated fear that recognizing Kurdish cultural and ethnic rights would call into question the homogenous nature of the Turkish state. "Turkey was founded as a unitary state and you cannot change that," Aktan said. "We have invested in this state materially and emotionally."

So no matter how quiet the Kurdish politicians plan to be in parliament, their very existence as an ethnically-based party will be a major victory for those seeking to replace Turkey's militant nationalism with a more pluralistic vision of citizenship. As the AKP tries to prove that it has evolved from an Islamist party to a party for all of Turkey's citizens, its interactions with the Kurdish bloc will be a litmus test for their ability to lead Turkey to a post-Kemalist future. Isolating the Kurdish bloc in parliament--or, even worse, forcibly throwing them out--would be a missed opportunity for Turkey to show the world that it is truly becoming a democracy.

"The Kurds have already lost so much, we don't have anything left to lose," Sakar says. "If they don't work with us in parliament, this time it will be Turkey that loses."