Turkey’s constitutional reform: The PKK’s referendum campaign

By Giran Ozcan*

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is not a legal political party in Turkey. Interestingly, however, this has never got in the way of the organisation playing a significant role in the outcome of elections in Turkey for the best part of the last thirty years; even without actually contesting them – well, not directly anyway.

Ever since the late 80s Kurdish politicians have taken part in legal politics in Turkey, first through leftist Turkish establishment parties like the Social Democrat People’s Party (SHP), then with a long line of parties they themselves established, every one of which was subsequently closed down by the Turkish state.

The state has always accused these ‘pro-Kurdish’ parties of being affiliated, or even run by, the PKK. In 1994, Kurdish MPs from the Democracy Party, including Sakharov laureate Leyla Zana, were jailed for ‘being members of a terrorist organisation’. Since then, tens of thousands of politicians and ordinary voters of ‘pro-Kurdish’ parties have been jailed, as increasingly ‘pro-Kurdish’ and the ‘PKK’ became interchangeable in mainstream media, politics and the judiciary in Turkey.

Fast-forward to today and currently 11 members of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) – a party that actively shies away from defining itself as merely ‘pro-Kurdish’ – are in Turkish prisons on account of ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’, including its charismatic co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas.

According to the Turkish state, in effect the PKK has been contesting seats in the Turkish parliament since the late 80s. With thirty years of electoral experience to fall back on, the PKK is once again occupying a strategic position in the constitutional reform referendum of Turkey set for 16 April.

Ever since Turkish President Erdogan approved the reform package that was passed in the Turkish parliament which triggered the referendum process, parties on both sides of the debate have intensified their efforts to rally their bases.

“Who is saying ‘no’? The PKK is saying ‘no’. Qandil is saying ‘no’,” Turkish President Erdogan said referring to the Qandil mountains, the PKK’s stronghold in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq. “My people won’t be on the same side as those that seek to harm my country,” the president confidently declared, effectively equating any citizen disapproving of his aspirations of consolidating executive powers in the presidency he is currently occupying with being on the same team as the PKK.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) deputy leader Engin Altay responded to the president asking, “if you are going to label everyone that is working for the ‘no’ campaign as terrorists, what is the point of the referendum?”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim boiled his government’s approach to the constitutional referendum down to, “Do you know why we will say ‘yes’ [in the referendum], because the PKK will say ‘no’.” A campaign slogan to which HDP deputy Sirri Sureyya Onder responded by asking Yildirim, “the Islamic State group believes in God, so will you now reject God?”

The closest the PKK itself actually came to declaring a stance on the referendum was when Cemil Bayik, one of the organisation’s leading figures, this week said, “Turkey is not a country where the rule of law is being applied, it is the rule of Erdogan and the AKP; the rule of fascism. Turkey has no other choice but to free itself from this captivity by Erdogan and the AKP. It increasingly seems that the only way to do this is for a resounding ‘no’ to come out of the forthcoming referendum.”

With the country’s Supreme Electoral Council announcing the referendum date for 16 April Turkey is bracing itself for an intense campaigning period. With all sides preparing their campaigns, arguments and slogans, the PKK is already an integral part of the process, without actually even declaring any campaign whatsoever.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kom News.

Giran Ozcan is an editor at Kom News. (@GiranOzcan)