Feeling the heat, AK Party takes the initiative to the heartland

Bülent Arınç

February 22, 2010, Monday/ 12:50:00
Failing to win any support from political parties in Parliament for its democratization initiative, which aims to resolve Turkey's longstanding Kurdish problem, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has kicked off a series of conferences across Turkey to eliminate public skepticism over the project and win support for it.

Party organizations and local administrations in 20 provinces are simultaneously being briefed on the government's democratization initiative.

In the coming days, the AK Party plans to invite representatives from local media organizations from 81 provinces and 450 districts to Ankara in order to talk to them about the initiative.

Introduced in the summer of 2009, the democratization initiative, dubbed the “Kurdish initiative” by some, aims to solve Turkey's Kurdish problem through the expansion of rights for Kurds and to end Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorism, which has claimed the lives of thousands of people since 1984. The opposition parties in Parliament announced that they would not support the government on the initiative, while describing the project as a move aiming to divide Turkey.

In a bid to eliminate skepticism and secure support for a democratization initiative introduced last summer to resolve Turkey's decades-long Kurdish problem, the AK Party government is holding conferences titled 'Turkey Meetings' across the country to better inform the public on the initiative

The conferences, titled “Turkey Meetings,” were launched after an order from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who thinks the public has not been adequately informed on the initiative thus far.

Today's Zaman had the chance to observe one such conference held in the northwestern province of Zonguldak over the weekend. The conference in Zonguldak took place in the conference hall of the Mine Workers' Union, which was attended by the provincial chairman and some administrators of the labor union, which staged Turkey's biggest demonstration in 1990. Until the 2002 general elections, Zonguldak was seen as the stronghold of the left.

The AK Party officials focused on the two goals of the initiative, one of which is to raise the democratic standards of all segments of society, while the other is saving the country from terrorism. A majority of the public favors an increase in democratic standards in the country, but they have doubts that the initiative will end PKK terrorism.

AK Party officials noted that it is impossible for any terrorist organization to survive this long without the support of international support, as they explain that the PKK has so far been used as a political instrument against Turkey by the US, the EU, Israel and many countries in the Middle East. However, they say these countries have reached a consensus for the elimination of the PKK while noting that Turkey has seized a historic opportunity to solve the PKK problem.

How much is state support?

One of the issues that the AK Party sees as a shortcoming for the initiative is that the public does not see it as a state project. During the “Turkey Meetings,” the AK Party officials are frequently asked: “If the democratization project is a state project, then why does the state not openly voice support for this project?” There is a common view among the public that a statement released following a National Security Council (MGK) meeting in October 2009, which suggested continuing the studies regarding the initiative, is not satisfactory. It is claimed that the state [particularly the military] not voicing its support for the initiative encourages the opposition parties to make propaganda against the initiative.

The AK Party, which accused the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the now-defunct pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) of nourishing PKK terrorism, has difficulty explaining to the public that the initiative is a state project. The AK Party grassroots supporters believe that the party will receive more support for the initiative if state support for the project is voiced more strongly.

Regarding the criticism that the initiative does not include any concrete proposals for the end of terrorism, AK Party officials are working on convincing answers and note that if the government had brought forward its own initiative package and had not sought the proposals of various segments of society then the opposition parties would claim that the government was “imposing” its package on the nation.

The AK Party, which won the March 2004 municipal elections in Zonguldak, lost in the March 2009 local elections, handing over the post to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The AK Party won three seats while the CHP won two seats in the province in the general elections of 2007.

Is the PKK spoken to?

Recalling the fact that Turkey has so far spent $300 billion for the fight against terrorism and lost more than 30,000 citizens to terrorism, Ocaktan  responds to criticisms about the government giving up fighting terrorism due to the initiative. “If need be, we can spend $1 trillion for this country, and we can all become martyrs. The democratization package has nothing to do with the fight against terrorism. The fight against terrorism will always continue. The PKK will either be isolated on the mountains or it will lay down its weapons,” he said.

Another question Ocaktan answered was whether the government was speaking to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan about the initiative. He said: “Öcalan described the initiative as an operation aimed at eliminaing the PKK. We have never spoken to a jailed man. But the MHP [as a coalition partner] bargained with him during his capture and handover to Turkey in 2002.”

In the meantime, the AK Party’s women voters find the government’s democratization project a sincere one. It seems that Erdoğan’s statement “Let mothers no longer cry” has greatly influenced women; however, AK Party’s male voters who have dialogue with various circles seem to have been affected by the opposite views.

There is not any MHP influence in the province, while there is remarkable support for the Democrat Party (DP) in the rural areas of the province. Having won the March 29 elections, the CHP believes that it will increase its votes in the province. Yet, Mustafa Sarıgül, who established a new party after parting ways with the CHP, is likely to get the CHP votes in the province. While pressing for early polls, the opposition parties seem to not be in tune with the public in the Anatolian provinces.

The AK Party, which is determined to hold the general elections as scheduled, is trying to disperse public skepticism in Zonguldak regarding the initiative.

Music and poetry

In front of AK Party Bursa deputy Mehmet Ocaktan, a former journalist and writer, there was a group of people questioning the course of developments in the country. In the background, renowned Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet’s “Memleketim” (My homeland) poem was being read. Music and poems are the unchangeable parts of the AK Party meetings.

Abdülkerim Gün is the head of AK Party political affairs in Zonguldak. In his view, Erdoğan doesn’t have any problem convincing the public about the democratization initiative in the rural parts of the city. There are some problems in the city center. Gün says the AK Party did not lose any votes due to its democratization initiative. He believes that the AK Party will win its former success if Erdoğan renews tired party staff there.

According to Hamdi Uçar, the AK Party Zonguldak provincial chairman, it is not the public that should be convinced about the initiative but intellectuals and journalists. He says some journalists are doing their best to confuse the minds of the public regarding the initiative.

Indicating that the AK Party is still the most popular party in Turkey despite being in power for the past eight years, Ocaktan recalled the remarks of CHP leader Deniz Baykal, who said the AK Party’s votes were around 35 percent and said, “There is certainly a problem with the opposition in a country if a party which has been in power for eight years in that country preserves its votes.”

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