While some have interpreted the prime minister's remarks as a way to strengthen social peace, others have said it was an affront to people's fundamental rights.
“The official language of my nation is Turkish. The common language is Turkish. Attempts to change this fact cannot be accepted. Opening this fact to debate will benefit neither democracy nor brotherhood,” Erdoğan stated on Sunday evening in an attempt to put an end to the heated debate on bilingualism.
His remarks came at the closing session of budget talks in Parliament. He was silent on bilingualism and autonomy for Turkey's Kurds until then, angering the country's nationalists.
The prime minister said he defends the rights of Kurdish people as a prime minister and will continue to do so, but added that he is against racism. “I am against both Kurdism and Turkism. Racism has no place in our civilization. But we respect nations. My nation has only one language. The official language of Turkey is Turkish. … This [language] matter is something related to social peace and social unity. To open this fact to debate and to maintain such a debate on the agenda will not serve our national unity or fraternity,” he noted.
The debate over the use of two languages in public places in Turkey was sparked by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in mid-December. BDP Co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş said they would begin a de facto bilingual system in municipalities in the eastern and southeastern parts of Turkey. He also said shop owners should be allowed to use Kurdish, give their businesses Kurdish names and speak with their customers in Kurdish, adding that there is no legal obstacle to this.
Interior minister: If terror ends, MHP will end
Interior Minister Beşir Atalay also joined the debate on bilingualism and lashed out at political parties that claim that the debate is part of a Justice and Development Party (AK Party) plan to divide Turkey.
He said some political parties are seeking political interests from such debates. “When some bring up debates such as bilingualism and autonomy, some political parties cling to them wholeheartedly. The MHP jumped into the debate, saying Turkey is being divided. I can understand the MHP. They are worried that they will arrive at the end of their political life if terror ends in Turkey. They feed on terror. If terror ends, the MHP will end, too. For this reason, they do not want terror to end,” he stated.
Atalay also said the main opposition CHP is acting hypocritically when it comes to the fight against terror. He said the CHP leader had pledged to contribute to Turkey's plans to end terror through democratic means, but he has claimed that the debate on bilingualism and autonomy is a result of the Kurdish initiative.
“In countries where such problems are settled through democratization, there is close cooperation between the ruling and main opposition parties. But if a main opposition party clings to such arguments, then you cannot cooperate with it. Cooperation with it will not get you anywhere. Even if the CHP leader claims that he has changed the party, he does not speak the truth. No one can manage to change the CHP. The CHP is the same old party we all know. It has no intention of solving Turkey's problems. It just hopes to abuse the problems for political gains,” the minister added.
However, the BDP challenge received a cold shoulder from other political parties. Many claimed that the use of a second language in municipalities would lead to divisions in Turkey.
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Vice President Yusuf Alataş commented on the prime minister's remarks and said Kurds in Turkey actually don't want Kurdish to be recognized as an official language. “Kurds want to see Turkish as the official language, but also want Kurdish to be used in every field. There is a similar practice in Italy, which is also a unitary state,” he explained.
Alataş also criticized the timing of statements by Kurdish politicians on bilingualism and autonomy. “If I were in their shoes, I would not have made public such extreme opinions at this time. But I do not find statements by others, who turn a blind eye to their [Kurdish politicians] existence due to their opinions, pleasing. Parties need to understand one another,” he added.
Also during the parliamentary address, the prime minister said the debate on bilingualism and autonomy for Kurds may make the solution to the Kurdish question more difficult, but added that his government has the will to fight until the very end to solve the problem. “We will fight against the ones who sabotage the solution of the [Kurdish] question just as we have fought to solve the question. I am calling on my citizens in the east, west, north and south. I ask them to be careful about cooperation between the terrorists in the mountains and gangs that infiltrated the corridors of the state in the past,” he said.
Turkey's Kurdish question has existed since the first years of the republic, but it turned violent in 1984 after the establishment of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). More than 40,000 civilians and security forces have been killed in clashes so far. The public use of Kurdish was strictly prohibited following a 1980 coup until the year 1991.
The deputy chairman of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), Hasan Macit, said the prime minister responded to his critics about why he remained silent on the debate surrounding bilingualism with his parliamentary address. “I share the prime minister's opinion that two groups are benefitting from the Kurdish question. One is the BDP and the other is the [Nationalist Movement Party] MHP. They are working to prevent a solution to the Kurdish question,” he asserted.
The BDP's Demirtaş also reacted harshly to the prime minister's speech, arguing that the prime minister is trying to intimidate Kurds through racism. “Kurds will not be intimidated. They will work to prevent damage to the atmosphere of fraternity in Turkey because they want to live with Turks in Turkey. But they want to live with freedom and equal rights,” he added.
‘Kılıçdaroğlu, loan shark of hope'
The prime minister also targeted the Republican People's Party (CHP) leader due to his “disproportional pledge” to voters. He said the CHP leader had no plan to find the financial resources he spoke about to fulfill his pledge some day.
“The CHP leader needs tens of billions of lira to realize only some of his pledges. It is profitable to abuse one's hopes. But the bill of disappointment is heavy on the shoulder. The ones who become loan sharks of hope are not the only ones who lose. They also make the nation lose,” he said.
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu pledged last week that his party would introduce a project on “family insurance” if it comes to power as a single party. But he did not explain how his party would finance the project. When asked about the financial resources for the project, Kılıçdaroğlu said: “My name is Kemal. I will find the money.”
The response led to rumors that the CHP leader had not thought about how to finance the project. “They are asking how the CHP leader will manage to realize his projects financially. Something new has been invented. It is called ‘resource Kemal.' Shall we refer to him this way? Let's talk about projects seriously. A political party leader needs to be serious,” the prime minister added.