A Message to Europe, a Warning to Kurds

Recent remarks by Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan that Turkey might consider reintroducing the death penalty are not only indicative of the dire state of Turkish-EU relations. The move has also been perceived as a way of blackmailing almost 700 pro-Kurdish hunger strikers, whose protest has just been brought to an end. Fatma Kayabal reports from Istanbul

While few may have noticed the explosion immediately, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan detonated a political bomb on 3 November, when he underlined that according to opinion polls, the Turkish public would like to see the death penalty reinstated.

In a two-hour speech delivered at the 10th anniversary of the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) first election victory, he spoke about the AKP's achievements and its vision for the future, without mentioning Turkey's EU bid. His comments on the issue of capital punishment convey an underlying message from the Turkish leader, who is aiming for the presidency of his country: Turkish membership of EU no longer tops Ankara's agenda.

Few observers expected him to insist on bringing back the death penalty – however, he has kept the debate alive since the AKP congress. On 9 November, at the Bali Democracy Forum in Indonesia, he argued that capital punishment "is legitimate in certain situations", in reference to the case of Norwegian mass murderer and Islamophobe Anders Breivik.

Religious thinking

Erdoğan said that the state should not have the authority to forgive a killer, adding: "This authority belongs to the family of the victim, it cannot belong to us," – a clear reference to the legitimisation of capital punishment through religious thinking.

Turkey's parliament on 9 August 2002 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
On 9 August 2002 Turkey's parliament ratified the 3rd Package for Harmonization with the European Union, abolishing the death penalty for peace time offences. Law 5218 of 14 July 2004 abolished the death penalty for all times. Now that Turkish membership of EU no longer tops the Turkish agenda, talk of reinstating the death penalty returns

​​At a press conference two days later, he added that Turkey should take note of countries where the death penalty exists, instead of focusing solely on the example of the European Union. Erdoğan went on to say: "The international community does not only consist of the EU. Capital punishment exists in the US, China, Russia and Japan."

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002 as part of its EU membership process, but the accession process has been stalled since then for a variety of reasons, both on part of the EU and Turkey – althoughugh most Turkish officials say the EU is solely to blame for the lack of progress.

Blackmailing the Kurds?

Erdoğan's remarks have been perceived as a form of blackmail by pro-Kurdish politicians, in view of almost 700 pro-Kurdish hunger strikers in Turkey's prisons. The inmates had three demands: An end to the isolation of the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan (whose 1999 death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment); the acceptance of Kurdish as a valid language in courtrooms; and Kurdish as a language of instruction in Turkish schools.

The hunger strike started on 12 September and was ended on 17 November, after Öcalan himself urged participants to stop – a move that shows he is still very much in control of the organization.

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party hold a picture of jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan as they celebrate the Newroz, the new year, in Istanbul on March 21, 2010
Imprisoned Kurdish leader Öcalan cannot be given the death penalty because even if Parliament adopts a law reinstating capital punishment because a newly introduced law cannot be applied to rulings already passed

​​While the hunger strike was still going on, on 11 November, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş spoke in Diyarbakır to mark the second month of the hunger strikes. He accused Erdoğan of blackmailing the Kurdish people – in the form of the hunger strikers – and of adding fuel to the fire instead of searching for a solution.

Demirtaş, a lawyer by profession, also said that even if parliament adopts a law reinstating capital punishment, Öcalan cannot be given the death penalty because new legislation cannot be applied retrospectively to past rulings.

A US-style presidential system?

According to Murat Yetkin, who writes for the Turkish daily newspaper Radikal, Erdoğan may have another aim. While keeping the debate alive on capital punishment, he may also be planning the instatement of a presidential system similar to that of the US, to replace Turkey's parliamentary democracy.

Turkey's parliament is working on a new constitution and political parties are trying to reach a consensus. One of the main demands of Erdoğan's AKP is a strong presidential system. Although this has never been officially declared, Erdoğan undoubtedly has designs on a presidential role with extraordinary authority.

However, as Yetkin points out, time is running out for political parties to reach consensus on a new constitution, and the AKP lacks the required majority for relevant constitutional amendments. There is however one other option – to hold a public referendum on a new constitution. According to Yetkin, Erdoğan believes public opinion favours capital punishment and that consequently, a constitution reinstating capital punishment will be popular.

"Hopes are fading for a new reconciliatory constitution," Yetkin writes. "Can Erdoğan use the death penalty card to enforce a strong presidential system in a possible Turkish referendum? Why not? Will that decrease the quality of democracy in Turkey, considering the EU's Copenhagen criteria? Yes – but the number one problem now for Turkey is the PKK issue." Turkey's priorities, it seems, have shifted considerably since negotiations with the EU ground to a halt.

Fatma Kayabal

© Qantara.de 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de