Logo of the Democratic Society Party

Thousands of protestors took to the streets in southeast Turkey hours after the Turkish Constitutional Court announced its decision to ban the Democratic Society Party (DTP) on December 11, 2009. The DTP was the only legally recognized pro-Kurdish party in the Turkish political system; Kurds make up about twenty percent of the Turkish population. Officers used pressurized water and gas bombs to quell the protests in the Hakkari Province, which continued for days after the initial announcement. The DTP is the 27th political party to be banned by the Turkish Constitutional Court.

Along with banning the party, the Court also barred 37 party members, including executives and non-executives, from participating in Turkish politics for five years. The Constitutional Court justified its decision by citing violations of the Law of the Political Parties and Articles 68 and 69 of the Turkish Constitution. These Articles state that political parties shall be permanently dissolved if they are in conflict with the indivisible integrity of Turkey’s territory or nation or incite citizens to commit crime. The Court accused the DTP of connections with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a party that was banned and has since been considered a terrorist-separatist group by the Turkish government. The chairman of the Court, Hasim Kilic, stated that the party was banned because “it had become a focal point of the activities against the country’s integrity.”

This decision will certainly harm recent efforts by the Turkish government to improve relations with the Kurdish community. Just in November 2009, the government announced proposals to reduce the sentences of young Kurdish boys acting on behalf of the PKK, the first Turkish Foreign Minister entered the Kurdish region of northern Iraq since the birth of the Republic, and members of the PKK offered themselves to the Turkish authorities in a symbol of peace. Further, also in 2009, the government announced that the Kurdish language could be used in all broadcast media and that the Kurdish names of originally Kurdish cities would be restored. These policy changes were considered to be important steps in improving the Turkish government’s relationship with its considerable Kurdish population. Reacting to the present decision, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan criticized the Court’s ruling, arguing that individual should be punished for his activities rather than entire political parties.

The government of Turkey has a tradition of shutting down parties it believes are threats to the values that its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, espoused. In the past, the Constitutional Court has banned parties for being a threat to secularism, nationalism, and modernity. The Refah Party, a political party of which Prime Minister Erdogan was once a member, was shut down in 1998 by the Constitutional Court for threatening the founding values of the Turkish Republic. The Court sentenced Erdogan to prison after Refah was banned for his continuing support of the party in 1998.  He was sentenced for ten months, but only served four. In 2008, the Justice and Development Party, the current governing party of Turkey, was also nearly banned by the Court.

The Laws of the Political Parties and the Court’s trend of banning political parties have been extensively criticized by the European Union. Turkey has been vying for EU membership since 1987. Both the Venice Commission on the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights state that parties can only be banned for inciting violence. In the case of the DTP, there has been no evidence that any of its members have promoted violence in any of their political activity, which makes the Court’s decision in violation of Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is party. The Court’s unanimous decision to ban the DTP not only threatens the possibility of Turkey’s EU membership but also allows for further violations of the freedom of expression and democracy.